Not Interested! In sharp contrast to the New Zealanders of 25 years ago, the New Zealanders of 2011 feel themselves to be the objects of mediated political discourse - rather than its subjects. In other words, while political news is aimed at us, it's no longer about us.
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO just under half of the news items on the six o’clock news were devoted to politics. Today, less than a quarter qualify as political coverage.
If you ask news editors and producers why the number of political stories is so low, they will tell you it’s because viewer tolerance for politics is equally low. Run too many political stories and the audience will simply “vote with their remote”, the network’s ratings will fall, and journalists’ jobs will be on the line.
I do not doubt the truth of this explanation. What does perplex me, however, is what happened to us – the viewers? When did we decide that politics had become so vexing, boring and/or irrelevant that we no longer needed, or wanted, anything more than the barest of summaries included in our daily news-fix?
The biggest clue lies in the chronology. What happened a quarter-of-a-century ago that might explain the dramatic decline in the public’s interest and engagement in politics?
The answer, of course, is “Rogernomics”.
At the heart of the neoliberal revolution that Roger Douglas and the Fourth Labour Government ushered in was a profound hostility towards, and impatience with, New Zealand’s highly participatory political tradition.
In his celebrated essay, The Labour Caucus and Economic Policy Formation 1981-1984, the political sociologist, W. Hugh Oliver, writes: “According to Douglas, governments behave irresponsibly when they allow economic policy to be influenced by the demands of the people for better and more secure standards of living and social provision. It follows that the formulation and implementation of economic policy should be the concern of a small elite, standing apart from, and immune to, social and electoral pressures.”
And, even in the mid-1980s, those social and electoral pressures could be formidable. New Zealanders’ participation in political parties was the highest in the world. Under the presidency of Sir George Chapman, the National Party’s membership topped out at roughly quarter-of-a-million. Labour’s membership, under Jim Anderton, numbered 85,000 (not counting the party’s affiliated trade unionists).
Public participation in the political process was by no means restricted to membership of a political party. Writing about the New Zealand of the early 1970s, the British political scientist, Austin Mitchell, noted that: “One of the great Kiwi skills is organising bureaucracies. Give them a problem and they’ll set up a committee, or an organisation.”
In addition to organisations such as CARP (Campaign Against Rising Prices) and HART (Halt All Racist Tours) the institution of compulsory unionism meant that in every major city there existed what amounted to a miniature workers’ parliament – the “Trades Council” – which felt free to, and did, make its views known on everything from the level of public expenditure to nuclear disarmament.
This was the vibrant political culture that “Rogernomics”, along with its partner in crime, “Ruthanasia”, laid waste in the years between 1984 and 1993.
A precipitate decline in party membership showed that most New Zealanders’ had quite quickly figured-out that, in the eyes of politicians, business leaders and Treasury officials, they’d become unwanted baggage. Between 1984 and 1990, for example, Labour’s membership plummeted from 85,000 to less than 10,000.
What chance did Austin Mitchell’s “committees and organisations” have against the unbridled power of the “free market”? Little by little, active citizens morphed into passive consumers: inhabitants of a world in which those with the most dollars cast the most votes. Today, the most potent political messages aren’t found in network news-bulletins, but in the advertisements that fund them.
“Politics” has become a sort of professional sport, and is reported in much the same way. Experts comment on the strength of the respective captains and their teams. We are granted “sneak peeks” at the protagonists’ strategic and tactical game-plans. The polls tell us who’s ahead and who’s behind.
When the gap narrows, we pay a little more attention. When it widens, who – apart from an oligarchical political class – really cares?
After 25 years, we get it: politics isn’t about us anymore.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 2 September 2011.