Friday 2 September 2011

No Politics Please - We're Consumers

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.


Anonymous said...

Dead right - we're now stock units :-)

Anonymous said...

IMHO you still appear unwilling to get to the heart of the matter, Chris. All this argument does is set up the question of why Rogernomics (and its foreign equivalents) triumphed at the time they did.

And the simplest answer is that in the end people voted for it, and they have continued to vote for versions of it ever since. Indeed, no party is electable if they do not support some version of it.

Attempts to explain this usually end up in some form of conspiracy theory, when the truth is that the majority of voters are ignorant fascists (I've been grading their university papers for a very long time, and the majority of submissions bear this out – if anything, they are becoming more ignorant and more authoritarian).

Why not blame the electorate? It's the honest thing to do. The average New Zealander is a selfish bonehead.

Anonymous said...

1.They didn't say they were going to DO it pre election - not specifically, because if they had I wouldn't have voted for them.
2. They rather rushed it all through the democratic process because they knew there'd be trouble if the implications were debated properly.

Anonymous said...

Big puff piece in the Herald yesterday on Key and his steel of spine.
Hmmm, no way! Pragmatist, and scared to upset the horses, more like.
Why is the Herald publishing such biased drivel, I wonder?

Anonymous said...

It's not 'Rogernomics' or any other political claptrap term, it's the inherent dishonesty of the whole dis-connected gravy train.

This may be running very deep now in society if im not mistaken.

In this respect, the Green Agenda will come back to haunt the guiders of destiny and will end up scapegoated on a un-precendented scale ( which it had bought on to itself) when the salvaging job grasps the extent of the emergent social consciousness shift it has mis-managed & attempts to self-correct what is no longer there. This might be wrong, or if im not mistaken it might already be too late.

Brendan McNeill said...


You pose a fascinating question, and Anonymous 2011 1:17 PM is 100% correct in their response. We have what we voted for. In fact Douglas and Co. won a second term based on popular support, as I recall.

I do find it fascinating however that Anonymous who appears to be a University academic, considers the next generation of University students / graduates to be 'ignorant fascists' or more generally 'selfish boneheads'. I suspect this says more about their leftish ideology than it does about their students politics.

This should encourage those readers of this blog who consider our institutions to be overrun by right wing ideologues. :-)

In business, you learn to under promise and over deliver. This is how you generate satisfied customers and repeat business.

In politics, we have now a long history of politicians over promising and under delivering.

As a result, we have become disillusioned with politicians and the process.

To make matters worse we have discovered that they abuse the system, claim entitlements they are not due, watch porn at tax payers expense, and behave in ways that most of us would consider inappropriate even if they were paying for it themselves.

America got there first, with only half of their electorate bothering to vote. They realize now that it makes little difference to their lives who wins elections.

I'm not a National voter, but in many ways John Key has done more to restore faith in politicians and the political process than any MP in recent memory.

I suspect in part, it is because he has no reliance upon 'the system' for his financial well-being, and in addition, although not a person of faith, appears to have a strong moral compass which New Zealanders have appreciated.

This bodes well for New Zealand, and the restoration of integrity to the political process.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if the Labour Party decided it needed candidates and leaders that could 'out integrity' John Key.

Now there's a thought.

Olwyn said...

There is something in a statement made by Julian Assange last year in a Guardian interview: "The west has fiscalised its basic power relationships through a web of contracts, loans, shareholdings, bank holdings and so on. In such an environment it is easy for speech to be "free" because a change in political will rarely leads to any change in these basic instruments."

Yes, it is easy for speech to be free under such circumstances, but if speech makes little or no difference then it is understandable that people might cease to engage.

peterpeasant said...

Brendan, your post reveals you as a not very good National Party propagandist.



Anonymous said...

Introducing the all-new SHORTER BRENDAN service for busy readers and low-boredom-threshold sufferers:

SB#1: Jesus was happy to let poor people starve; John Key has integrity because he is rich; I don't vote National.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post Chris, but there is more to it than simply Rogernomics. Your argument on that is true though - disillusioned voters dropped out of political parties when they felt they were not being listened to (instead of fighting to change those unaccountable parties); that left the parties even more subject to capture by the Rogergnomes.

But other factors play a part:
* social liberalism - when voters are focused on themselves instead of society, then Thatcher's claim is made real. This is akin to the old unionist claim - 'the workers have it too good for their own good'.

* economic impact of Rogernomics - when voters are struggling for jobs and to survive financially, they pay less attention to politics.

* immigration - since this was liberalised in 1987, we have had vast population growth from migration (c. 50% growth in population in the last 30 years; highest in the OECD). This vast new voter base is first interested in establishing themselves in jobs, homes, etc - it is normally the children of migrants who first show interest in their new nation's politics. So this is a huge chunk of the population uninterested in politics.

Not a good recipe all round.
Mad Marxist.

Jack Scrivano said...

Chris, could the fact that electronic news gathering (ENG) equipment began to be widely used by NZ TV news teams about 25 years ago also have played a part in the changing nature of the six o’clock news?

Prior to ENG, there was, of necessity, a good deal more emphasis on ‘set piece’ and in-studio stories. Both were well suited to political debate and analysis. ENG gave editors, producers, and directors rather more options.

Perhaps audiences have (secretly) always preferred stories about cute cats.

Anonymous said...

No doubt the consent was efficiently managed by the media, who are continuing their job of putting out unconscious propaganda for the right wing who own and operate them. The article only shows how effective propaganda is. Also the media continue the mantra that the left offered a more right wing choice than the right and that "there is now no difference"...true, but only to a the point that the media has engendered and coddled this impression so that the whole political system reflects this new realty.

Michael said...

All we want politicians to do these days is keep the books. And since eft and right found an adversarial consensus around shades of neoliberalism, most New Zealanders have accepted that is the way. We don't want politicians meddling with our culture and beliefs (although the national religion anyway is mainly just having enough money and enjoying it). When the last Labour government showed signs of higher ideological motivations we booted them out. In that the electorate was motivated. National, having no higher ideology, is unlikely to make the same mistake. But there is a challenge: the economic costs of social and environmental woes are becoming apparent around the world, and National is ill equipped to deal with them. And politicians who major in those areas are learning to dress their policy in language we understand and vote for: dollars and security. Roger Douglas was right about one thing (there, I've said it!!) - politicians pander too much to the electorate. Unfortunately, having ceased pandering, he may have done more damage in its place. Again, not a mistake John of the Mainstream is likely to make. But if the times do call for drastic action, I dread to think what National's 'drastic' would be like.

peterpeasant said...

The media always have the problem of filling up the boring non revenue spaces between the lucrative advertisements and and attracting enough eyes and ears to notice the advertisements.

25 years ago this was not the only credo that governed TV.

Ruth and Roger soon put paid to that.

Curious that from time to time the Ruth and Roger followers complain about lack of public discussion about their brilliant ideas.


Andy C said...

IMHO other aspects that did in political discourse..
The live cross to some herbert standing in a corridor.
Policy announcements not being made to the house.
Political commentators interviewing themselves.
When was the last time, other than the budget, was a speech carried on 1 or 3 or even give decent column inches.
For that matter when was the last speech to a full house.
I swear that I see more of Lockwood Smith in the house than the MP's. Not that he does a bad job but the cameras all flick to him when it gets a bit rowdy.
The incessant yelling from the opposition benches. Just makes them look childish as they sit there with some smug grin on their faces having drowned out some Minister.

Its awful. There are just too many things.

Marty said...

I reckon that distrust/hatred of politicians in the early-mid 90s was also a major factor in the country deciding to go MMP. By the time the vote came, many people had had a gutsful of lying politicans. Both Labour and National were roundly hated and because most of the Labour and National candidates (at that time) generally supported the status quo (FPP)people took their revenge by voting Alliance, NZ First, or better still for MMP.

KjT said...

When you look at societies where people have a say in the policies enacted by Governments, there is still great interest in politics. Switzerland and Norway, for example.

New Zealanders have tuned out because we know we no longer have any say in how our country is run. National and Labour, in the memory of most people under 40, have only offered similar versions of Neo-Liberalism.