Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

< Columns

The New Political Dispensation


Every now and then a change of government ushers in a substantial number of new MPs who collectively signal a generational change. In 1935 Peter Fraser, the new Deputy Prime Minister, told a journalist that he didn't recognize all the faces at the new government's first caucus meeting. Ordinary working folk found they had an unprecedented number of champions within Parliament. Robert Muldoon's sweeping victory in 1975 ushered in a group of young professionals but that victory was upstaged three years later when a dozen or so new Labour MPs who would ultimately drive the major economic reforms of the Lange-Palmer-Douglas era entered, or returned to Parliament. A majority of younger, well-educated MPs spreading across both parties guided the country's destinies for the next couple of decades. In the 1980s a significant number of women appeared in the House, too, although initially, with the exception of Ruth Richardson, they were overwhelmingly on Labour's side .

Having spent several days recently around Parliament Buildings I can say without doubt that the 2008 election has produced another sea-change in politics. Whether that promising tide survives more than three years is the big question. So far the positive signs outweigh the negatives.

The most striking thing about the new Parliament is its diversity. The last twenty years have seen an amazing change in the demographic make-up of New Zealand. The 2006 census revealed that barely 72% of our total population was of European origin. But in Auckland, the biggest driver of the modern economy, the figure was only 57%. Those of Asian origin (19%) and Pacific Islanders (14.4%) outnumbered Maori (11.1%). The newcomers, not surprisingly, have stayed in Auckland in large numbers because that's where the climate is warmest and most opportunities are to be found. New migrants have discovered their political voice at last, and this Parliament shows it. Upwardly mobile, well-educated Pacific Islanders and Asians are now visibly represented, most of them within the National Party which in the past sometimes looked like a haven for aging white males. The number of women within National's ranks has risen spectacularly, too. Visible behind Sam Lotu-Iiga (Maungakiekie) and Melissa Lee (Auckland List MP of Korean origin) on National's backbenches were eight or nine new women MPs plus Kanwaljit Bakshi (Auckland List MP) in his blue turban, an elegantly dressed Hekia Parata, and several other MPs like Tauranga's Simon Bridges of part Maori ancestry. They are members of a team that includes New Zealand's first Asian-born minister, Pansy Wong, and Maori ministers Paula Bennett (Social Development) and Georgina te Heu Heu, Minister for Courts.

Labour, too, contains differing ethnicities. Their backgrounds, however, don't match National's demonstrable level of competence. The well-received maiden speeches by Sam Lotu-Iiga and Melissa Lee concentrated on the importance of education as a step-ladder to success for hard-working ethnic minorities. From neither of them could I discern support for the thrust of Labour's educational system that patronised and sometimes tied down kids from poorer areas with a low-grade curriculum and rigid enforcement of zoning. The new National MPs come from a world of work and achievement that expects to earn rewards, not handouts. Because they are so visible, new immigrants depend on quality law and order, something sadly missing in parts of Auckland under Labour. The huge rally against crime just before the election following an exercise in self-defence by a liquor store-owner who was then arrested, was really a protest by migrants at Labour's feeble policing under their hand-picked top brass. Helen Clark paid dearly for her failure to get to grips with the Police force.

Lotu-Iiga made it clear that National was his chosen vehicle because it supported a healthy private sector within the economy that is a life-line for 70% of his constituents. Once upon a time, when Labour was reforming the economy in the 1980s, Lotu-Iiga and Lee might have been happy to be part of Labour. But under Helen Clark's government there was always more solicitude for beneficiaries than for workers. Labour turned its back on employers and decided instead to pad up the public service. As Lotu-Iiga told us, there are too many areas of life where bureaucrats can't provide substitutes for parental care and education.

What became clear to me in Wellington is that Labour is in real danger of painting itself into minority status. Nearly all of their new MPs lack experience of the private sector. Many have worked only in the rarified atmosphere of Parliament Buildings. Too many are tribunes from the union movement. Several have some truly weird views about how to advance the interests of Labour voters. Their ears are closed to work-place realities such as the benefits to many workers that will emerge from the 90-day trial period for someone new to a small business job. An employer faced with an applicant with a tattoo or two and no track record who, if appointed, could quickly become a burden, usually decides to make no appointment at all. Result? Productivity at the firm stays still, and the number out of work remains the same. If the employer knows that there is a trial period, he/she can take a punt, knowing that a mistake can be rectified. A trial period has been common throughout our history until recent times. When I received my first university posting, all new appointees were on trial. We had to display to our employer that we were worth keeping on. The same will result from John Key's new law. But modern Labour, stacked with trade union functionaries keeps wailing. Take no notice would be my advice; the interests of workers and of trade unions, important as the latter have historically been, have never been identical.

I still have hopes for Phil Goff. He was a loyal colleague and supporter of the reforms of the 1980s that underpinned the well-performing economy that gave Helen Clark's government the money to stay in office for nine years. He possesses a sunny disposition and values the family unit, something not common amongst Labour MPs. But he will get only one election to chase the prime ministership. There is a danger for him that, as with the Fourth Labour Government, a reforming ministry prepared to take tough decisions could be re-elected unless he is very smart. Goff must work out why Labour lost, and carefully angle the fight back. How does Labour intend to reconnect with the party's former hard core? It used to be skilled Pakeha, Maori and Pacific Islanders. In Auckland I know of few skilled Pakeha still supporting Labour. And National made huge inroads into the immigrant vote. They aren't interested in a party that stands for soft options and the "right" not to work, preferring a benefit instead. But I could discern no sign of any re-prioritisation in Goff's Address-in-Reply speech on Tuesday. Instead, he re-fought the election campaign that he'd just lost, and sprayed abuse over the new government that had stolen his ministerial position. "We lost, you won, you toads" seemed to be his message. John Key's observation that Goff was becoming known as "Phil-in" while Labour looks for someone else, seemed painfully appropriate. Maybe Goff will learn? Maybe he'll stop being a kind of garrulous Jim Anderton in the making? Maybe he'll select his issues more carefully than last week when he attacked the government for not swiftly getting New Zealanders out of Thailand when he, as Minister of Defence, had arranged for the two Air Force Boeings to be repaired at the same time, putting them out of commission, but had failed to charter a substitute? Maybe? It's still not too late to save himself, but don't count on either Goff or Labour learning from their mistakes.

Sitting there in a Parliament of such diversity and potential was someone with more experience than anyone else in the chamber. Roger Douglas first entered Parliament almost forty years ago. Holding an array of portfolios in the Kirk-Rowling administration, witnessing both of the oil shocks of the 1970s and the ravages they wrought on this far-away country, then becoming Minister of Finance in the last financial crisis to hit New Zealand, Douglas has accumulated a wealth of experience. He worked out the economic basics like a floating exchange rate, state-owned enterprises and the Reserve Bank Act that are with us today and sold them to the country with the now seriously ill Bevan Burgess who was his speech-writer. Sheer competence made Douglas' office the most powerful in the Beehive.

It would be wise to set aside the hyperbole of silly reporters who paint Douglas as some three-headed monster intent on ruining the country that he's loyally served for decades. Douglas adds substantial experience to the new diversity within the chamber. He's a strategist and a thinker and possesses a huge amount of institutional memory. Parliamentarians of all stripes just might learn something from talking to him. So long, that is, that they don't think that they know everything. That virus, unfortunately, has been caught by many a new parliamentarian over the decades. Sometimes even before the "training wheels", to use John Key's term, are removed.

All in all, this is probably the most talented Parliament for twenty years. Let's hope every one of the new MPs makes the most of the skills within it.