Centrifugal Forces

Listener May 18 2002

Keywords: Political Economy & History

The breakup with the Alliance was probably inevitable, although had the government not committed troops to Afghanistan it may have happened after the election. While there were particular and personal elements in the party breakup, it also must be seen in the context of the conventional political spectrum. Labour, under Helen Clark, has command of the political centre of New Zealand, the party shifting from its centre-left traditions. No centre-left party could have readily engaged with Afghanistan (not after Vietnam) while its economic advisers include many rogernomes. The impression is its economic policy framework is essentially a continuation of the late 1980s, with a few minor modifications: a kinder gentler rogernomics?

It makes sense to be ‘the’ centre party in an MMP environment. As The Nationbuilders argues, our great prime ministers may have come from the left or right but their success was to dominate the centre while implementing policies which shifted it progressively. That leaves National with a problem. Bill English also sees future government in the centre (that is where his political instincts lie). So had Bolger who was shifting his party there from Ruthanasia, but his successor Jenny Shipley tried to move the party right back. She found there were insufficient votes there, but the return to the centre in her last year of office was too late. English continues to be pressured by right centrifugal forces. For how is an opposition able to challenge a centre government effectively when it is exhibiting the good governance Clark does? Eventually she will make mistakes, some of her weaker ministers will be exposed, unaddressed problems will become increasingly pressing, the economy will (temporarily) turn down, and the electorate will think the skills she brought to office as normal. At which point the opposition can pounce.

This centring of Labour has put intolerable strains on the Alliance, which always consisted of two factions. The Anderton faction has a centre-left vision, happy to work with the centre in part (in the Australian Senator Don Chipp’s famous phrase) ‘to keep the bastards honest’ and to make sure the progress is in a leftward direction. The hard-left faction, led by Laila Harre, has a more radical agenda not captured in its slogan of ‘Family and Social Justice’. For the left no longer has a clear economic vision. It knows what it wants on foreign policy (and that is not what Helen Clark is offering) and human rights (where the government would be judged progressive). But where is ‘the social ownership of the means of production, distribution and wealth’ or whatever is the new economic vision? (The left might coalesce around opposition to free trade agreements, but negotiations there are slowing. In any case, opposition only defers a positive policy.)

The economic policy difference is nicely captured by the records of the factions. Anderton is committed to improving the productive performance of the economy. Harre has been more concerned with distributing the fruits of the economy more fairly (like statutory maternity leave and raising the minimum wage), although perhaps her portfolios limit her. Anderton would argue that better economic performance generates jobs and loosens the fiscal clamp, pursuing social justice that way. Harre would respond these are but promises. People want the justice now.

The problem of tensions of a wing party are not only the Alliance’s. Act has avoided them by not being in government. Were it there, the already evident strains between its populist and purist wings might become intolerable too. It is not getting much purchase from the electorate for its economic policies, and has added ‘law and order’ to its platform. (Apparently it wants to cut back all government spending except on prisons.) The two centre parties have joined that rhetoric.

Off spectrum issues, like law and order, are ways of differentiating a party from others in the melee of the centre. There may be yet a place for a Christian Party (which won 4.3 percent of the vote in the 1996 election), and watch how the Winston Peters’ New Zealand First differentiates itself – it just cant appeal to the oldies. The Greens may be the significant off-spectrum party of the future, combining an old fashioned account of how an economy works with a new fashioned account of where it should go. Given the first factor, it is not surprising that the Alliance’s hard left and the Green’s are talking, but they represent two different political traditions. (Find more about the characteristics of party support in the just published study of the 1999 election, Proportional Representation on Trial.)

To give them credit, Act and the Greens have some of the vision thing. But you may not like their vision, and go for the scrum in the centre. Ultimately Clark is not a visionary: more a Keith Holyoake than a Norm Kirk (although it was Bill Rowling that gave the Kirk administration its good governance). English is yet to prove himself, and the Alliance factions are too entangled in their mutual dislike and nostalgia the past achievements of the left for them to offer a vision (or two).