Saturday, January 20, 2024

Brian Easton: The Prime Minister’s Biggest Challenge

Luxon has to address the need to maintain and enhance New Zealand’s social cohesion.

Dear Christopher Luxon,

The greatest challenge you face is that of the nation’s social cohesion (rather than the economy). The problem has been with us ever since Hobson arrived.

New Zealand is a diverse society. For over a century we suppressed this truism by relegating women to the kitchen, Māori to the pa, gays to the closet, and ignoring the role of religion in secular life. We practised majoritarianism by a group – who among other things were straight, Pakeha, Anglican, middle-class, male, rugby followers – which pretended theirs was the only acceptable lifestyle and the country should be run in their interests. Those who did not conform to this majority were ignored, treated as quaint eccentrics, or repressed.

Today that diversity is more apparent. Affluence has enabled individuals to exhibit their differences, while social media enables like-minded minorities to join together. We are also importing the fashions of antagonistic public dialogue from overseas, most notably the rhetoric of conflict from the US – a society which seems to be falling apart because it lacks social cohesiveness.

All societies are under these pressures for roughly the same reasons. Some rigidly suppress differences, perhaps emphasising a dominant ethnicity or religion at the expense of everyone else and ignoring that there can be great diversity within the dominant group. Others face, in despair, the terrifying prospect of social unrest and breakdown.

Each country is different and has to find its own resolution (or not). New Zealand has three major differences. We have no significant external threat (except global warming); we are small; we have MMP, which recognises the diversity in a way that Frontrunner/FPP did not (Its electoral system is exacerbating the disruption in US politics).

You, Mr Luxon, will be reminded of MMP every time you enter Parliament’s chamber. You are not there because a majority of the electorate voted to support you. You look at your benches and see three disparate parties, none of which is entirely unified; the other side of the House looks no better.

You know, even if the commentariat does not, that the voting outcome of the 2023 election was not very different from that of the 2017 election except that the parties at either extreme garnered a little more support. But if the electorate did not change much, the government has shifted dramatically (because New Zealand First changed its mind).

So you have not really been given the radical mandate some of your colleagues aspire to. You are tentatively charged by the electorate to govern New Zealand in everyone’s interests; you will be judged by an unforgiving electorate.

The easy approach might seem to be a majoritarianism which attacks any dissenters. As tempting as it may seem, it is unlikely to work. Recall Rob Muldoon. He could argue his abrasiveness got him re-elected. But that was under Frontrunner. Had it been under MMP he would have lost both 1978 and 1981 as well as 1984.

There are numerous counterexamples. Prime Minister Bill Massey (1912-1925), a founder of a key precursor of the National Party, was a member of the Orange Order, notorious for his harsh response to the miners’ and waterfront workers’ strikes in 1912 and 1913. He matured.

He was against the charging of Cardinal James Liston for sedition in 1922; he saw little advantage in sharpening the religious antagonism of the times. A cabinet full of hard-line Protestants overruled him. (Liston was found not guilty.) You may be on Massey’s side, Mr Luxon, but you will not be given a decade to mature.

So how are you going to deal with the tensions and divisions, especially as you have people on your side of the House who revelled in intensifying them when in opposition?

The first obvious action is to talk to your cabinet and caucus about the issue, explaining the importance of not exacerbating social tensions and of healing social divisions. Keith Holyoake gave excellent advice when he told MPs to breathe through their nose – not opening their mouths at inconvenient moments. You need to discuss the same message with the leaders of your coalition parties and ask them to pass it on to their caucuses.

One of the nastiest rising tensions is between media and politicians. What is going on is surely mutually agreed destruction invigorating public extremists; apparently journalists are receiving death threats too. Your press office needs to talk to the press gallery and agree to take a more courteous approach. It must recognise that both sides are doing necessary tasks but they need to avoid abrasive, stupid and useless questions and answers.

Does that deal with around Parliament? You also need to change Parliament’s approach to the wider community. In particular it, needs to resist the temptation to interfere. Apparently over half of the population are opposed to trans-women being involved in women’s sports. (That’s something outside of my expertise.) It is easy for Parliament to pass a law but I suggest that it instead leaves the decision to individual sports bodies. Many will get into a pickle but explain it is their responsibility, not Parliament’s.

Another area to restrain is the nation’s habit of simplifying what is going on into two opposing and antagonistic camps. The obvious current example is Māori and non- Māori. You do not have to be very socially perceptive to know that there is enormous diversity within each group and much overlap. When someone claims to speak on behalf of Māori or whatever, the one thing that is certain is that the speaker is at best, representing just one of the group’s segments.

Take a leadership role; say your government respects all Māori or whatever, will listen to all of them and not just some self-appointed spokespeople, and will govern on all their behalfs. Get your speechwriters to always include a reference to the diversity within any group whenever a speech mentions them.

The issues of delegating down and recognising diversity applies in many other areas. It might be summarised by ‘subsidiarity’, the notion that decisions should be taken at the lowest possible level. It has not been prominent in the thinking of the New Zealand government. For instance, it loves to bully local government, directing what they should or should not do. It is time for the centre to withdraw and leave them to make as many local decisions as possible, even if they make ones with which you personally disagree.

Subsidiarity is about respect for local and individual decisions and tolerance of diversity. As far as I can see, respect and tolerance is the way to maintain social cohesion in a liberal democracy. The alternative is centralisation, majoritarianism and authoritarian repression followed by ugly civil strife.

There is an economic dimension. The market is a very powerful means of decentralisation – of practising subsidiarity. In that sense, I was a supporter of the market liberalisation we associate with Rogernomics (and I wrote about it before 1984). Unfortunately, the neoliberals decentralised very badly. Very often their economics was embarrassingly shonky and they never really understood the issue of market design – getting the right balance of regulation. Paradoxically, they were bullies using their centralised powers to impose their theories – look at the way they treated local government. And a properly working market requires a fair income distribution – instead, the policies increased its unfairness. Ironically, the neoliberals’ arrogance brought on MMP which is designed to reduce the power of the centre.

Mr Luxon, you govern with the consequences of that heritage, and the real danger that, because of the way its institutions operate, you will govern a deeply divided society if you pursue a majoritarian strategy. There has to be a better way. Decentralisation and subsidiarity, respect and tolerance are keys to it.

Yours sincerely, Brian Easton.

Brian Easton is an economist and historian from New Zealand. He was the economics columnist for the New Zealand Listener magazine for 37 years. This article was first published HERE


Anonymous said...

Spoken like a true academic.

The question to Brian Eston is how do you govern for ALL New Zealanders without peeing some of the people off?

Answer - you can't.

A healthy society is one with a diversity of views. The issue is how you resolve differences. Brian may not have noticed, but the best mechanism to do so is called democracy. That's where everyone can express their opinion via a vote, and the majority wins.

It works if the minority accepts the will of the majority. If they don't then they are promoting the alternative which is anarchy by a minority over a majority (which is what we have with the Maori rights movement today). In turn, the majority must respect the rights of minorities - and that is done via the Bill of Rights (which includes the right to NOT be discriminated against because of one's political views).

No need to overthink this. The solution has been evident for a long time now.

Anonymous said...

With respect to the eminent author, it must be acknowledged that the radical Maori leading the He Puapua agenda are not fair or reasonable people. They are belligerent and focused on their political goal to replace NZ's democracy by an ethnocracy.

If they were reasonable, negotiation and fair settlements would work.

Instead they want - and intend to get - total tribal rule over NZ by 2040. This process started in the 1980s. Now, fueled by CRT, the UNDRIP objectives and wokeness, this is coming to fruition. There is no return

It is now vital for all citizens to face facts and the unpleasant - and dangerous - reality of NZ today and demand a referendum soonest.

Scott said...

I welcome the new government of the centre-right. But what we need more than anything are Conservative politicians. Conservative means that you believe in the country called New Zealand, you believe in its history, you honour the work of your ancestors that built this nation and you believe that there are traditions and institutions that are worth conserving. Like it or not, this country was founded and developed by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. And they did a pretty good job.

So I would say to all academics, believe in your nation. Believe in universities that were founded generally as Christian theological colleges.

And I would say to everyone don't accept the politics of division. I think that Christianity is the only thing that will bind us together. The idea of diversity as a governing principle is quite frankly unchristian. We aim for unity.

We want to be a unified people, caring for each other, where everyone is equal under the law. And that is all you can reasonably expect.

Basil Walker said...

An admirable contribution, that has a Christian orientated focus which is OK and certainly not harmful .
I suggest that your contribution could be fortified if the three P's - practical , pragmatic, and productive were substituted for, or included with Christian.

Personally a "Letter to Mr Luxon" would request his definition of his often quoted ZERO CARBON which if taken to its true meaning is certain death within months for urban dwellers without sanitation, transport, income or food and a matter of years for the country dwellers whose ability to self sustain is advantageous .
Surely, Mr Luxon has a better outlook for NZ than Zero Carbon that is self sacrifice of idiotic proportions .

If Mr Luxon replied that he was a Climate thinker and not a climate denier , alarmist , modeller or scientist then a major problem is averted and huge Climate funding sent overeseas with No advantage to NZ can be reprioritised .

Anonymous said...

With all due respect, I'm with the first two responders. The last thing Mr Luxon needs is encouragement to placate by, in essence, sitting on the fence, which he showed every inclination to do leading up to the recent election.

The burgeoning part-Maori / non-Maori conflict will (in all likelihood) soon erupt and the country will need a LEADER with the mettle to make the necessary call. A resolution of what lies before us won't be solved by "subsidiarity" and any efforts to placate will only result in this festering boil (that is overdue for lancing by way of a public referendum) to continue to suppurate.

robert Arthur said...

As Basil Fawlty would say, seems in the main like a statement of the bleeding obvious.(Except for the wonky conclusion). It is placation which has got us into the current mess. Non trace maori should have opposed all the moves to race favouring Treaty reinterpretation and law at the outset with the same vehemence as organised maori are now going to oppose the dial back of same. Sadly influential non maori politicians are not backed by a nation wide netwok of self interested artful thinkers and schemers as are maori with their marae, softly employed intellectuals, legal eagles, corporate managers, and other networks. Hopefully recent ethnic immigrant groups will wake up the total maori control threat toward which we are well advanced and galvanise their networks to add to the counter voice and action.

Tom Logan said...

What you really mean to say Mr Easton is the Luxon Government policies should be the very antithesis of most of those of Ardern. Why didn't you just say so. You seem to be wanting to condem Luxon in advance for future policies and actions of his which are wholly unlikely.

Ardern certainly wanted to further centralise and increase Government control over as much as she could. Health ,education and 3 waters immediately come to mind. Well I can't see Luxon going too far down that road.

And she certainly provoked public disdain for the MSM , by her purchase of both their independence and integrity. Not that it took much. And Luxon is wholly unlikely to continue down that road either

And Ardern was no big fan of proper democratic process was she Mr Easton. The way she denied all knowledge of Mahuta's attempt to entrench the 3 waters policy. Or how she allowed Mahuta to remove local body voters rights to demand a referendum on Maori wards. Or how she announced at an overseas conference the Government ban on drilling for oil and gas before she had told her own caucus. Or how she hid from Winston Peters, the Deputy PM, the existence of the He Pua Pua doctrine of ethnic co governance.

No Mr Easton, Christopher Luxon won't be anything like that. And we all know it.

So why couldn't you just say so ? Or was that rat so hard to swallow you would have choked on it