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Lacking healthy liberal scepticism

Dr Bryce Wilkinson

Lacking healthy liberal scepticism

By Peter Dunne
The 53rd New Zealand Parliament elected recently [late 2020] is without doubt the most representative in our history. It contains more women than ever before – well over half the expanded Labour Caucus are women; there are more Maori and Pasifika represented; and MPs from Asia, Africa and South America.

There are more younger MPs than before – the average age of a New Zealand MP is now well below the international average age for politicians of 53 years. And there has already been international reference to the fact that our new Parliament is the most representative of rainbow communities of any in the world.

As well, the range of political views represented in Parliament is also more representative ranging from the ACT Party on the right, through to the centre-right National Party, the centre-left Labour Party and the more left-wing Greens and Maori Party. 

All this is positive, and something to celebrate. It confirms the burgeoning image of New Zealand as a nation in the vanguard of modern, progressive countries. It is perhaps little wonder that to many outside our country – still ravaged by the uncertainties of Covid-19, or bogged down in the racial and ethnic tensions now apparent in Europe and especially in the United States – New Zealand appeals as the ideal oasis of sanity, decency and tolerance in an increasingly disjointed world.

 Yet, true as all this is, and no matter how justifiably proud we can all feel about it, it masks nonetheless the reality that over the last two elections the genuine traditional liberal voice, so long a feature of New Zealand politics, has all but disappeared. None of the parties currently in Parliament today can claim to be a real liberal party.

ACT has frequently previously espoused pretensions in that direction, but its libertarian focus takes it beyond the pragmatic and compassionate tone of a genuine liberal party. The National Party has been steadily losing its urban liberal MPs for years, with the remainder now a very small rump within a party increasingly coming under the influence of the evangelical Christian right. Its previous strongly liberal MPs like Ralph Hannan in the 1960s, George Gair and Sir Jim McLay in the 1970s and 1980s, through to Nikki Kaye and Amy Adams of more recent times would all be increasingly out of step in the National Caucus of today.

While Labour has become more diverse in its membership in recent years, it has done so on the basis of becoming more the party of professional interest groups – teachers, lawyers, academics and health professionals – than a party of principle. A focus on representing the interests of those groups is no bad thing, but it does not mark out the party as any more liberal than it was in the days when its Caucus was dominated by predominantly conservative male, cloth-cap trade unionists. 

For their part, to be fair, the Greens have never professed to be liberal. Their initially environment and conservation-based radicalism has now extended into social issues. As the Greens see it, the crises the world is currently facing demand radical action immediately. Consequently, they regard the more assured principle-based incrementalism liberals favour as just far too wishy-washy and slow to meet today’s challenges.

The Maori Party is different again. While it appears to share much of the Greens’ world view, it properly does so from the perspective of promoting the interests of Maori as ‘tangata whenua’, which cannot always be easily defined in terms of  where they sit on the liberal/conservative continuum.

In short, we are seeing the emergence of a new political culture focused more on the representation and promotion of particular interests than the durable resolution of issues fairly across society as a whole. 

This much more starkly defined political environment currently leaves little room for the traditional liberal voice. Drawing together the strands of promoting social progress through a clearly defined role for the state in areas such as health, education and welfare, balanced by a commitment to sound economic policies, and an overriding respect for the rights of the individual regardless of social status, so much the historical space of the liberals, is no longer their sole preserve. 

Over the years, other parties have been selectively cherry-picking those parts of the liberal agenda that suit them. 

 New Zealand is not alone in this regard. The centre ground of politics, so long the hallowed space of the liberals, is being either squeezed or overtaken in Europe and Britain as well. Liberals are becoming an almost endangered species – nice, well-meaning people, worth having around when times are good, but somewhat of a luxury when the world’s various crises demand action now. 

The “yes, but” healthy scepticism of the liberal is increasingly seen as an irrelevant nuisance.

But for those of us of a traditionally liberal disposition all this has created a massive dilemma, as well as leaving us currently politically homeless. While we drew upon our customary pragmatism and sense of compromise to determine our vote for the recent election, it is not a sustainable long-term option. It is a matter of great frustration, tinged with irony, that this new, most representative of Parliaments contains no overtly liberal voice.

However, liberals have always played the long game. We understand that progress that survives can only be built on sound foundations and principles, rather than the however well-intentioned, temporary allures of the passing fads of the day. Therefore, we have the patience to survive and await the time when the liberal flame will burn brightly again.

In the meantime, we look to this new Government, and to Parliament as a whole, to govern with compassion and dignity, and to respect the rights of all New Zealanders, whatever their culture or background, as they do so. LG

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