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

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.

Roger, Ruth and Jacinda

The capital gains tax was an article of faith for left-wing supporters of Jacinda Ardern. Its failure to materialise has been attributed to weak leadership or, worse, political  deception. But there is a further explanation: Ardern’s devotion to the legacy of the Fourth Labour Government. An uneasy marriage between neoliberalism and social justice has been at the heart of our politics since 1984. Confronted by the prospect of a divorce, Ardern chose to renew the wedding vows.

Once asked by a journalist how much of her thinking is ‘socialist’, Jacinda Ardern replied ‘not much’. Yet, her announcement that there will be no capital gains tax – for as long as she is leader – shocked New Zealand’s media and political establishment. The belief that Ardern would lead major tax reform had become an article of faith for many on the left. After all, what was the use of a Labour government if not to tax capital? Such was their faith that most leftists overlooked the conservatism of Winston Peters and New Zealand First. Peters, who turned 74 earlier this month, has been an opponent of a capital gains tax since the idea was first mooted by Labour in the 1960s. Yet, the media consensus – perhaps owing to the confidence of the left – was that Labour would reach a compromise with Peters. They were wrong.

So, what happened?  Bryce Edwards has speculated that the entire tax reform programme was a cynical exercise in virtue signalling. When she established the Tax Working Group, Ardern must have known that Peters’ entrenched opposition to the capital gains tax was unlikely to change. But to rule out the tax then would have betrayed a total lack of principle and undermined faith in the Labour cause. After all, support for Ardern’s ‘politics of kindness’ has relied on the belief that her government is making a genuine attempt to address poverty and inequality. The failure to implement the capital gains tax could be forgiven if Labour was seen to have at least tried. Indeed, centre-left voters may now blame Peters and NZ First for any lack of progress.

Ardern has been widely criticised in the media for weak leadership. But once they had got over their shock, long-time political commentators such as Audrey Young praised Ardern’s decision as ‘pragmatic’. I suspect this will become the accepted narrative. By defusing the issue of tax, and denying National a powerful weapon, she has improved Labour’s re-election chances. Though it may breathe new life into the Greens. But I think there is more to Ardern’s decision than leadership failure or electoral strategy. As a child of the 1980s, Ardern grew up in a period of major social and economic transformation. She would later join the political party responsible for this change. Ultimately, it is Ardern’s belief in the Labour Party that explains her decision to break faith with the left.

Ardern’s Labour Party: A Brief History

The term ‘neoliberalism’ is often used to describe the policy consensus that emerged out of the 1980s. This concept refers not just to a set of policies, but an ideology of the state. David Harvey, the Marxist scholar, describes neoliberalism as a “central guiding principle of economic thought and management” based on the belief that “liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills’” should be the main purpose of government. Most commentators see fit to classify neoliberalism as a ‘right-wing’ project. However, in New Zealand, it was the social democratic Labour Party that deregulated the economy and introduced market-based reforms to the public sector.

The popular narrative is that the Fourth Labour Government (1984-1990) was ‘captured’ by a small clique of right-wing ideologues led by Finance Minister Roger Douglas. The reforms caused major dissent within the Labour rank-and-file. The resulting ideological conflict eventually led to the downfall of that government, and a schism in the Labour Party. However, the neoliberal project was continued by the National Government of Jim Bolger in 1990-1993. Major cuts to welfare spending, deregulation of the labour market, and reforms in the health sector were introduced. This agenda was led by Finance Minister Ruth Richardson. However, public opposition resulted in a hung Parliament at the 1993 general election. The country also voted for MMP. This new system of proportional representation would hand considerable power to minor parties. Richardson was sacked, and the Bolger Government retreated.  The forward march of neoliberalism was halted.

But there is a problem with this narrative. Academics and commentators have often overlooked the social democratic character of the Fourth Labour Government. In doing so, they blur the lines between ‘Rogernomics’ and ‘Ruthanasia’. Douglas and his Cabinet colleagues never intended to dismantle the welfare state. On the contrary, distributive justice remained a priority for that government. Spending on health, education and welfare was increased significantly. Government spending on benefits and social security, alone, soared from $4 billion in 1984 to over $10 billion in 1990. Tax reform provided relief to low and middle-income families, while beneficiaries were given substantial income exemptions and abatement rates. However, the Fourth Labour Government did cancel the universal family benefit in favour of a more targeted approach. This represented a significant departure from the approach of past governments but did not result in the decline of the welfare state.

The Fourth Labour Government also used the state to promote wider social justice. Gender equality was made a serious priority with the passage of the Employment Equity Act and a new Ministry of Women’s Affairs. A Māori housing scheme was introduced, the Waitangi Tribunal was given the power to investigate Treaty claims back to 1840, and Te Reo Māori became an official language backed by an official body. The Fourth Labour Government also rewrote the country’s immigration laws to end racial discrimination at the border. These were major policy achievements that had a lasting impact on New Zealand politics and society. In fact, this progressive social agenda formed a key part of the public policy regime that developed out of the 1980s. The Bolger Government largely continued this work, advancing the Treaty settlement process, and passing specialised anti-discrimination legislation.

Deregulation of the labour market and retrenchment of welfare in the early 1990s are usually seen as a continuation of Rogernomics. But these measures do not sit comfortably with the Fourth Labour Government. On the contrary, the Fourth Labour Government passed legislation to protect workers’ rights and address inequality.  Labour would spend much of the 1990s vigorously opposing National’s attempts to introduce a more laissez faire approach to social policy. Ultimately, National failed in this agenda. The election of a new centre-left government in 1999 restored social spending and reversed market reforms in health, housing, and employment relations.

The Labour-led Government of Helen Clark did not repudiate the main tenents of the post-1984 consensus, however. Clark and her finance minister, Michael Cullen, had both served in the Fourth Labour Government. They were social democrats who embraced fiscal conservatism. The emphasis was on maintaining business confidence through low inflation, low taxes, and a high degree of economic freedom. To this end, the Clark Government avoided major reform to address unfairness in the tax system. The Clark Government also refused to increase core benefit rates above inflation. Welfare remained targeted, with the focus on personal responsibility and incentives to work.

Ardern’s election as a Member of Parliament in 2008 coincided with the defeat of the Clark Government. But a decade later, the party remains in an uneasy marriage between neoliberalism and social justice. Ardern’s disavowal of socialism was in keeping with this marriage. Whatever she may believe about the virtuosity of tax reform, Ardern’s political ends can only be realised within the ideological parameters set by her Labour predecessors.  And so when confronted by the prospect of a divorce, Ardern did what Clark before her did. She renewed the wedding vows.