A Spectral Green: John Key (with apologies to Sir Arthur Conon Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles) has labelled the Labour-Green alternative government a "Devil Beast" of the "Far-Left". But the names our politicians attach to their opponents very seldom correspond to their actual position on the ideological spectrum.
A CHOICE BETWEEN the Centre-Right and the Far-Left. That’s how the Prime Minister and his National Party colleagues intend to frame next year’s General Election. It’s a shrewd strategy. Most Kiwis feel considerably more comfortable with “centre” than they do with “far”.
Nobody wants to be far away when they could be at the very centre of things. And who doesn’t enjoy being the centre of attention? Indeed, the discovery that we’re not in this happy position leaves most of us feeling very far from happy.
By attaching the word ‘centre’ to the word ‘right’ National is also adding a crucial political modifier. Very few New Zealanders will own to being unequivocally “Right” or “Left”. It smacks too much of the sort of ideological inflexibility they associate with places where peace tends to be as short-supplied as freedom.
“Right-wingers” and “left-wingers”, alike, are deemed to lack the easy-going temperament and the pragmatic approach to problem-solving that we Kiwis (and, apparently, the rest of the world) find so appealing. ‘Laconic’ has always suited us better than ‘histrionic’. If asked to choose a path between two extremes, most of us generally head for the middle of the road.
And then, of course, there’s History.
Invoke the Right and people immediately think of Adolf Hitler receiving the “Sieg Heil!” salute, as rank after rank of jack-booted Brownshirts goose-step their way towards the Holocaust under a forest of swastika banners. Mention the Left, and the mental image is of Joe Stalin smiling wolfishly from Lenin’s Tomb as a May Day parade of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles rumbles by and the Red Army Choir belts out the “Internationale”.
But how dramatically the picture changes when “right” and “left” are prefixed with “centre”.
Ask Kiwi baby-boomers to think of a “Centre-Right” politician and they’ll probably recall the ridiculously pompous – but essentially harmless – Sir Keith Holyoake. Ask a member of Generation-X, and five’ll getcha ten they think of John Key escorting Aroha to Waitangi, or swigging Steinlager from the bottle in the garden of Premier House.
Say “Centre Left” to the Boomers and they’ll recall David Lange informing a startled young American at the Oxford Union that he could “smell the uranium” on his breath. Gen-Xers will (hopefully) remember Helen Clark refusing to join George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
It’s wonderful political shorthand – but is it the truth? Apart from conjuring-up both positive and negative political images and memories, does the Prime Minister’s use of the terms “Centre-Right” and “Far-Left” truly correspond to the Government’s and the Opposition’s objective location on the ideological spectrum?
The answer must be an emphatic “No!” National and Labour both subscribe to the same basic tenets of neoliberal economic theory that have dominated the policy-making of the OECD countries for the past thirty years. The Greens, too, recognise the marketplace as the most effective means of allocating scarce resources. Their “Green Capitalism” might be “cleaner”, and turn out a more environmentally friendly range of products than the Smoke-Stack Capitalism of the past, but the social relations underpinning that production are just as dirty.
Mr Key lambasts the Green Party co-leader, Russel Norman’s, enthusiasm for “Quantitative Easing” – citing it as proof of his “Far-Left” lunacy. But this charge merely reveals the Prime Minister to be either economically ignorant or deeply cynical.
Quantitative Easing is the official policy not of North Korea, Cuba or Venezuela, but of the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan. Mr Norman’s ideas about lowering the value of the currency by expanding the money supply are proof not of his revolutionary fervour – but of his economic orthodoxy.
Mr Key would be better advised to stick with his “Devil Beast” description of the Opposition parties. Using the term “Far Left” to characterise a Labour-Green coalition is intended to elicit exactly the same emotional response as likening it to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, but comes at much greater cost to the Prime Minister’s credibility.
The truly ironic aspect of this name game is that the New Zealand electorate is almost certainly well to the left of its political leaders and their parties. A visiting French journalist once described New Zealanders as “socialists without doctrines”. Talk to most Kiwis about the sort of country they’d like to live in and you’ll find that most of us still are.
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, 31 May 2013.