The big and small ends of politics

It’s the big end of politics that matters to people. It is the small end of politics that is usually engaging. So with the past fortnight.

At the small end have been Colin Craig and David Smol. At the big end have been Greece and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — not to mention the serial Saudi sheep shenanigans.

The Greek debt crisis, which is at base a cultural matter, is at crunch point. Though waved away by John Key on radio yesterday, it threatens instability in the European, and possibly the global, financial system. That would affect us.

It could further loosen cohesion in the European Union, once a force for peace and order but now beset by unruly populist parties. And that would be in an already disordered world.

At home this financial disorder is causing paradoxical behaviour. The Reserve Bank on Friday proudly listed “targeting price stability” high on its priorities but actually it is trying to lift price rises to 2% a year.

Bill English had pointedly noted the bank was missing the 2% target.

English trumpets low interest rates. They help debtors. But if he gets his price rises, interest rates will rise. Would that be a win or a loss?

Switch to trade.

The TPP — resuscitated but not assured by the fractured United States Congress’s heavily qualified vote for the authority Barack Obama needs to go on negotiating — marks a border crossing in “trade”.

New Zealand’s particular interest is to sell more dairy products to more countries at higher prices. The United States, Canada, Japan and Mexico aren’t keen.

But (another big-end paradox) the TPP is not primarily about old-style “trade”. It is about “trade” in a hyperglobalised age.

It aims at what one conservative (note, conservative) American commentator this month called “regulatory harmonisation across borders, initiatives in ‘global governance’ “, which bring the state into “the marketplace … on selective terms, to favour powerful corporate interests at the expense of national sovereignty”.

European Union bureaucrats extol the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership as potentially setting world regulatory standards. Problem: European politicians don’t like the United States-driven investor-state dispute resolution and intellectual property regime proposals.

Are these deals ahead of the “trade” game or catching up to an emerging reality that people are globalising?

How dull. The small end of politics is more entertaining.

There rising Dunedin Labour star David Clark crusaded against a $141,000 electronic signboard at Steven Joyce’s mouthful Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), run by Smol, which tries to sprawl across a wide span of government activities, including science and housing.

To listen to Clark, who could have applied his big intellect to big-end-of-politics economic development matters critical to our material futures (his allotted portfolio), you would think Smol should have a boy writing in chalk on a blackboard or should have kept his staff in MBIE’s old, inefficient quarters. Smol’s new offices came in under budget.

On Sunday Clark pushed for lower MBIE salaries.

The small end of politics salivates on the salacious. Craig’s attention to his one-time press secretary was bespoke. Out he went as leader from the small-end Conservative party he founded and funded.

Craig’s conservatism is an extension of a moral, civil and economic conservative strand within National. With tutoring from National, starting in 2013, Craig might have evolved into a useful ally. Now National may well in 2017 have to reach out to Winston Peters, the main winner from Craig’s implosion.

Craig’s fall has a big-end dimension.

The Electoral Commission in 2012 recommended junking the coattail mistake and compensating with a cut in the party vote threshold to 4% (a hurdle Craig might have cleared in 2014 because the extra 0.3% more voters he needed might then have materialised because those votes would have counted).

Labour MP Iain Lees-Galloway’s bill to do the commission’s bidding was defeated at first reading in Parliament last Wednesday by National and its lapdog parties, Maori, ACT and United Future. ACT and United Future would not be in Parliament but for deals to ensure one electorate each.

Thus did self-interest trump the democratic interest, as expressed by voters. Voters were clear in polls and to the commission that coattailing should stop and parties should have to clear the party vote threshold for proportionality, not just get handed an electorate seat by a friendly big party.

Judith Collins, Justice Minister in 2012, refused to act on the commission’s report. A democrat would have put a bill into Parliament for debate. Venal politics would still have won there, as last week — a citizens assembly would have done better by voters and by democracy — but the cabinet would at least have followed due process, which is critical to democracy.

But due process is at the big — dull — end of politics.