Liam Hehir on political ideology


Liam Hehir writes at the ‘Manawatu Standard’:

 As National looks to adjust to the next chapter in its history, there will be pressure for it to move to the left or right. A decisive move in either direction would, in my view, be a mistake. Not only do voters dislike overt ideology – but it’s also no way to run a country.

I don’t want National to move left or right. I want National to stand up for their founding principles. They display them on their website, after all. Wouldn’t it be nice if they actually followed them? As for the claim that voters dislike overt ideology, MMP provides the perfect cover to be sneaky weasels.  

If National wants to govern again, it will have to ensure that it looks ready to govern. Parties that become too introspective about what they stand for do not look ready to govern. They look like insular university debating societies.

Like Labour?

Even so, it would be good for National to adopt some sort of strategy for articulating what it wants to do. There are liberals and conservatives within the party, each representing a valid tradition. In government, these differences are muted by the disciplines of responsibility. In opposition, where things are looser, the two strands could trip each other up.

This brings us to what was known in the United Kingdom as the “and” theory of politics. The school of thought, most associated with former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, held that centre-right parties should balance conservatism with more liberalism. And vice versa.

It should be said that this is not an argument for watered-down government. To the contrary, it is an argument for bolder reform. But it does mean advancing both conservative and liberal agendas.

This is less contradictory than it might sound. Grownups should know that principles are not dogmas.

It didn’t work out so well for Iain Duncan Smith, mainly because that was too complicated to understand. However, the problem under MMP is that politicians don’t seem to have too many principles on offer, and not many scruples either.

Despite what Marxists and libertarians might think, no single ideology will ever contain all the answers to the problems of this broken world.

Especially not Marxism or socialism. Libertarians are like atheists… always proselytising but never actually getting anywhere.

This is not a recipe for the watered-down government. Balancing policies is not the same thing as compromising on them. Political compromises are often quite unsatisfying.

Isn’t it just.

In the context of the National Party, a good way to think about this is to think about human lungs. We are born with two of them, left and right. The right lung is a little bigger than the left, which has to share space with the heart, but nature intends that we breathe fully with both.

Tax is a good example of where National may have become ineffective in recent years. In the last budget, the last government promised tax relief, which is a good conservative policy. But in delivering it, it didn’t want to look like it only cared for the wealthy. The compromise was that there would be tax cuts, but that they would be pretty small.

It was a half-measure that didn’t really impress anyone. If National had won, I planned to use my tax cuts to buy sunglasses, for instance. It didn’t feel like there was a lot at stake.

Worse than that, Steve Joyce pushed them back a year instead of locking them in straight away. It meant they could be undone, and no one really noticed.

Taking a “breathing-with-both-lungs” approach, the tax cuts would have been more ambitious. And they would also have been paired with a more aggressive liberal reform – for example, a serious and headline-grabbing initiative against corporate tax dodging, or a strong disavowal of corporate welfare. Or both.

Heh, Steve Joyce was never going to disavow corporate welfare… he was addicted to it.

In matters of housing, the last Government’s response appeared to be incremental increases in state assistance to first-home buyers. But with these increases barely keeping track with house-price inflation in the worst-affected regions, it felt like another half measure. Does anyone seriously think that a single vote was won or preserved by the “enhancements” to the Home Start grant announced right before the last election?

What if National had instead promised to undertake immediate land use and supply reform while also providing regulatory relief to landlords to ease the burdens that currently see a lot of houses sitting empty and untenanted? That would be the free market side of things. And, on the liberal side, the Government could provide loans to landlords for health-promoting improvements to rental properties.

As long as the properties remained occupied for the next five years, the loans could be written off.

National needed to be bold when they had the votes to be bold. Instead they were timid and that was how housing became a crisis. Instead of forcing Peter Dunne’s and the Maori party’s hands over RMA reform they caved. Of course, it didn’t help that Steve Joyce lost Northland, such is the great campaigner he is.

While the facts of life are conservative, they are often harsher than a modern, advanced society will put up with. And, at the same time, the mistake of liberals is to judge a policy by its good intentions rather than its results. An “and” approach to politics is a recognition that both tendencies need each other.

Labour only ever look at inputs, especially money. Outputs and results need to be looked at. Watch spending burgeon with no demonstrable outcomes.

More than that, it is an argument against National trying to court voters through policies that are neither one nor the other. To hold or win voters in opposition, the party must be bold but realistic. And to do this effectively, it needs to craft an agenda that combines conservatism and liberalism in some complementary way.

After all, you can breathe with one lung if you must. You can also take shallow breaths with two lungs. But unless you can breathe deeply from both, you may find it hard to climb the mountain.

Good advice, but will National take it?



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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

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To read Cam’s previous articles click on his name in blue.