Disillusionment and disapprobation, Rod Alley

Changes? The 1990 Election
Colin James and Alan McRobie
Allen and Unwin, Wellington, 1990, $24.95

Publication of one of the first books on the 1990 election gives Rod Alley an opportunity to question what he calls our ‘system of electoral auctioneering’ and ‘contempt for accountability’.

The election that routed Mike Moore represented far more than just a change of government. Indeed we have since been told ad nauseam that 1990 was a watershed in the affairs of the nation, a decisive turning point … every possible cliché has been employed. But, in plain terms, a decisive turning point signifying precisely what for precisely whom? With the possible exception of 1975, it is hard to recall a recent election that has harboured such disillusionment and disapprobation about public life in New Zealand. Partly this came from a deep anger and sense of shame that traditional Labour supporters felt towards the defeated government. Labour had not just sold itself out, they said, but betrayed our faith, life and works. Below this Angst, there rumbled in a lower key mutterings about a trivialised campaign, paper-thin choice in candidates, the mirthless joviality of Bolger and Moore both trying to stand for something that looked very like a vacuum. Then there were the genuinely and seriously dispossessed, dismayed to find they could not even laugh at their leaders, or scoff at scapegoats.

Can an outcome so heavily conditioned by what it lacked represent anything positive? Well, at least the conduct of the poll was above board. Dutifully enough the election unleashed its damage, rather like some venerable nineteenth-century artillery piece wheeled into position, primed and ignited. But when the smoke cleared, little more emerged through the haze than the possibility of beginning over again. But we are said to be a sceptical people; perhaps we always suspected that general elections merely replace one set of power holders with another, temporarily less disdainful. It was far harder to accept the remorseless emulsifying of the electoral process, gutted by television and the image makers, who seemed to send ever larger bills in for ever more wretched ‘photo opportunities’.

Nevertheless we persist. Creaking it may be, but our parliamentary democracy still arouses in us a dogged loyalty. Perverted, manipulated, ignored as it is, we still cling to some sort of faith that those we elect discharge a mandate that is related to their election promises, their party manifesto. Outsiders are continually surprised that New Zealanders take their politics as seriously as they do. By standards elsewhere, voter turnout is relatively high; apparently, for all its faults, the system retains some semblance of popular rule.

Written in the months preceding the October 1990 election, the analysis given by James and McRobie does three things. It provides a political and economic commentary on the period from 1984 to 1987, it covers the return of Labour in 1987, the climactic economic package of the following December, and the conflagration that followed, consuming Douglas, Lange and eventually the Fourth Labour Government. In language that is sparse and accurate, it categorises that government’s policies of self-immolation. We hear it all, a doleful litany: the doctrinaire monetarism, heavy handed ‘restructuring’, unemployment, social dislocation and the deterioration of the balance of payments. For a government that kept reminding itself of the dangers of attempting too much too quickly (Palmer’s wobbles’, Lange’s ‘need for a cuppa’) it must have been puzzling to see that the worse things got, the faster they fell.

James illustrates the point (p51): ‘… the momentous State Sector Act, which Palmer himself describes as one of the most important initiated by the Government, was drafted in two days in mid-December 1987 and rammed through the House by March 31 1988, despite widespread protests and expressions of fear from some retired senior state servants.’ Moving to the current administration, James is interesting on key figures, their working relationships and their attitudes to state intervention in the economy. He also addresses the ideological factors that since 1984 have shaken partisan alignments to their roots, in all New Zealand electorates. McRobie provides electoral data, including voter turnout and size of swing in the 1984 and 1987 elections.

As to bedrock changes to the New Zealand political system, economy and society, James sketches a broadly established consensus that has operated through the decades following World War II. The State promoted economic activity, protected industry, redistributed income, guaranteed comprehensive social care and educational opportunity; it also assured international security by alignment with strong, rich, white Anglo-Saxon powers. This consensus collapsed because of external factors such as trade access difficulties, and because of stunted local growth. At the same time disillusionment with the arms race, and with alignment with strong states, soured a younger generation, more interested in a South Pacific orientation. There were internal forces too; the growth of Maori consciousness, feminism, and a sense of greater individual scope produced a newer breed of hard-edged business operators and bureaucrats whose career and lifestyle aspirations chafed against the constraints of the managed state. As it turned out, constitutional, parliamentary and political party restraints did little to inhibit a government determined to shake up and shake out the old order.

Reflecting on the United States of the 1930s, Alexis de Tocqueville believed that democracies manifest an insatiable appetite for novelty. James notices too an uncritical Kiwi acceptance of ideas designated as ‘new’ during the mid 1980s when Rogernomics swept all before it in a tide of its own convictions. For James ‘the Labour Party’s relative success during the mid 1980s owed more to its being the party of the “new” and the “modern” than to any particular policies’. Yet, as he also points out, the divide between those assuming authority for the ‘new’, and the conservatives determined to hang on to what remained of the old way (the welfare state redistribution, managed growth) caused severe strains in both major parties. Opposing sides of this new-old barrier shouted past each other. ‘New’ was often equated with ‘right-wing’, pro-owner, pro-manager, support for people of means; while the ‘old’ was linked with ‘left-wing’, pro-worker, pro-poor. The division was complicated because the new men claimed they could advance the interests of the old by so-called targeting, far better than the state could.

What emerged was a curiously self-imposed caricature, embraced by the dominant culture, rationalised by self-interest and greed, yet in ideological terms distinctly shaky. Inherently unstable, its promise turned to dross, its taste became brackish, as the economy wilted and the Labour Government’s fortunes nose-dived, following the sharemarket collapse and the ill-fated 17 December economic package. James observes that as this new-old divide faded, the National Party began to recover its bearings and proclaim a prudent yet responsible conservatism. It asserted as principles a more market-based economy, less state involvement, greater attention to matching production to demand, reducing taxes; it made a play for liberal support by upholding at the same time an independent non-nuclear foreign policy and a bi-cultural society.

Nevertheless in National’s own ranks policy differences remain. James distinguishes between the private enterprisers, such as Birch, Burdon and Falloon, and the free enterprisers led by Richardson. In trying to mediate between these two factions, Bolger as middleman will have a critical role, though James maintains that if it comes to a choice between growth and a low inflation target Bolger would go for growth.

It has been claimed that the New Zealand character is phlegmatic, sceptical towards the glib sales talk of political hucksters. It seems that we should reconsider this view of ourselves, since in the last two decades we appear to have performed better as lemmings than as doubters. Band-wagons have been running well, all seats regularly taken. Perhaps considering our circumstances since 1970, and figures such as Muldoon, Douglas and Lange, the politics of stampede was inevitable.

Let’s examine the mixture. The first ingredient was seemingly strong, decisive leadership, convinced it was right, refusing to brook interference from election manifestos, the processes of consultation, or the warnings of alternative opinions. Allied to this there was great skill in gratifying public appetite for greed, fear, intimidation, or gross simplification under conditions of growing complexity. Add to this a dash of populism, demagoguery, and appeals to a nascent if blundering sense of nationhood. Then there was the ability to horsewhip public doubts and criticism by tactics designed to cow opposition and blunt its edge by argumentum ad hominem (Muldoon) or by ignoring it and forging ahead regardless (Douglas). The capture of key sources of advice and influence at senior government levels helped too, as did a feeling for that great media demand, action masquerading as policy.

At such times, enough of the public for enough of the time need to lie to the mirror by telling themselves that what is good for them must be good for the country. Muldoon played to this weakness in the head with his superannuation bribe for the over 60s, which decisively won the 1975 election for him. Douglas did likewise by sweeping up many who defected from National to vote for Bob Jones in 1984, but who – pre-crash – clambered aboard Labour with alacrity in 1987.

New Zealand politics has, it seems, fallen into the hands of a constituency big enough to sway electoral outcomes, but without resistance to the hype, shoddy packaging of dubious policies and contempt for accountability that we have seen. It accepts, indeed appears to feed off a lack of formal responsibility in high places, and an insolent indifference to a philosophy of the public good. The hardest thing for Labour supporters to accept is that it was their party in office when these attitudes were being nurtured and sustained.

We have developed political operators with the style to satisfy this constituency; and we have the conditions, far from unique to New Zealand, where cynicism and indifference may flourish. This creates fertile ground for a politics of stampede, symbolic gratification and nullified choice.

It is likely that we face a long bout of political dissension, private interest masquerading as public good, simplified politics maintaining its formidable hold. It should not cheer us greatly to reflect that individual politicians promising yet another road map to the holy grail will have less and less credibility as times get harder than they are now.

But all is not quite lost. The strongest thing going for a Bolger-led government may be that we are a sadder and (possibly) wiser country after the swings and switchbacks of the Muldoon/Douglas era. In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman the central character Willy Loman, down on his luck, reflects sadly on the time when he was out doing deals with nothing but ‘a smile and a shoeshine’. Political salesmen of this order are still about, and as long as we persist with a system of electoral auctioneering we will encourage them, which will be just what we deserve. Let us instead remember Burke’s dictum that change does not necessarily equate with reform, that we may learn to see straight after our long period of self-induced political giddiness.


Roderic Alley is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics at Victoria University of Wellington. He writes and comments on public affairs in New Zealand, and about international relations with reference to the Pacific and to disarmament.


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