Good Will Receiving: If New Zealanders are in a mood to promote the public good, then there is every chance that the Ardern-led government will succeed. If they are more concerned with promoting their own, private, welfare, then the resistance to the new government’s redistributive ambitions is likely to be very fierce indeed.
WILL THIS NEW GOVERNMENT SUCCEED? Across the political spectrum, that is the question. Will Jacinda Ardern and her NZ First and Green Party allies find their fellow New Zealanders broadly accommodating of, or fiercely resistant to, her government of change?
If New Zealanders are in a mood to promote the public good, then there is every chance that the Ardern-led government will succeed. If they are more concerned with promoting their own, private, welfare, then the resistance to the new government’s redistributive ambitions is likely to be very fierce indeed.
A sociologist might attempt an answer to this question by asking where New Zealand currently stands in the “Hirschman Cycle”.
Named after the much-admired American sociologist, Albert Hirschman, the Cycle describes those recurring historical transitions from periods in which society is predominantly concerned with maximising private consumption and individual well-being; to periods characterised by a general willingness to accommodate public programmes aimed at uplifting those in need and dedicated to reaffirming the nation’s core values and aspirations.
The period of US history most proximate to Hirschman’s research was the period known as “The Great Society”. After nearly two decades of rapidly rising incomes and growing affluence, Americans entered the 1960s more willing to embrace public policies of uplift and altruism than at any time since the “New Deal” of the 1930s.
The architect of The Great Society, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, attempted to sketch out his administration’s response to inequality – especially racial inequality – in his famous “To Fulfil These Rights” speech to Howard University’s commencement class on 4 June 1965:
“There is no single easy answer to all of these problems”, the President told his audience of mostly African-American students. “Jobs are part of the answer. They bring the income which permits a man to provide for his family. Decent homes in decent surroundings and a chance to learn – an equal chance to learn – are part of the answer. Welfare and social programs better designed to hold families together are part of the answer. Care for the sick is part of the answer. An understanding heart by all Americans is another big part of the answer. And to all of these fronts – and a dozen more – I will dedicate the expanding efforts of the Johnson administration.”
This, the high-water mark of social-democratic liberalism in the United States, is made even more luminous by the darkness currently enveloping Trump’s America. Born out of one of V.O. Key’s, “permissive” political consensuses, Johnson’s “Great Society” would not survive the public’s rapidly declining faith in Washington-based solutions. The race-riots of the mid-60s, a steadily escalating war in Vietnam, and the fast-deteriorating US domestic economy soon ushered America into the selfish phase of Hirschman’s Cycle.
The question Jacinda and her colleagues have to ask themselves, therefore, is whether or not such a “permissive” political consensus exists in New Zealand. Is her “administration” entering office at a point in the Hirschman Cycle roughly analogous to where the US was when President Johnson was inaugurated in January 1965?
The answer, sadly, is: “No.” Far from being swept into office on an historic landslide, Jacinda’s victory is both electorally narrow and politically controversial. If a US precedent is being sought, it isn’t to be found in the Johnson Administration, but in the politically and economically fraught administration of President Jimmy Carter.
Massive problems have grown up during the nine-year period of National Party rule. Escalating social inequality has fuelled poverty and homelessness: leading to rising levels of mental illness, suicide, violent crime and a record number of incarcerated citizens. The social and economic climate is, therefore, very different to that which prevailed when Norman Kirk was swept to victory in the golden year of 1972.
Like the Johnson Administration, the Kirk Government inherited a “permissive” political consensus of unprecedented scope. Jacinda’s political environment, by contrast, has all the room for manoeuvre of Jimmy Carter’s and Helen Clark’s. Hirschman’s Cycle-wise, New Zealand remains deeply mired in its individualistic/private consumption phase. Moreover, as Winston Peters soberly observed, there is little prospect of the country enjoying, anytime soon, the expansive economic and social conditions capable of persuading an electorate to embrace a government committed to the public good.
And yet, out-of-phase though New Zealand may be, Hirschman Cycle-wise, Jacinda and the public good have no choice but to deliver each other.
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, 27 October 2017.