Friday 23 February 2018

Of Radical Conservatism and Illiberal Democracy

Straight Shooters: Radical Conservatives like Judith Collins encourage the electorate to seek out and support those politicians who promise to strengthen the powers and purview of the State. That this will inevitably entail curbing the independence of the Judiciary; authorising the increased surveillance of citizens; and locking-up an ever-increasing number of their fellow citizens; bothers them not at all.

ACCORDING TO former Labour cabinet minister, Steve Maharey: “Social democracy is in trouble”. Who cares? If challenged to define social democracy, most Kiwis would shake their heads and shrug. It’s not a term that pops up very often in New Zealand political conversations. Whether or not it’s in trouble is unlikely to keep anyone awake at night except left-wing politicos.

On the other hand, if Mr Maharey were to say “Labour is in trouble”, then New Zealanders would have no difficulty at all in understanding what he was saying. With Labour riding high at 48 percent in the polls, they might question his grasp on political reality, but at least they’d know what he meant.

A more interesting question, especially in the context of National’s unfolding leadership contest, might be: “Is New Zealand conservatism in trouble?” If, for example, the National Party caucus were to make Judith Collins Leader of the Opposition, what would stand out as the most important item on her political agenda?

If her past record is any indication, the Law and Order issue would be right at the top of her To-Do list. It was, after all, in recognition of her get-tough approach to boy-racers that she was given the political nickname “Crusher”. She has worn it with pride ever since.

The Law and Order issue works exceptionally well for right-wing politicians because it allows them to play directly to the average voter’s powerful emotional response to the horrors of serious criminal offending. People see the damage inflicted on the victims and their families, and their first response is to demand that the person, or persons, responsible be subjected to the harshest possible punishment.

They do not want to hear the explanations put forward by bleeding-heart liberals or left-wing academics. As far as they’re concerned the people who kill, rape and injure innocent human-beings are evil monsters. Lock them up and throw away the key.

End. Of. Story.

In the febrile atmosphere whipped-up by right-wing political firebrands and media sensationalists, the demands of due-process and constitutional legal safeguards are received with scorn. If the Police have arrested you and brought you to trial, then you must be guilty.

Sir William Blackstone’s famous legal dictum: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”, cuts little ice with a public whose blood is up. To the mob, the idea that the Law might occasionally allow the guilty to escape punishment is an insufferable provocation.

All of which encourages the electorate to seek out and support those politicians who promise to strengthen the powers and purview of the State. That this will inevitably entail curbing the independence of the Judiciary; authorising the increased surveillance of citizens; and locking-up an ever-increasing number of their fellow citizens; bothers them not at all.

On the contrary, the State is perceived as their champion: a counter-force to all those “activist judges”, annoying civil libertarians and immoral defence lawyers who demand proof of guilt “beyond reasonable doubt”, and who bleat on about the “rights of the accused”. What about the rights of the victims – eh? Don’t they deserve justice!

The perverse consequence of this kind of conservatism is that, far from preserving the traditions and institutions bequeathed to us by past generations, it actively seeks their destruction.

In place of the liberties of the citizen: extracted at great cost from the arbitrary power of the state, these “radical conservatives” advance the notion that the collective welfare of the people can only be secured by suppressing anyone who sets their individual “rights” against the obligation of the state to execute the people’s will.

The political consequences of this decidedly troubling variety of conservatism are observable in the so-called “illiberal democracies” of the Russian Federation, Hungary and Poland. In these countries, elections still take place and opposition parties continue to exist alongside a diversity of media outlets. The crucial factor which distinguishes illiberal democracy from the real thing, is that in illiberal democracies the definition of “the people” is radically narrowed to exclude all those who refuse to support the governing party.

In winning power, illiberal democrats avail themselves of all the opportunities genuine democracy provides. Once elected, however, they move swiftly to delegitimise and marginalise their political opponents.

For those unlucky enough to live under it, illiberal democracy tends to be a crushing experience.

A version of 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, 23 February 2018.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

OT a little, but:

ProvincialPete said...

"With Labour riding high at 48 percent in the polls".

It is not Labour riding high, it is Ardern and the halo of pixie dust that surrounds her - without that the party is just as it was before her crowning.

As with NZF, you take away the figurehead and what have you got?

countryboy said...

Seeing 'eyebrows' collins with a gun bothers me more than when I did, in fact, nearly get shot. Seeing the natural born malice in her un kissable lips inspires in me to marry, instead, a wart hog, warts and all.
What, in Gods name, would inspire the common, or garden, moron to vote for it?? Imagine rolling over, replete and now keen for bacon and eggs and see that! And likely, nae certainly plus a hangover. Oh.My.God. The Spanish Inquisition overlooked that particular torture.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Do you think we could attack the woman's policies rather than her looks? As if women haven't got enough trouble at the moment, and it's not like her looks are going to hurt you in any way shape or form compared to her policies.

David George said...

The crime and punishment question has been exploited by politicians for obvious reasons; the people feel that the states primary duty is their protection specifically and law and order generally. Nobody wants crime and corruption to get out of hand or the consequent societal collapse that follows.
It seems that the key to crime reduction is not more punishment but better apprehension rates. Here's a fascinating interview from five or six years ago. I've copied the link from just prior to the relevant part but the whole thing is very well worth watching.

jh said...

ACCORDING TO former Labour cabinet minister, Steve Maharey: “Social democracy is in trouble.
His version
The argument Brash advances reflects the view that colonised people should be grateful for the supposedly superior way of life they were given when Governor Hobson pronounced them citizens. He finds it aggravating (it makes him "utterly sick") that a culture he can't understand should make its way into his world. 
He is, as the saying goes, on the wrong side of history. But we should not dismiss him as out of date and irrelevant. That was the mistake many Americans made as they cracked jokes about Donald Trump. Brash represents a view that has an audience. That is why his Orewa speech had such an impact. We should debate with him making it clear that hearing Maori on Morning Report is the future. And there is much more to come.

The immigration policy review in 1986 was part of a much larger agenda for change in New Zealand (Bedford 1996)
The attitudes of New Zealanders in the mid-1990s towards immigration may not have reflected the positive perspective on the value of diversity in our society that is contained in the Review of Immigration Policy August 1986. But this does not mean that the globalisation of immigration to New Zealand was an “unintended consequence of policy changes in 1986”. It was a deliberate strategy, based on a premise that the “infusion of new elements to New Zealand life has been of immense value to the development of this country to date and will, as a result of this Government’s review of immigration policy, become even more important in the future” (Burke 1986:330)

Trust in journalists and politicians is at an all time low thanks a clearing out of conservatives and institutionalization of public discourse.

Victor said...


That horizon poll is extraordinary. No-one I know had heard of Mark Mitchell till last week! Perhaps I should get out more.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Victor. For some reason they send them to me. I must've signed up for something years ago and forgotten about it. Most of them I'm not particularly interested in but this 1 was quite interesting as you said. And if it's any consolation, I'd never heard of the man either. :)

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Dammit, I forgot to mention that Gordon Campbell had an interesting piece in our little local giveaway paper entitled "National chooses a sacrificial lamb". Interesting take.

Nick J said...

Victor, the Horizon Poll pretty much confirms my perceived landscape of the NZ psyche. There's that amazingly deep punitive streak that parallels the warm open generosity.

Victor said...

Nick J

Agree entirely about the mixed New Zealand psyche.

After 32.5 years here, I still rarely get the signs as to whether I'm talking to a benign, caring, soft-hearted humanitarian or a died-in-the-wool Hobbesian on steroids.

In a sense, that's a good thing, as it prevents me excessively tailoring my comments to prevent giving offence. Free speech benefits but it might nevertheless be a bit of a drag on social life.