Political Ideas in the Pandemic Age

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Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997).

Last week, a group of ‘contrarian’ academics led by epidemiologist Simon Thornley broke ranks to propose an alternative strategy for dealing with COVID-19. ‘Plan B’ would see New Zealand abandon the goal of elimination to focus on mitigation. In practice this means easing restrictions and a return to ‘business as usual’. Underlying the contrarian argument is a belief that elimination would have disastrous social and economic consequences. Yes, we may ‘defeat’ COVID-19. But the result would be a broken and impoverished nation. 

If Thornley and his collaborators expected a groundswell of support, they must have been disappointed.  ‘Plan B’ was roundly condemned by the scientific community and social media. Thornley in particular has been ridiculed for ‘cherry-picking’ evidence. But most damning for Thornley was an earlier suggestion that New Zealand should consider following Sweden’s laissez faire approach to COVID-19. At the time of writing more than a thousand Swedes have died with the virus. 

So it is unsurprising that a host of data scientists, medical researchers, political activists and commentators are urging the Government not to abandon its elimination strategy. At first it was demanded that the contrarian detractors release modelling and peer-reviewed research to ‘prove’ their argument. But at least one eliminationist grasped very quickly that the debate was less about science and more a question of moral and political philosophy.

Dr Siouxsie Wiles told Newsroom bluntly: “I’m just opposed to the very fundamental values base that they’re coming from, around how it’s okay to let people die of this because they would die anyway, or something?” For Wiles the difference between her and Thornley is the relative weight they place on  ‘excess mortality’. That is to say, the number of deaths that COVID-19 may cause in excess of the overall mortality rate. On average 33,000 New Zealanders die per year. Is that figure likely to be much higher in 2020; and if so, how many of these ‘excess’ deaths will be from COVID-19? The international evidence is unclear.

But Wiles does not consider these questions relevant to the policy choice. In her view, society has a moral duty to eliminate the virus, regardless of any cost-benefit analysis. Saving lives from COVID-19 is her number one priority. Of course, to reduce people to mere numbers would be callous. But as the contrarian economist Ananish Chaudhuri has argued, should one not give equal weight to all lives that may be affected by such policy choices? Leaving aside the empirical data on mortality, this dilemma cannot be resolved by sophisticated mathematical models.

Science may give us the facts but it does not tell us what to do with them. One is more inclined to read a tract of political philosophy than a paper on epidemiology.  In a way, the pandemic has exposed the flaws and contradictions in New Zealand’s predominantly liberal outlook. Isaiah Berlin, one of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers, devoted his life to understanding the different strands of liberalism and the conflict these entail. His own philosophy may be instructive to us during these bleak times.

At the core of Berlin’s thought is the simple notion that human beings yearn for many things: freedom, security, justice, equality and so on. Such values are universal and to some degree they are all essential to ‘the good life’. But very often these values conflict with one another. For Berlin, the greatest lesson of history is that the many different ends we strive for cannot be reconciled permanently. Each generation will face conflicts that have no ideal solution. Sometimes it may be necessary to give up freedom for security and vice versa. As Berlin put it, “We are doomed to choose and every choice may entail irreparable loss.”

But the idea that we can perfect the human condition has entranced people for centuries. It has motivated extreme political ideologies of left and right, inspiring revolutions, war and terrorism. Berlin was not exaggerating when he lamented that more human beings had given their lives for the ‘perfection’ of humanity than any other cause. Although scientific knowledge and technology continue to grow rapidly, the basic dilemma of how to balance different values and goals will endure. COVID-19 has exposed this fundamental truth. 

A perfect solution exists only in the imagination. To pursue it would be futile and dangerous. The ideas needed most right now are humility and realism.

 

How Democracy Ends

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Overall turnout in the 2019 local body elections was a dismal 41 percent. The figure was particularly bad in Auckland, where barely a third of the electorate bothered to vote. To put that into perspective, Phil Goff was re-elected mayor by just 17 percent of Auckland electors. However, declining participation in local democracy is nothing new. This has been the trend for quite sometime. But the 2019 elections represent a new low and could be a harbinger of things to come at the national level. Just before casting my own vote, I read a fascinating and timely book called ‘How Democracy Ends’ (2018) by David Runciman, Professor of Politics at Cambridge University.

Runciman makes the case that Western liberal democracy is going through a midlife crisis. In the past, liberal democracy’s greatest strength was the ability to continuously ‘reinvigorate’ itself. This was accomplished through widening the franchise, redistributing wealth and expanding social rights. War and depression, while threatening the essence of democracy, also highlighted its virtues – making it a more attractive proposition. By the end of the 20th century, the liberal democratic state had triumphed over communism and fascism, leading Francis Fukuyama to declare ‘the end of history’. However, the new millennium has seen democracy fall into decline. Runciman notes a ‘widespread contemporary disgust with democratic politics’ throughout the world and falling voter participation reflects this.

In a sense, Runciman argues, liberal democracy is a victim of its own success. Having achieved universal suffrage, and with the welfare state exhausted, there is nothing left to offer the masses but more of the same. While protecting us against extremism, liberal democracy has failed to come up with meaningful solutions to climate change and disruptive technology. It could be that these problems are beyond liberal democracy. This might explain the preoccupation with identity politics, which are concerned more with the authenticity of individual experience than finding common ground. The latter demands compromise – and that is a rare quality in politics now. Just look at the fallout from ‘Brexit’ or Trump’s America.

As Runciman explains, it was once accepted that the main objective of democratic politics was to find a consensus most people could live with. Mass political parties were essential to this, providing the means for compromise between different ideologies and interests. But social networking and mobile technology have rendered the old way of doing politics obsolete. It has become much easier to seek out those we agree with and to have our opinions validated at the click of a button. There is no longer any need to compromise. Hence the decline of political parties. Technology has also made it possible for manipulators of public opinion to get inside our minds. This could have major implications for liberal democratic politics (think Cambridge Analytica). While ‘the wisdom of crowds’ might have cancelled out individual biases in the past, this is no longer the case.

So what can be done? Runciman doesn’t have any solutions. Rather he counsels us to accept that this may be as good as it gets. However, unless humanity is wiped out, it is unlikely democracy will have a single endpoint. The three main possibilities that Runciman sees are: i) democratic states gradually become more authoritarian, ii) technology liberates us from making political decisions altogether – and not necessarily for the better, or iii) democracy survives in its present form. The possibility Runciman definitively rules out is that we can go back to the old politics. This is a provocative and troubling argument but one I find compelling. The moribund state of New Zealand local politics is one way democracy could end in this country.

The next Mayor of Auckland

Mayor Phil Goff with challengers John Tamihere and Craig Lord.

On 12 October, Auckland may have a new mayor. John Tamihere promises to ‘shake it up and sort it out’ if elected. Rates will be frozen, the regional fuel tax abolished and the city’s problems fixed. We can expect homelessness to disappear and traffic to move fast. If that sounds implausible, it probably is. A mayor does not have the power to do any of that. But herein lies the significance of Tamihere’s campaign. He is seeking to redefine the mayoralty and in doing so push the boundaries of what is possible.

Until now, the mayor has been nothing more than an elected bureaucrat. Although central government is referred to as an ‘external partner’ on the Auckland Council website, the Council itself is an organ of the state. There might be a pretence of autonomy but decisions are made within the parameters set by Wellington. Perhaps that is why Phil Goff makes so much of the fact that the Ardern Government has spent $9 billion extra on Auckland under his mayoralty. But that figure means very little when your train is delayed, or you are stuck in gridlock traffic. These are almost daily experiences for the average Aucklander. The City Rail Link is not due for completion until 2024 and the proposed second harbour crossing is deferred for another ten years. Light rail to the airport is unlikely to materialise soon. Meanwhile, the Council is spending $500 million on cycleways that too few use.

The most original idea proposed by Mayor Goff? To politely ask the government for more money. This is Goff’s Auckland. There is no alternative but to wait. Goff lacks the political imagination to see the world any differently. He has been a career politician his entire adult life, having spent a total of 15 years as a Cabinet minister, and more than 30 years in Parliament. While Goff’s commitment to public service is admirable, his ability to represent the average Aucklander is questionable. There is growing frustration with the Council. Many are bewildered by a perceived lack of consultation on issues (see for example Chamberlain Park or the proposed Erebus memorial). The local board model should have improved public engagement. But communities feel more disconnected from their elected representatives than before.

Goff is not to blame for the ‘democratic deficit’ in Auckland nor the slow pace of change. But he represents an establishment fearful of new ideas, unwilling to experiment and beholden to ‘official advice’. Tamihere offers something quite different. If Goff is a bureaucrat, Tamihere is an activist. If we are to believe his rhetoric, Tamihere would spend the next three years advocating for a radical shift in central government priorities and major policy innovations. If nothing else, he will change the way Aucklanders think about the mayor. He promises to be a democratic outlet for their rage against the system.

And if Tamihere fails to get elected? It is likely he will move on to other things. A return to Parliamentary politics is in the offing. The path will then be clear for a truly populist mayor come 2022. Craig Lord is easy to dismiss as ‘the third candidate’ now but he offers something Tamihere cannot: a life untainted by politics. In the end, it could be Lord who fulfils Tamihere’s ambition of redefining the mayoralty. But only after three more years of waiting in Goff’s Auckland.

Rob and Judith

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45 years ago, National MPs found an unlikely saviour in the abrasive and controversial Robert Muldoon. The Member for Tamaki had already lost one leadership contest before and few expected a comeback. But a quiet campaign to win the confidence of his colleagues paid off. The following year, Muldoon led National to a stunning victory. Is history about to repeat?

In June 1974, the National Party’s Dominion Council passed a unanimous resolution endorsing former prime minister John Marshall to remain in the leadership. His timidity and consensual approach to politics had earnt him the nickname ‘Gentleman Jack’. But Marshall’s style proved no match against the larger than life personality of Norman Kirk. Yet, despite losing the popularity contest, Marshall was head of a party that retained significant support. Opinion polls had National and Labour neck-and-neck. The soaring cost of living and a housing shortage loomed large in voters’ minds. The hope and change promised by a new Labour government was beginning to fade.

With Marshall’s leadership apparently secure the press gallery was content to run the official party line: Gentleman Jack would have one last chance to face off against Big Norm.  But behind the public display of unity there was growing disquiet in the National caucus. Having spent most of the past year resigned to Opposition, there was now a whiff of victory in the air. They could win the 1975 general election. If only they had a leader who could get the measure of Kirk. But there was only one man up to the job. And he was not available.

Since the 1972 election, Robert Muldoon had been lying low. At least when it came to direct questions of leadership. He had lost to Marshall once before and would not allow himself to lose a second time. Thus, Muldoon portrayed himself as the ever-loyal deputy, keenly focused on the issues of the day, and holding the government to account. He argued policy details and administrative technicalities. What kept him up at night, he said, was not ambition for high office, but a burning desire to solve New Zealand’s economic problems. Leadership of the National Party? That was for the caucus to decide, and evidently, the caucus had chosen Marshall.

A few weeks later something changed. National MPs finally turned on their leader.  To the press gallery’s shock, Marshall summoned them for a Friday announcement. He was resigning and there would be a special caucus meeting the following Tuesday to select his replacement. There was only one contender. And until that moment he had been unavailable. But, as they say, a week is a long time in politics.

Back to the present, and Judith Collins finds herself in the role of a latter-day Muldoon. She alone can rescue the National Party from certain defeat.  Yet her claim to the leadership depends on the Member for Papakura remaining above internal politics. Collins’ silent campaign  has now reached its climax. What happens next may be more accident than design. It is but a waiting game. When Bridges goes, Collins will be the only real contender.