Principles? Seriously? New Zealanders, as a people, are not much given to following theories of any kind. If we subscribe to any philosophy at all it is the philosophy of pragmatism. If a problem can be fixed by using the political equivalent of No. 8 Wire, then “no worries, mate”.
JUST HOURS BEFORE HE RESIGNED, the Prime Minister told RNZ’s Kim Hill that “you can’t right the wrongs of the past”. He was responding to questions about the acknowledged ill-treatment of children in state care during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and whether his government was prepared to sanction an independent inquiry into multiple allegations of systemic child abuse.
It struck me as an extremely odd thing to say. Not least because righting the wrongs of the past is a cause into which this National Government has poured (and continues to pour) hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.
True, the wrongs being righted with government money are not those inflicted upon acutely vulnerable children in the care of state institutions – like the Epuni Boys Home. No. The Crown’s cash is being doled out to compensate Maori iwi and hapu for wrongs inflicted by its representatives as far back as the 1850s, 60s and 70s.
What’s more, for the wrongs inflicted upon nineteenth century Maori by the colonial authorities, the present government of New Zealand (usually in the person of the Minister for Treaty Settlements, Chris Finlayson QC) has issued multiple apologies. But, issuing a public apology to the hundreds of young people (a great many of them Maori) who were, according to the testimony of their victims, beaten, tortured and raped by public servants acting in loco parentis: that, apparently, is impossible.
That John Key failed to recognise the extraordinary inconsistency embedded in his response to Kim Hill’s questions speaks volumes about the way he and his government have played the game of politics.
Mr Key and his ministers do not come at the nation’s problems with solutions informed by a common philosophical understanding of the world. If they did, then the need to inquire into the alleged injustices suffered by state wards would be as pressing as the need to inquire into the alleged injustices suffered by Maori iwi and hapu. And if those injustices were proved, then the need for proper compensation, and a public expression of culpability and regret, would be just as apparent.
Lacking a common philosophy, National’s ministers are forced to respond to economic and social problems in an ad hoc, piecemeal fashion. They do not appear to recognise that much of the advice they receive is underpinned by philosophical and ideological assumptions with which their party has little affinity. Assumptions flatly contradicted by the arguments ministers use to convince and/or placate the public.
Public Choice Theory, for example, seeks to limit the power of state providers to “capture” the processes by which services are delivered to the public. Those who subscribe to the theory are, consequently, searching constantly for ways to disrupt and “downsize” bureaucratic systems. Government ministers, on the other hand, have often attempted to “sell” such measures as the only way of shifting scarce resources to the people on “the front lines” of service delivery.
It would be wrong, however, to suggest that philosophical inconsistency is a failing which constantly occupies the mind of the ordinary Kiwi voter. New Zealanders, as a people, are not much given to following theories of any kind. If we subscribe to any philosophy at all it is the philosophy of pragmatism. If a problem can be fixed by using the political equivalent of No. 8 Wire, then “no worries, mate”.
The problem with this “pragmatic” approach to politics is that, eventually, one’s society finds itself held together by nothing but No. 8 Wire temporary fixes. When every remedy is ad hoc, and every argument is cobbled together to meet the needs of the moment, then the inconsistencies of approach and internal policy contradictions reach a level that even the most “practical” of voters is no longer able to overlook.
It is to be hoped that Bill English brings to the office of prime minister a more consistent and coherent political philosophy than his predecessor. No. 8 Wire cannot fix everything.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 9 December 2016.