• Where’s the Christmas Spirit?

    When the condemnation by an independent review of “state-sponsored” doping of Russian athletes is reported on Russian television, followed by an assurance from Vladimir Putin’s Minister of Sport that the accusations are groundless and should be ignored, we feel justified in rolling our eyes. “What else do you expect?” we say. Russia may claim to be democracy but we know that Putin has such a hold on Russian opinion that he can get away with murder – and probably does.

    When the Fijian police chief resigns, claiming that he can no longer tolerate interference from the military, but is then immediately replaced by an army colonel, we shrug our shoulders. We know, don’t we, that the army is calling the shots, whatever the claims that democracy has been restored, and that Fijian majority opinion will simply accept what they are told.

    We, of course, live in a proper democracy. We wouldn’t swallow such nonsense. But when our Prime Minister launches an intemperate and unprincipled attack on those who stand up for human rights as “backers of rapists and murderers”, in an attempt to divert attention from his failure to act on abuses committed against New Zealand citizens by the Australian government, what do we do? Nothing. We, or at least many of us, say “well, he’s got a point, hasn’t he?” And “good old John, he tells it like it is.”

    What each of these instances – and there are many more – illustrates is that democracy is about more than form. There are many regimes that parade the trappings of democracy but whose practice actually falls well short of the democratic ideal. The lesson from such instances is that democracy essentially depends on constant scepticism and scrutiny, on not believing everything we are told simply because the person telling us is an authority figure or someone we like or generally support.

    It was Thomas Jefferson who is usually credited with the aphorism that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance”. If that vigilance flags, if we once accept whatever we are told, if we no longer challenge or question, our democracy becomes a mere cipher, and our government can confidently do whatever it likes.

    How real is that threat in New Zealand? No one would argue that our government is undemocratic, in the sense that it consistently ignores or flouts public opinion – indeed, quite the contrary, since there is a strong populist flavour in much of what it does.

    The risk we run is rather different but perhaps just as real. Our Prime Minister is adept at reading the runes and staying closely in touch with public opinion – it is one of his great political strengths. But he has become so accustomed to exploiting that ability, so confident that he will be believed however implausible may be what he says – indeed, he has so often stayed upright while skating on very thin ice – that he can now be forgiven for believing that he can get away with anything.

    On most occasions, he has been able to stay just the right side of credibility and judges correctly how far he can go. But on the Christmas Island issue, his antennae seem to have let him down.

    Even so, he will judge that the furore created by his display of manufactured outrage in parliament has meant that, while the media and others debate the rights and wrongs of what he has said on an issue that has no substance, he does not have to answer the difficult questions. Have these New Zealanders detained on Christmas Island – those with criminal convictions – not served their time? Are they not now being doubly punished? When they are told that they can go “home”, have they not made Australia their home? Are they not being discriminated against because they are not Australian? Are they not being locked up in a prison camp, and denied recourse to protection from the law, and is this not an abuse of human rights? Why does the Prime Minister not raise these questions with his Australian counterpart?

    In a proper democracy, we would demand that these questions should be answered, not just because we need to know the particular answers in this case, but because our leaders should be obliged as a matter of principle to be accountable, by providing truthful and accurate information, for what they do in our name.

    Trusting our leaders to do the right thing, even if the evidence suggests otherwise, is not good enough. In a democracy, we need to keep our eyes – and our minds – open, not closed.

    Bryan Gould

    12 November 2015



  • Is Democracy Too Left-Wing?

    There is never any shortage of advice to political parties who seek to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy that to do so would be to court electoral disaster. Any indication of a wish to move away from the status quo will, they are told, be seen as a dangerous “move to the left”.

    It was Mrs Thatcher who assured voters that “there is no alternative” and we see in New Zealand today the same insistence that the current orthodoxy is the only option. Yet if they accepted the advice they are given, parties who want to offer an alternative set of policies could no longer do so, but would be reduced to gesture politics and smiling sweetly.

    The democratic process would thereby be denied its real purpose and – in the absence of an effective challenge through the ballot box – the grip on power of already dominant interests will be further strengthened.

    It is, after all, only through the democratic process that the powerful can be restrained. All societies inevitably demonstrate that power, left unchallenged, will concentrate increasingly in a few hands. That power will be used to entrench the position of those who hold it, to protect it from challenge and to increase their advantage over their fellow-citizens.

    The whole point of democracy was to enable the political power and democratic legitimacy of an elected government to offset and protect ordinary people against the otherwise overwhelming economic power of those who dominate the so-called “free market”.

    That inevitable tendency towards the ever-increasing concentration of power has been graphically confirmed in an important book recently published but the French economist Thomas Piketty. He analyses data over a period of more than two centuries to show that, with one brief exception, economic power has increasingly passed to a few at the expense of the many.

    The exception is significant. In the two or three decades after the Second World War, power moved back to ordinary people and away from the powerful; this reflected the determination of ordinary people whose efforts had won the war to ensure that there was no return to the “bad old days” that had produced war and Depression.

    They used the power of democratic government to strike a better balance between the rich and powerful on the one hand and ordinary people on the other. If they were told – even by Winston Churchill – that this would mean a dangerous “move to the left”, they paid him no attention.

    Since that time, however, the rich and powerful have found ways to reclaim, and now increase, their advantages, and to restore the normal condition of widening inequality in our society; indeed, Piketty predicts that that process is gathering pace. And there is no message more congenial to the powerful than that this is how it has to be.

    Yet we can do something about it, if we have the courage to use the power that our forefathers who fought for democracy have bequeathed us. The whole point of democracy is that it allows us to challenge existing power structures – and that challenge is not automatically “left-wing”.

    Is the Labour Party’s proposal to use a universal savings scheme as an alternative to ever-rising interest rates left-wing? Or is it just a sensible and better alternative to a failing policy? Is the Greens’ proposal for a carbon tax left-wing? Or will it do the job of reducing climate change more effectively and provide a tax-break for ordinary people into the bargain? Is the refusal to accept that businessmen always know best left-wing or just a re-assertion of the democratic principle?

    We should take heart from the fact that most New Zealanders will affirm, if asked, their continued belief in the values of fairness, compassion, tolerance, concern for others. But those values have become submerged under the tidal wave of “free-market” propaganda; democratic politicians need to find effective ways of bringing them back to the surface and to a central position in our lives.

    Most people do not think about politics in any systematic way; they are perfectly capable of nodding in agreement to contradictory propositions offered from every part of the political spectrum. What determines the way they vote is which of those contradictory values is closest to the tops of their minds on polling day.

    The rich and powerful are expert at using their dominance of the media to raise the salience in the popular mind of values that suit their interests. The task facing politicians who want to resist the further concentration of power is to remind New Zealand voters at every opportunity of the values they continue to hold – values that built this country and that continue to define a healthy and integrated society.

    The advice that this should not be attempted for fear of seeming “left-wing” could hardly be more suited to serve the interests who have everything to gain from protecting the status quo. If our democracy is to prosper, we must remember what it is for – to resist the concentration of power and to ensure that the interests of the great majority are properly taken into account.

    Bryan Gould

    5 June 2014

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 10 June 2014


  • There Is A World Beyond Politics

    Politics is a tough business.  Politicians need a particularly robust temperament if they are to ride the roller-coaster of political fortune for any length of time.  The bouquets, of course, are welcome and enjoyable when they come, but the brickbats – and they can come thick and fast – can hurt.  Politicians, like Shylock, bleed like anyone else.

    Politicians have a curious image in public opinion.  As a class they are usually denigrated and reviled, but as individuals they are usually treated with, I often thought, exaggerated respect.  And the truth is that, despite the strong public perception that they are a class apart, politicians are on the whole a group of perfectly normal people, exhibiting all the weaknesses and virtues that are found in the population at large.

    In a properly functioning democracy, that should not be a surprise.  Politicians are just a representative group of voters.  We get the representatives we deserve.

    So, why do people do it?  It is certainly not – again, contrary to much public opinion – for the money; most politicians, especially those who reach the higher reaches of their profession, could have earned much higher incomes elsewhere.  In the end, they are self-selecting – motivated in most cases by a desire to make a difference that, according to their lights, will make things better.

    These thoughts were prompted by the news that Shane Jones is to leave politics in favour of a top job in an area that he knows well – the fishing industry, and particularly fishing as a means of advancing the interests of indigenous peoples.

    He is not of course the first politician to make such a decision.  Even in recent times, one can think of Simon Power – seen by many as a potential leader of the National Party – who left to take up a career in the private sector; and even more recently, Tony Ryall has announced his intention not to stand again and to seek, at the age of fifty, a new career.

    Such decisions, particularly for senior politicians, will inevitably raise eyebrows, especially in the “chattering classes” where it is an article of faith that politicians are all mad with the ambition to climb the greasy pole, and that every action must have a political explanation.  I know this well, because I recognise a parallel between Shane Jones’ decision and my own departure from British politics and return to New Zealand.

    In 1994, I found myself in a situation with some similarities to the one facing Shane Jones.  I, too, had contested my party’s leadership and had been defeated.  I, too, had begun – partly as a consequence of that defeat – to consider other options, helped in my case by the fact that my wife and I had already formed the intention of coming back to New Zealand in our retirement.

    It began to occur to me that, rather than continue to fight a losing battle in the UK for the policies I believed in, it would make sense to come back to New Zealand while I was still able to make a contribution in a different field.  So, when I was shoulder-tapped about coming back to lead Waikato University, I decided – as much to my surprise as anyone else’s – to accept.

    My political colleagues were aghast, not so much at the prospect of losing me, I fear, but more because of what my decision showed about the view I took of what they regarded as the only thing worth doing.  But some of the British commentators showed some understanding of my decision, and expressed the opinion that politics itself would be healthier if some of its practitioners recognised that there is a world beyond politics.

    The decision taken by Shane Jones will be analysed and mined exhaustively by the commentators for its political significance.  Has he lost faith in the Labour Party or its leadership?   HHHHHas he been bought off by John Key?  Why is he going just before a general election?

    My advice, though, is that we should look at Shane Jones, not so much as a politician but as an ordinary human being.  On any reasonable basis, he has given the Labour Party excellent service, and politics a good shot.  He has had nine years in parliament, been a respected voice and effective shadow minister, and made a creditable challenge for the party leadership.

    He has had his share of the brickbats in politics, and it is unlikely that he would succeed in another shot at the party leadership.  He has a good experience and understanding of what is required to succeed in other fields and there is another such field that is close to his heart.  When an opportunity has presented itself – even if engineered by scheming political opponents – why should he not, after years of party and public service, put his own interests first for a change?   Isn’t that what most of us would do, and don’t we want our politicians to be more like us?

    Bryan Gould

    23 April 2014





  • The Voters’ Anger

    The disenchantment of British voters with democracy, we are told, is to be explained by the anger they feel at the failings of politicians. Those failings, it is supposed, are to do with the perception that politicians are “on the make”; but that conclusion – while no doubt partly justified – is surely far from the whole truth.

    The Guardian/ICM poll finding that 50% of respondents chose “anger” as their principal sentiment when thinking of politicians may well conceal a deeper malaise. The scale and depth of public disaffection is, I believe, to be explained by something much more fundamental than the sadly all-too-common instances of politicians breaking the rules governing their “perks” and allowances.

    What is in play instead is a growing realisation that the political class – which extends far beyond the ranks of elected MPs to include the whole of what used to be called the establishment – has failed a country that is now in a state of unmistakable national decline. Those responsible for what passes for serious debate about the state of the nation – and that includes business leaders, the media, civil servants, leading academics and experts, as well as politicians – have contributed to a process that has not only meant manifestly hard times for many of our citizens but also offers little hope of a better future.

    Despite constant assurances that better times are just around the corner, the UK has over the last four or five years suffered the sharpest fall in living standards in over a century. Those who have borne the main brunt of that precipitate decline have been the weakest in our society, for whom the safety net is regressively being withdrawn. Economic decline and social disintegration are now seared deeply into the national consciousness.

    None of the major contenders for government seems to offer anything but further retrenchment. The voters look in vain for an alternative to the current orthodoxy. Labour continues to suffer the burden of the New Labour legacy. The Tories commit themselves to self-harming austerity and promise to make life tougher for the already disadvantaged. The Liberals look for ways of distancing themselves from Tory failure without giving up the fruits of office. Even those voters tempted by UKIP recognise that they offer a counsel of despair rather than redemption.

    Little wonder that voters feel a sense of frustration and anger. They understand that the democratic process has not protected them from national failure and decline and that – although the formal power of decision is exercised by government – the shots are really called by global business interests whose dominance over what actually happens has, if anything, increased as the failure of the policies they enjoin has become more evident.

    What the voters expect from those who govern them is what they expect from any other group of supposed professionals – simple competence. What they see instead is a bunch of amateurs with little understanding of the economy they are supposed to manage and therefore totally at the mercy of political prejudice and vested interests.

    The cure for voter disaffection with democracy is simple. Politicians have to convince the electorate that they are able to abandon a failed orthodoxy that continues to smother new thinking, in favour of a fresh and more positive economic policy – and then deliver on that promise.

    What should be the elements of that new policy? It should focus on real issues and not on imagined problems. It should take as its starting point the need for a sustainable rate of growth which current policy is incapable of delivering.

    It should recognise that decades of comparative failure have left us with a profoundly uncompetitive economy and a manufacturing industry that is on its last legs. We cannot rebuild our productive base for as long as we cannot compete in international markets.

    The loss of competitiveness means that we cannot and dare not grow for fear of ballooning trade deficits and rising inflation. It means that the government’s debt – even while public spending is being cut – will continue to grow faster than the economy as a whole. And while growth languishes, unemployment continues to cost us lost output, acts as a brake on recovery, and undermines our social structure.

    We need to face facts and to engineer an exchange rate that allows us to make a fresh start by immediately improving competitiveness. We need a new approach to monetary policy, treating it not primarily as a means of restraining inflation but as an essential facilitator of increased investment in productive capacity. We need an agreed industrial strategy and new investment institutions to ensure that an increased money supply goes into productive investment rather than into consumption or bank bonuses.

    Above all, we need to restore full employment as the central goal of policy. An economy that offered productive work to everyone able to work, that provided ample finance for those ready to invest in new and competitive businesses, that found ready markets around the world for all it could produce, would not only restore faith in the value of government and democracy; the Labour Party should note that putting such proposals forward might get them elected as well.

    Bryan Gould

    29 December 2013

    This article was published in the London Progressive Journal on 31 December and in Comment Is Free in The Guardian on 6 January.

  • Game On

    In a properly functioning parliamentary democracy, voters can do much more than cast a vote from time to time. They should be able to hold their government to account and, if they decide they don’t like it, they can replace it with another – in effect, a government in waiting.

    If the system works well, that government in waiting will have been identified in advance, and the voters will have had the chance to compare what it offers in prospect with what has been delivered by its predecessor.

    It doesn’t always work like this, of course. In some systems, the voters find it difficult to get rid of the government, let alone identify a credible successor. In post-war Italy, for example, repeated elections were held but voters could never get rid of the Christian Democrats, not because they were so popular but because the opposition parties were so fragmented.

    It was often said – with some justice – that this was a particular weakness of proportional representation systems. But it has been the particular genius of New Zealand voters that we have managed to secure through MMP the advantages of a more representative parliament without losing the essential choice between right-of-centre and left-of-centre governments.

    There is a further advantage of a system which produces credible competing contenders for office. The effect of that competition is usually to compel the contenders to vie for the support of centre or uncommitted opinion. It is, in other words, a force for moderation in our politics.

    That, at least, is how it should operate. But, in the US at present, we see the opposite – an instance of one of the two major parties being taken over by an extreme minority and abandoning the battle for moderate opinion; the Republicans under pressure from the Tea Party element seem prepared to jeopardise the US economy and international credibility in order to express their hostility to a health-care regime that has been endorsed by the voters and championed by President Obama but is reviled by extremists as “socialist”.

    In New Zealand, however, we have no such concerns. Despite the occasional (and somewhat ridiculous) charge that the opposition to the present government has moved to the “far left”, we have succeeded in maintaining the battle for the centre as an essential element of that quintessential democratic power to vote one government out and move another one in.

    Yet those aspects of our democracy cannot be taken for granted. If our system is to produce its full benefits, it depends on there being a credible alternative to the party in power. An effective democracy depends, in other words, almost as much on the opposition coming up to scratch as it does on the governing party.

    With Labour and its potential allies languishing in the polls, there had been something of a phoney war about the political battle. The government could afford to take a fairly cavalier attitude towards other views and to public opinion in general. The Prime Minister and his government were able to convince themselves that the absence of a credible alternative meant that the next election was in the bag.

    That is why, while supporters of the present government may take a little convincing, the emergence of a credible Labour-led opposition – and, by definition, a credible government in waiting – is something to be celebrated by all democrats.

    Many commentators, whatever their political persuasion, have recognised the sea-change that has occurred over the last month or so. The revival in Labour’s fortunes means that the next election is no longer a foregone conclusion.

    We now have a real choice. It is no longer enough for John Key to smile sweetly while coasting and ignoring public opinion. Politics is no longer exclusively about photo ops, phone-ins on talkback radio, and media management. We now have a real clash of ideas.

    With Labour not only proving itself to be an effective opposition, but also offering an alternative agenda for the future of the country, there is now an opportunity for voters to think about real politics – and that is how it should be.

    The result is likely to be better and more responsive government in the run-up to the election. Ministers will need to think harder about the rationale for their policies and about the interests of those who may be disadvantaged by them. They will have to get used to taking into account not just the views of their own committed supporters but of a wider spectrum of opinion as well.

    The voters will have to work harder too. They will be challenged to go beyond the superficial and to make a proper evaluation of competing views as to where the country’s interests lie. Should the government’s belief that advancing business interests produces the best outcomes for the rest of us be supported, or should we pay more attention to the interests of ordinary people?

    So, hold on to your hats. The next twelve months will be fascinating. The phoney war is over. It’s now game on.

    Bryan Gould

    6 October 2013

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 11 October.