The Power of ideas for political action

It’s the idea that counts. Three valedictorians voiced that outrageous message in Parliament last week.

Simon Power’s going-away address was not just to a packed public gallery but also to well-stocked Labour benches, from which there was warm applause.

Power talked of the need for politicians to have plans: “We run for Parliament to lead agendas, improve the lot of our countrymen (sic), to push change and to execute ideas … to do something,” he said.

Note: ideas. “Ideas matter. In politics ideas matter more than the political players, because those people will come and go but ideas endure.”

So “manage less and lead more”. “Taking a position and selling it, persuading and debating, is what politics is all about.” That includes “working with other parties to reach consensus where possible”. “Expanding the decision-making mandate, without sacrificing the kernel of the idea, has improved the quality of the legislative product immeasurably.” That in turn means “not being afraid to back down” and “grit your teeth through the inevitable ‘government backdown’ headlines” (of which he has had a few).

You may have trouble recognising Parliament in those quotes but Power has largely lived them — simultaneously liberal and conservative, a decent, dignified, discreet and determined still-young gentleman who will be missed in all corners of the House.

He laid down a challenge, too. Talking of “the many debates Parliament does not want to have for fear of losing votes or not staying on message” — he named “abortion, adoption law, children’s rights” (anti-whacking) “and sexual violence issues” (omitting civil unions, on which he switched from for to against after consulting his electorate) — he said Parliament must debate them and, when it does, “is capable of rising to the challenge”.

“If we don’t have those debates here, where will we have them?”

Inside parties is one answer (but National nowadays heavily manages debate). One veteran of many such intra-party “debates”, is Jim Anderton — 73, defeated in his bid for mayor of Christchurch by last September’s earthquake which made former TV showman Bob Parker a star.

Anderton converted to Catholicism as a young fellow growing up in “poorer, working class suburbs” of Auckland. He marvelled that power pylons and the sewage treatment plant were in his area, not where the well-to-do lived. He shared a place on the Manukau City Council with fellow-socialist Roger Douglas (that was three decades before ACT).

He ran a campaign to reduce the power of the unions in the Labour party in the mid-1960s and got booted around by the rough men who ran the unions and the party but two decades later Labour did roughly what he advocated.

He left Labour in 1989 to form NewLabour — actually old Labour — in opposition to Douglas’s un-socialist deregulation, tax changes and privatisations. The idea that drove him out was inequality.

Anderton tied the stark rise in inequality not just to poorer social outcomes but to slower economic growth. That is an idea that has gained weight on the left: that inequality is bad for the economy as well as for social cohesion.

That idea was central to the Alliance into which Anderton built NewLabour in 1991 and survived his extraction of the Progressives out of the Alliance in 2002 after a purity-pragmatism, collegiality-autocracy dispute. The Labour party — to which in effect he returned after 2002 and to whose Prime Minister, Helen Clark, he was reconciled after a bitter decade, saying last week she “had the clearest and most insightful understanding of anyone I have worked with in politics” — has also been reunited with the inequality idea.

Anderton did economic development, then agriculture in the cabinet (Farmers Weekly wanted National to keep him on after 2008). There he discovered the critical importance of science and innovation.

So did Wayne Mapp, initially a reluctant science minister. By this time last year Mapp was arguing for a big funding boost and nearly got his Prime Minister onside, only to lose him in the fiscal havoc wreaked by Christchurch’s second earthquake.

Mapp became convinced by the economic lift that greater investment in innovation had given Finland, Denmark, Israel and Singapore that, as he said last week, “a committed national effort is required. It is the biggest opportunity that faces our nation.”

David Carter has grasped that, having overseen the expansion of the primary industries joint research programme. Carter has been working with Industrial Research Ltd to secure it an expanded brief as it has been forming alliances with universities and businesses, including lending scientists to firms. Now watch to see if Bill English follows through in the 2012 budget.

It’s just an idea, of course, But, as Mapp said, a few minutes before Power spoke, “I came to Parliament believing in the power of ideas to improve peoples’ lives. Here, those ideas could actually be actioned.”

Ideas? How outrageous.