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Thursday, 17 August 2017

Politics is not just about policy

I read on Harry Walsh’s recent article on Stuff decrying the fact that politics in Godzone are driven by personality and not policy and was not impressed with his argument or examples and thus was this post born.

But before we delve deeper into that particular issue let’s find out what exactly “politics” is made of.

Politics, as you or I know it, in a functional democracy*, consists of three board categories that make up the various politics parties which do the “politics” stuff.

Those three areas fall under the three P’s which we will label Policy, Personality and Principles and are a holy trinity of sorts in politics in much the same way that Rationality, Chance and Emotion make up the Clausewitzian holy trinity when analyzing war.

These three aspects of politics are all separate but also connected; all are important but depending on the circumstances one can be more important than the others; and the quality and quantity of each aspect varies from political party to political party.

In a democratic system there should be a healthy interplay between the three P’s but not an absolute balance as the various flavours of democracy combined with history and culture will always create mixes unique to whatever polity where democracy has taken root.

So what are the values of the three P’s? How do they interact and why do we need all three and not just one or two of them?


First up, the biggest and broadest of the P’s; Principles.

Principles in this context relate to both a political party and its members and could be understood as the core ideas or values which are the foundations that a political party is built on.

In NZ the core principles for each of the main political parties can be summed up in a range of single words but when viewed through a political lens to give each party its colour and flavour.

National was formally the party of the farmer (thus its conservative nature) but has now moved to the party of business, bosses and “fiscal responsibility”*** while Labour was the party of the worker but has morphed over time to loose conglomeration of liberal social values as best represented by the middle class; The Greens used to be about the environment but have recently started to emphasise issues of social justice; NZ First is nationalistic but with populist elements (Winston); ACT is a party which masquerades as libertarian but is in reality a vehicle for wealthy individuals and their concerns (tax cuts and deregulation); while The Maori party is technically race based but has become captured by tribal elites.

Voters, when deciding which party they identify with, often choose a party whose principles most align with their own; hence why ACT polls well in wealthy Epsom but might not do so well in less wealthy Otara or why NZ unions have a stake in Labour but not National

Principles can, and do, morph over time but as they do so do the various people and groups that associate with them and this is why it’s important to truly know what values and ideas lie behind a party and not just what is written in its constitution document.

A recent example of this is the Greens rejecting two of their four founding principles in their charter (the ones explicitly saying “unlimited material growth is unsustainable”) so they could sign the Budget Responsibility Rules document with Labour. This shows the Greens rejecting one set of principles to move to another and they will probably have to change their name soon or revise their charter given this shift.

Without principles political parties would struggle to differentiate themselves without appealing to either just personality or utilitarian policy and would certainly not be democratic in nature (being that the idea of democracy should sit above all other principles a party has).

Principles also drive policy and not the other way around. Principles are the place from which all policy springs in a democracy; values such as justice, equality and the rule of law are the basis of all democracies and without them nations could never achieve anything more than the illusion of democracy.


Next there is the politics at the coal face of reality; Policy.

Policy is what governments spend much of their time creating and enacting and, as noted above, the governing principles of any particular democratic government shape the policy it decides to pursue.

Policy does not grow in isolation and Principle is the seed from which almost all policy springs. Policy is the final step in enacting the “peoples will” as directed via the “people’s representatives” which starts with principles.

Any political party that subjugates itself to policy over principle is not democratic, as such a policy would not be enacted “for the people” but for the policy maker (sometimes known as a technocrat) or at best for what the policy maker thinks the “public” wants.

Policy also comes in the form of “Big P” policy which are the core policies of any particular party that form its manifesto or charter and “small P” policy which is the day to day policy making of government (ie that of select committee) which few in the public care about until it affects them directly or becomes “big P” policy.

It is true that Policy can stir debate within the body politic (look at the 1080 Party) but only the most contentious and divisive policies can do that and since democratic politics under MMP requires a high degree of co-operation and compromise, few policies will remain contentious for long if they have a negative impact on the greater populace.


Finally there is the wild card of politics; Personality.

Personality is the link between the blue sky ideals of Principles and the day to day reality of Policy. It’s the political representatives of the political parties themselves and they are the public face of any political party, it Principles and its Policy.

Of course not all politicians have personality, some are dull as dishwater or seat warming deadwoods who do nothing but toe the party line and collect their pay, saying nothing and doing little during their tenure in parliament.

But even the most boring MP on earth is still the link between the voter and the government: between the principle that they are voting for and seeing those principles brought to life as policy.

But when you do get a politician with Personality, watch out! Charismatic politicians are few and far between and when one with the gift of the gab or the common touch gets going they can be powerful arbiters of a party views and beliefs.

As much as I loathed John Key, and all he stood for, it was always clear that he had a genuine connection with voters (something that Bill English and the rest of the National party does not have) and was a real person. It also helped that he could speak well and sounded like he was doing it all off the cuff rather than via some prepared speech.

His popularity was genuinely reflected in both his own high polling and the popularity of his party and they lasted for the duration of his time as PM, not just as a blip on a poll chart.

But there is one time where Personality is a perquisite for participation in politics and that is when it comes to who is going to lead a political party.

John Key might have had “it” but Andrew Little did not. Little was clearly an intelligent man who believed in the values of Labour but he had no real personality and as such all that he said and did was tainted with his lack of character which is fine for some party backbencher who does not have to front 24/7 but it’s the wrong stuff for what is essentially the party spokesperson.

And if we can get Machiavellian for just a moment it’s not that John Key was an actual authentic person but that he was able to project an authentic persona and as such resonated with voters as being “genuine” which, in politics, media or acting, is just as good as being genuine.

Of course Personality does have its dark side in that of ego and dictatorial behaviours (think Robert Muldoon in his final years as PM). And while it’s natural among individuals in a dictatorship or an Oligarchy, even in democracy it can raise its ugly head in the form of leaders who channel their personal popularity for little more than personal gain; and in NZ politics nobody is clearer example of this than Winston Peters.

Winston is clearly a charismatic individual which is why he was the rock star of the political establishment in the late 80s and early 90s.

Unfortunately along the way Winston switched from being genuinely popular to simply doing what all aging rock stars do, which is playing the “hits” over and over again and no longer being a genuine personality but getting by on the nostalgic cliché of what his personality once was. The Winston peters we see today is a shadow of what he was in his prime in the 90s.

And this is why personality is important; personality can drive politics in a way that Policy and Principle can rarely do, and in a media age, such things have a force multiplying effect on politics as a popular politician can get elected in a democracy, sell an unpopular policy and put out (or at least damp down) the fires of dissent or scandal where an unpopular Politician can do none of those things and will probably just make things worse (think the recent performances of Bill English and Andrew Little vs John Key and Jacinda Ardern).

So is personality dominating policy in NZ politics?

So now that we know what the three P’s are what about Mr Walsh’s idea that politics in NZ is dominated by personality? Is this true and even if it is true is it the issue he makes it out to be?

The quick answer is that personality is not dominating policy but that policy and personality react differently with the public in NZ.

Usually Kiwis as a whole do not want to talk about Policy in any shape or form, policy debates are rarely a staple of NZ politics when compared to the depth and focus the average Kiwi will bring to sports, Shortland Street or the property market.

For example the crisis of the Housing Hernia has rarely been discussed in NZ at the level of Policy but rather of bubbles, foreign speculators, real-estate agents, land banking or the spectre of homeless Kiwi families with nary a look at what policy (or policies) helped create (or perpetuate) such a state of affairs until the situation was well out of hand.

This is, in part, because there is no one policy that created the housing hernia but also because the Kiwi attitude towards government is that of a parent towards a paid baby sitter as they head out for a night on the town.

We elect our representatives to do a job and we usually don’t want to know all the silly details as long as the baby is asleep by the time we get home. This is why NZ politics often sees three-term governments in power as its only by the third term that the populace gets home (or wakes up) and decides that the current sitter is giving the child too much sugar and letting them stay up way too late.

Policy in NZ remains an esoteric place that few ever really visit and often it is on the smaller blogs or buried in a news article somewhere where any real policy discussion is had.

Then there is the fact that in a time of uncertainty and populist politics it’s only natural that Personality (be it John Key or Jacinda Ardern) take centre stage at election time because these are the faces that will get people out to vote a lot more than any particular piece of policy will.

So when I read an article by Harry Walsh moaning about why personality is king and lamenting for some mythical time when NZ talked only about policy I see just a hint of sour grapes and a political nostalgia for a time that has probably never existed.

I also take issue with his claim that if Policy is not brought to the fore then we “dilute our individual power to influence government” which sounds very noble but makes no sense as what influence Kiwis do wield over their government is almost always collective and enacted through the political parties (and their principles) they elect and not by individual protest or petition***.

And if I was to be really critical I would say that Harry Walsh is just a bit miffed by the recent rise of Jacinda Ardern and is expressing that via his article on Stuff because after eighteen years of John Key and Helen Clark (both highly popular leaders) it seems a bit late now to bemoan why NZ has a preference for a Personality over Policy when the last 30 years of NZ politics has been governments often ignoring genuine policy issues (and any related petitions, protests or referendums) and often being ruled by strong and publicly popular PMs.

Perhaps when the boiling waters of populism and middle ground politics recede we may see policy coming to the fore or taking a greater place in the debate but at this time with politics in NZ in flux it’s unlikely that the day to day running of a nation (policy) is going to take precedent over the much more important argument about what principles do we want our society run by.

Right now what is driving much of the populism around the world is the long coming reaction to 30 years of free market politics and deregulation under Neo-Liberalism and the debate about whether those principles are best for our democracy trumps any desire to see the “trains run on time”.

Unfortunately populism also provides for any individual, with an ounce of charisma, a boost to their own position, and that of their party, if they manage to tap into that revolutionary mood so there is a natural synergy between a political firebrand and a mood in the public for change.

So let’s forget about Policy not being the big thing because at this time as it’s just shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic while the real discussion should be about how to fix the damage, get safely off the boat and how we hit the damn iceberg in the first place.

*-And for the time being let’s assume that we do live in a functional democracy
**-At least as they would define it
***- Unless your “petition” is a $20,000 donation to the party of your choice 

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