Whose Tune? The state of New Zealand politics in 2014 is a reflection of the decades-long discordant clash of the two great manifestations of humanity's will to be free: freedom from and freedom to. (The painting, Divine Light Series No. 45: The Suspended Broken Square, is by the Chinese artist, Zhang Yu.)
WHY DOES THE ELECTORATE routinely punish Labour and the
Greens for their alleged “political correctness” but not National? It just
doesn’t seem fair.
Consider, for example, the Crimes (Substituted Section 59)
Amendment Act 2007 – the so-called “anti-smacking legislation” – which was
passed by the House of Representatives with broad bi-partisan support (113
votes to 7) on 16 May 2007.
John Key had actually come to Helen Clark’s parliamentary rescue
over this progressive (but highly controversial) measure by throwing most of
National’s votes behind it. He’d even stood alongside the Prime Minister when the
deal ensuring Sue Bradford’s private members bill would be passed by a substantial
majority was announced.
And yet, in spite of his overt support for Bradford’s bill,
neither Key nor his National Party suffered any significant electoral damage in
the 2008 election.
The same could NOT be said of Clark and Labour. In fact,
their support for the anti-smacking legislation is generally regarded as one of
the more important factors contributing to the Labour-led Government’s loss.
Clearly Labour’s support for measures like the anti-smacking
bill is viewed in a way that is very different from the way most voters view
National’s politically correct gestures. In the end, I believe that it boils
down to motive. It’s not so much what
a political party supports as why.
When Labour was unambiguously the party of the
working-class, the question of political motivation was reasonably clear.
Labour backed the workers’ trade unions and was dutifully funded by them in
return. Labour similarly strove, whenever it was given the chance, to improve
the Welfare State it had created in the 1930s and 40s. It built state houses
for working families and used the large state-owned enterprises – NZ Railways,
the Post Office, and the Ministry of Works – to soak up unskilled labour which would
otherwise be unemployed. Labour was also the party most closely associated with
nation-building – not simply in the form of its massive public works projects,
but also in the way of fostering and funding a distinct New Zealand identity
and culture. The State Literary Fund and the NZ Symphony Orchestra were Labour
In the 1950s and 60s Labour’s ranks were swelled by young,
idealistic men who had come back from the Second World War determined to make
all the suffering and destruction mean something. Politicians like Martyn
Finlay, Phil Amos and Bob Tizard wanted to soften a society that could still be
very harsh and unforgiving. To the radical economic reforms of the pre-war
period they sought to add a strong measure of liberal social reform.
This younger generations’ liberal ideas were not universally
welcomed in Labour’s ranks, where the influence of the Roman Catholic and
Methodist churches remained very strong. On matters pertaining to Christian
forgiveness and the sanctity of human life, such as Capital Punishment, the
liberals and the more traditional elements of the party marched together. On
matters pertaining to human sexuality and the role of women in society,
however, there was considerably less agreement.
In the 1970s and 80s Labour’s ranks were swelled by yet
another cohort of young idealists. Their formative political memories were not
of economic depression and world war but of uninterrupted prosperity, national
liberation movements, Cold War paranoia, mutual and assured nuclear destruction
and the obscenity that was Vietnam.
The economic equality Labour had fought so hard to secure
was experienced by the numerically vast Baby Boom generation as a
near-obsessional concern with economic security. In political terms this quest
for security took on a decidedly authoritarian cast. The so-called “RSA
Generation” expected and exacted strict conformity to their notion of the good
The Baby Boomers were having none of it. Many of them –
especially the many thousands swelling the university rolls – emphatically
rejected their parents’ social and political docility. What they wanted was
freedom. Not the freedom their parents had sought: freedom from. The freedom they were seeking was much more radical.
It was the kind of freedom which had, throughout the course of human history,
been reserved almost exclusively for the rich and the powerful: freedom to.
But freedom from
was Labour’s defining rallying cry. Freedom
from want, freedom from fear, freedom from ignorance and disease:
these were the freedoms Labour offered. Freedom
to was National’s rallying cry.
No one understood this better than Norman Kirk. In his
address to the 1974 annual conference of Labour Party, made just four months
before his death, he spelt out the difference between the two types of freedom:
Margaret Hayward, Big Norm’s private secretary, summarised
his remarks in her Diary of the Kirk
The Prophet: Norman Kirk at the Labour Party's 1974 annual conference.
“And the permissive society – it was just another way of
saying ‘I can do what I like’. That would include not just the right to use
marijuana but the right to exploit, to speculate, to put monetary gain above
“Some customs and laws might well become irrelevant through
the passage of time, but the permissive society, carried to its logical end,
meant that there was no law. ‘And if there is no law, the freedom of the
permissive society is a trap and a prison for the weak in society.’ ”
Labour’s baby-boomers didn’t listen. Hadn’t the party already
solved all the problems associated with freedom
from? Wasn’t the country fully-employed, comfortably housed, kept healthy, and
offered educational opportunities all the way to varsity at the State’s
expense? Yes (in 1974) it was. So, Labour needed to shift its gaze from yesterday’s
problems – the problems of scarcity – and focus, instead, on the problems of today
and tomorrow – the problems of abundance. What the rising generation of voters
wanted was the freedom to become
something altogether different; something new; something better!
Except that material deprivation wasn’t the only problem that
needed the Left’s attention. For female,
Maori and homosexual New Zealanders the problem was how to win their freedom from a daunting nexus of legal
and social discrimination. Or, to turn the problem around: how to win the freedom to be themselves. The debate had
been growing in both volume and intensity since the late-1960s. By the early
1980s, freedom from and freedom to had begun to merge.
And then, in 1981, all this progressive philosophical
wrangling was suddenly confronted by an altogether unexpected New Zealand – one
with very different ideas on the meaning of freedom. Presented with the Left’s
demand that New Zealand do everything it could to secure Black South Africa’s freedom from racial oppression, this
other New Zealand claimed the freedom to
go about its lawful business without let or hindrance. Against the Left’s freedom to protest against injustice,
the Right asserted the Rugby fans’ freedom
to watch a sporting fixture in peace – free
from moral and physical intimidation.
Faced with the inconvenient truth that freedom meant
different things to different people, the Left predictably (and as events in
South Africa, at least, would later prove, justifiably) determined that their
definitions were superior.
That a huge number of working-class people had rejected the
Left’s account of freedom did not give the latter pause. In spite of everything
Labour had done for them, these workers had failed dismally the ethical test
History had set for them. It was a judgement which, as the global rejection of freedom from in favour of freedom to gathered pace, was about to
cost working people dearly.
In the Fourth Labour Government the Baby Boomer Left’s sense
of moral superiority and its conviction that the time was ripe to escape the
constricting hug of freedom from and
embrace the exhilarating possibilities of freedom
to came together in Roger Douglas’s fatal cocktail of ruthless and largely
unmandated economic and social “reform”. Kirk’s prophecy of ten years earlier,
that “the permissive society” – freedom
to – “would include not just the right to use marijuana but the right to
exploit, to speculate, to put monetary gain above social duty” was borne out –
with a vengeance!
It was something that just about everybody actively engaged
in the 1981 Springbok Tour protests remembers: the way pro- and anti-tour
people could identify one another, often at considerable distances, with almost
100 percent accuracy. There was something about the way they dressed, the cut
of their hair, their gait, the way they took in (or ignored) the world around
them, that positively screamed-out their position on the Tour. It was a very
useful survival skill for the outnumbered anti-tour protesters, but it no doubt
proved useful to the pro-tour people as well.
I wonder, now, 33 years later, whether something similar
still lingers in the New Zealand community. Whether the same subtle signals are
still being broadcast and received by the antagonistic groupings within our divided society. Whether people look
at Labour’s and National’s representatives and make exactly the same
instant judgements that we made all those years ago. Is he or she one of us – or them?
Instantly Recognisable: Supporters and opponents of the 1981 Springbok Tour could spot each other from 100 metres.
I wonder, too, 30 years after the election of the Fourth
Labour Government, how many Labour MPs realise how many New Zealanders are,
once again, in the political marketplace for freedom from?
National will always get a pass from working people for
promoting freedom to – it’s what they
do and, frankly, it’s a freedom that a great many working people themselves hunger
for. Labour, however, will always be judged more rigorously. It cannot get away
with saying “I can do what I like.” To be Labour is to be forever associated
with what Norman Kirk called our “social duty”.
In the bitter words that some unknown but desperate person spray-painted
on the wall of the Christchurch Trades Hall in the late-1980s for the unions,
the Labour Party and the Left in general to read:
“You were supposed to help.”
This essay was originally published by The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 15 October 2014.