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Dr Muriel Newman

The new political landscape

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Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once quipped, “A week is a long time in politics”. Last week was a long time in politics! Within one week new forces have emerged at both ends of New Zealand’s political spectrum: on the left in the form of MP Hone Harawira with his new Mana Party, and on the right the former National Party leader and reformist Don Brash with the takeover of ACT.

In democratic politics, vacuums are always filled. It could be said that both new leaders have responded to political voids created by incumbent parliamentary parties. Hone Harawira believes that the Maori Party has lost its way and that the Labour Party has abandoned its social justice roots, leaving room for a party advocating for stronger rights for the Maori sovereignty movement and a stronger voice for the disenfranchised.

Don Brash has watched on as the National Party has not only refused to constrain government spending – and increased government borrowing to $300 million a week – but has turned its back on mainstream New Zealand to become a cheerleader for the powerful iwi leaders group and their agenda of Maori self-rule.

Politics is the battle of ideas. It is ideas that influence people, which is why Think Tanks like the New Zealand Centre for Political Research play a pivotal role in informing the public, challenging the administration, and building a mandate for change. The NZCPR depends totally on the generosity of our newsletter readers – your support is vital for us to continue providing the principled analysis you’ve come to expect. If you believe our work has value during this crucial election year, then please support us.

Unfortunately the new ideas that John Key promised and the new hope that he represented when becoming Prime Minister in 2008 have come to little. In that respect this National government is a bitter disappointment and will now pay the price.

Helen Clark was responsible for the largest expansion in the size of government in modern times. Over the final three years of her term in office, state spending grew from 29 percent of GDP in 2005 to 35 percent in 2008. It was economic mismanagement on a grand scale. Not only did the country fall into a recession months ahead of the global economic crisis, but the incoming government was handed a raft of increasingly unaffordable policies including interest-free student loans, massive increases in Working for Families, and overly-generous KiwiSaver subsidies. But rather than seizing the mandate for reform given by electors, by cutting government spending back to affordable levels, the National Party took the easy road, positioning itself in the middle ground to essentially continue Clark’s agenda.

To make matters worse, and against all logical advice, National implemented Labour’s wealth destroying emissions trading scheme. More radical than any other in the world, this scheme is burdening the economy with enormous costs, not only in terms of rising prices of power and fuel – and all other goods and services as well – but also in the country’s loss of jobs as businesses relocate to friendlier shores.

The end result is a tanking economy and families that are struggling under falling living standards and increasing financial pressure. But by failing to constrain government spending in a prudent manner, the National Party has exposed themselves to claims that their obsession with high poll ratings has come at a huge cost to the economy – leaving the door wide open for the return of Don Brash.

While National has done too little to sort out the country’s economic woes, they have done too much to appease the Maori Party and the Maori sovereignty movement. In secret, National signed up to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a treaty so radical that even the Labour Government refused to sign. They authorised the flying of the Maori sovereignty flag on public buildings on Waitangi Day. They are pushing through increasingly generous Treaty settlements, privatising schools, Police Stations, and other iconic buildings, as well as engineering co-management deals for National Parks and other public lands. They continue to insert into legislation Treaty clauses and other raced-based rights, such as special statutory Maori Advisory Boards. They no longer talk about abolishing the racially based Maori electorates even though they are an anachronism that should have been abolished on the introduction of universal suffrage in 1893. And now they have agreed to a Constitutional Review jointly led by the Maori Party that has a clear goal of entrenching the Maori seats and the Treaty of Waitangi into a new race-based constitution.

But the flash point came when National repealed Crown ownership of the foreshore and seabed against the wishes of the public and in spite of the promise by the Prime Minister that it wouldn’t go ahead unless there was wide public support. By allowing the Attorney General (who has clearly embraced the Maori sovereignty movement’s goal of privatising public assets), to push the bill through, John Key and all National MPs have not only sold out their responsibilities to the wider public, but they have taken the country down the dangerous path towards racial division by elevating racial privilege for Maori.

It is these actions that presented Don Brash with a Grand Canyon sized vacuum to fill. What is particularly astounding is that many former National supporters warned the party that they would lose their loyalty if they went ahead and passed the disastrous Marine and Coastal Area Bill. But their appeals were arrogantly dismissed by a party that assumed they had nowhere else to go. The entry of Don Brash into the political arena has given former National party voters a credible alternative. National could be in for a rude awakening when the next opinion poll is released!

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator is Professor Roger Bowden the former head of Economics and Finance at the Victoria University, with an economic perspective on the failure of John Key’s government. In his article The Economic Consequences of Mr Key, he states:

“Much more insidious is the nation’s obsessive and continuing preoccupation with economic rent seeking, which means dividing up existing wealth by political or other means, at the expense of creating new wealth. It’s an ancient preoccupation, but in this day and age, rent seeking is built on the rights movement and its accompanying mantras and mythologies.

“It’s alive and well on several fronts in NZ, but iwi and their activists have become grandmasters, extracting not only immensely valuable real assets, but co-management deals for natural resources that amount to an iwi tax. And just when we thought the Waitangi gravy train was coming to an end, the National led Coalition has started up an entirely new one. We all knew where we stood with the Labour government’s Foreshore and Seabed Act; and certainty itself has economic value. I find it impossible to think of the National led coalition’s 2011 Marine and Coastal (Takutai Moana) Act as anything but tacky and dangerous in the way it was rushed through; the potential for use and misuse in its lack of criteria; and the framework of reference and expectations it has set into train. This is too much to pay for the baubles of political power or legislative immortality, for it threatens our very nationhood.”

All most people want from a government is the power to create the environment where they can improve their own lives and do what is best for themselves and their family. In fact, most people want governments to get out of the way and leave them in peace. The problem is that it is not in the nature of big governments to leave people alone. They need to intrude to justify their existence. As President Ronald Reagan once said, “A government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth!”

Since becoming government, National has done little to turn New Zealand into the opportunity society many wish for. Ask wealth creators like small business operators and developers whether compliance and red tape has reduced over the last two years. The consensus will be that the situation has got worse.

All of this has fuelled a growing despair that New Zealand has become a Parliamentary dictatorship rather than an open democracy, with traditional parties becoming disconnected from voters between elections. Increasingly they are losing touch with the public’s deep-seated concerns, such as a smacking law that is doing nothing to stop child abuse but is seriously undermining parental authority and respect.

Where is the party that is promising to honour that 2009 Citizens Initiated Referendum that overwhelmingly supported parents having the right to discipline a child with a light smack? Where is the party to honour the 1999 Referendum to reduce the number of MPs to 99? In fact, where is the political party prepared to push for Citizens Initiated Referenda to be made binding, so the public have a mechanism to constrain a government if it goes off the rails? After all, it’s not as if Parliament would be overwhelmed by public lawmaking – only four Citizens Initiated Referenda (CIR) have succeeded since the CIR Act was introduced in 1993! The CIR to repeal the Marine and Coastal Area Act will of course be the fifth!

With New Zealand being the only country in the world to have a CIR process that is not binding on the government, surely in the lead up to the 2011 election there is an opportunity for a political party to announce that just as they trust the opinion of the public enough to allow them to vote for their government, then so too they trust the public enough to make Citizens Initiated Referenda binding. The experience from other countries shows that if referenda are binding, the need for them reduces as governments become more attuned to public concerns. There are no signs yet that the reshaped political landscape that now confronts Mr Key has any regard to restoring power to voters through binding referenda. This is a vacuum yet to be filled.