Unbridled Power? As Prime Minister and Finance Minister combined, National's Rob Muldoon wielded more raw political power than any New Zealand politician since the Second World War. His command of the political sphere could not, however, protect him from the unrelenting opposition of the economic and social spheres.
THERE’S A WIDELY-HELD misapprehension that “The Government” controls society. That the politicians commanding a majority in the House of Representatives, or a President duly elected by the people, possess the power to rule us as they see fit. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Power is very seldom concentrated in a single individual or party. The General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, came terrifyingly close to exercising absolute control over his society, but his was the exception, not the rule. In just about every other time and place power is separated into three discrete locations: the political sphere, the economic sphere and the social sphere.
It is very difficult indeed for a person or a party to dominate all three of these spheres, and in a democracy it is next to impossible.
Take the present government of New Zealand, for example. Unusually, it does not include within its ranks the political party which received the largest number of votes. To secure a majority in the House of Representatives, the Labour, NZ First and Green parties had to join forces in a political alliance. Constant negotiation and compromise is required to keep this unlikely combination of social-democrats, populists and environmentalists from flying apart. With the National Party, on its own, retaining the support of just under half of the electorate, the political sphere is very far from being the all-powerful force that many New Zealanders still believe it to be.
The surveys of business confidence (which seem to have been released every other week since the Labour-NZF-Green government came to power) continue to present a consistent picture of unhappiness and mistrust among the business community. So much so, that they have become potent symbols of the power that lies within the economic sphere.
Falling business confidence puts the whole economy at risk. Fear of and/or resentment towards a government’s policies can easily persuade foreign and domestic investors to put away their cheque-books. Without investment and the economic expansion it encourages unemployment is likely to grow and the government’s tax-take decline. Fearful of the future, people stop spending and before long the economy begins a slow spiral downward into recession.
All governments know how crucial it is to avoid the all-important “back-pocket” issues turning negative. Securing re-election is almost impossible when the voters are fearful of themselves, or members of their family, losing their jobs and falling into debt. Small wonder, then, that politicians – Ministers of Finance in particular – spend so much of their time reassuring the economic sphere that its interests (and profits) are protected.
The social sphere is crucial to this process of political reassurance. Encompassing critical societal institutions like the news media, schools and universities, churches, the caring sector and the entertainment industry; it plays a critical role in conferring moral legitimacy upon the individuals and organisations entrusted with governing the population. Few governments can withstand the pressures brought to bear by a social sphere which has turned against it on account of its mishandling of the economic sphere.
One has only to think of the doomed National government of Rob Muldoon in the early months of 1984. It’s ability to preserve a majority in the House of Representatives was being sorely tested by maverick MPs like Mike Minogue and Marilyn Waring. Its handling of the economy was under fire from big business, the unions and even key bureaucrats within the Reserve Bank and Treasury. The editorial pages of the newspapers railed against Muldoon’s interventionism and academics demanded root-and-branch reform. Churchmen preached against National’s foreign and defence policies and entertainers lent their glamour to the efforts of Muldoon’s Labour opponents to bring him down. Not surprisingly, they succeeded.
It is worth noting here that in 1984 New Zealand prime ministers were able to exercise a great deal more political influence over the economic and social spheres than is the case today. Much more of the economy was under state – and hence political – control. Radio and television, similarly, were publicly-owned and therefore highly susceptible to political influence.
And yet, not even these huge advantages could save the most effective master of the political sphere since World War II from ignominious defeat. That said, however, if you see a prime minister amassing unusual powers over the economic and social spheres – be on your guard!
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 6 July 2018.