Making the political language for 2029

Almost exactly 20 years ago Ruth Richardson won a narrow vote in the National party caucus in favour of the Reserve Bank Bill. That sealed a broad National-Labour pro-market consensus based on “neoliberal” precepts and embedded the new political language.

This year Rodney Hide, talking Richardson’s language, has been notching up de-regulatory wins in the National-led government which will intensify strains in the pro-market consensus.

Nick Smith has been talking a new language in an experiment which might change how complex and divisive issues are dealt with over the next 20 years. He has told the Land and Water Forum comprising diverse water interest groups to reach consensus on allocating and managing water.

That’s process. Political process has changed a lot since 1989. We elect Parliament by proportional representation and all governments are multi-party. Many laws prescribe consultation with iwi. The Official Information Act pries into behind-the-scenes advice.

The 1989 Public Finance Act and Richardson’s 1994 Fiscal Responsibility Act made the government’s accounts much more transparent. Tax-and-spend choices are more limited.

Helen Clark found that in 1999. She set out to restore to the political language some of the classical social democracy she learnt at Auckland University in the early 1970s but had to suppress while in the neoliberal 1980s Lange-Douglas government.

But Clark found herself intoning the mantra of responsible fiscal management. Luckily for her, a debt-fuelled boom filled the exchequer and she could spend heavily. Unluckily for the rest of us, debt-fuelled booms are illusory and now the key words are restraint and priorities.

Clark found herself signing the Singapore free trade agreement and pitching for others, including with China. Free international trade was not in the 1970s Auckland University songbook.

In 2006 Clark tried to reset the political dictionary. Unfortunately, her new language come in six syllables: sustainability. Officials couldn’t fathom it, let alone voters. She retreated to the comforting 1970s language of rights and eliminating disadvantage and discrimination. Her government was skewered on civil unions and smacking.

Clark’s Social Development Minister, Steve Maharey, had grasped some new language. He backed “social entrepreneurs”. Two went bad. That’s entrepreneurialism but it was not 1970s social democracy. Clark canned the scheme.

In fact, at the halfway point of the past 20 years Bill English — a generation younger than Clark and Maharey — argued to me that his generation would not settle for one-size-fits-all state services. They wanted their services customised. That implied a more diverse range of delivery agencies drawing on a wider range of ideas, initiatives and enterprises.

Over the past 10 years analysts of both right and left have developed this thinking. Geoff Mulgan, a Tony Blair adviser, talks of “social innovation” — more flexible and diverse social service delivery — and English has backed a local Mulgan-inspired initiative. Carlota Perez, an economist who has analysed the impact on the global economy of 250 years of waves of new technology, talks of “mass customisation” in a diverse, internationally integrated, fast-information world. Economics is breaking out of the neoliberal straitjacket and linear, model-based macroeconomics into new growth economics, behavioural economics and even neuro-economics.

The challenge for John Key is to adopt and convert these ideas into a dominant new language for politics for the next 20 years.

Appointing Don Brash, a neoliberal 20 years Key’s senior, to head the commission advising how to catch Australia in GDP per head by 2025 is not a new-language act. Promising ACT’s conference a “bonfire of regulations” sounds more 1989 than 2029.

Overall Key’s “ambition for New Zealand” looks more 1999 than 2019. He does not challenge business-as-usual economics even though the world will not do things the same way as before the bank crisis. He doesn’t explore “green growth”, which has some currency among younger people. Nor is openness to new thinking much evident among his younger MPs (Nikki Kaye excepted) and the party youth.

Key’s mantra is “what works”. He reveres polls, which imprison rather than liberate leaders. He will manage the country, fix problems and win elections. That is in the National tradition and Key has the capacities to join National’s pantheon.

But it may by default leave to the other side the reframing of the political language to reflect the emerging international new thinking. Among younger Labour MPs and the wider party there is some energetic rethinking, though it has yet to cohere and the party will need a generational leadership change first.

Rewriting the dictionary takes time — and imagination.