Marching In Step: What so many of our politicians and pundits appear to expect from government, even when it is composed of two or more political parties, is strict military discipline at every level. The orders of the Prime Minister, like the orders of a generalissimo, must not be countermanded. Cabinet ministers assume the role of said generalissimo’s staff officers and the remaining backbench MPs become her troops.
SOMETHING IS GROWING in the New Zealand brain. An authoritarian tumour whose rapid expansion is triggering increasingly morbid symptoms in the body politic. Institutions and professions upon which New Zealanders traditionally relied for wisdom and good judgement have taken to displaying neither. Our national discourse has taken on a brutish quality: a coarseness and violence which discourages the participation of all but the most resilient of citizens.
Nowhere is the evidence of this authoritarian tumour more clearly on display than in the relentless disparagement of the coalition government led by Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters. The lively reality of its tripartite character strikes an alarming number of pundits and politicians as evidence of a profound malfunctioning in the country’s political system. That the malfunction identified by these “experts” turns out to be democracy itself is even more alarming.
That there should be sharp disagreements between three quite different political parties and their respective leaders should surprise no one – especially when those parties have collectively assumed responsibility for governing the nation. As citizens, we are protected by the constitutional requirement that our governments must, at all times, command a majority in the House of Representatives. If, therefore, it is to go on governing, all disagreements within and between the component parts of that majority, no matter how sharp, must be resolved. If a resolution of differences cannot be achieved, then the responsibility must be returned to us – the voters.
How, then, to explain the near panic displayed by a phalanx of right-wing politicians and pundits whenever these entirely predictable disagreements between the coalition government’s members are aired in public? What is it that they expect from government, when evidence of debate – even open dissent – can throw them into such an agitated state?
There is only one credible answer to this question – and it is deeply troubling. What so many of our politicians and pundits expect from government, even when it is composed of two or more political parties, is strict military discipline at every level. The orders of the Prime Minister, like the orders of a generalissimo, must not be countermanded. Cabinet ministers assume the role of said generalissimo’s staff officers and the remaining backbench MPs become her troops.
But a political party is not an army. Whoever, outside of a revolution, heard of soldiers electing their generals! Why then do so many professional politics-watchers consider disagreement within a government’s ranks to be evidence of, at best, insubordination, or, at worst, mutiny? Why is the inevitable churn of political “Ins” and “Outs” invariably described as “a leadership coup” – as if changing leaders is an inherently bad thing to do?
Could it be that the reason the Right becomes so agitated at the sight of discussion and debate within the ranks of government is that it comports so uncomfortably with the way the people who elect governments are expected to live their daily lives? The complex hierarchies of the workplace, no less than those of the armed forces, owe nothing to democracy. Whoever, outside of a revolution, heard of workers electing their boss!
Could it be that the politicians and pundits of the Right are more likely than not to consider an undisciplined government to be guilty of letting the side down? After all, if ordinary citizens see their prime minister shrug-off the occasional disagreement between her and her deputy as simply democracy in action, then why can’t their bosses? If debate, even dissent, is treated by coalition party leaders as a healthy sign of political life – rather than a sacking offence – then why shouldn’t they have a say in how their workplace is run?
As corporate-style “governance” has acquired an ever-greater purchase over our lives; as all the countervailing powers within the workplace – viz: trade unions – have shrunk in influence; the huge discrepancy between the democratic freedom and equality that is supposed to characterise our political selves, and the exploitation and servitude which increasingly characterises our economic selves, acquires an decidedly subversive aspect.
The morbid authoritarian tumour which is taking over more and more of the New Zealand brain is in danger of extinguishing completely our national disinclination toward bending the knee to bullies, along with our much admired habit of thinking for ourselves. A government that’s willing to model both of these quintessentially Kiwi characteristics is to be commended – not condemned.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 21 September 2018.