THERE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN public servants who looked upon democracy as a dangerous innovation. The writers of the classic British television comedy Yes Minister captured this sort of public servant brilliantly in the character of Sir Humphrey Appleby. Sir Humphrey’s working proposition, that government was far too important to be left to politicians – let alone the ordinary person in the street – was a legacy of the aristocratic mode of government. A tradition which endured longer in Great Britain than just about anywhere else.
The creators of Yes Minister, Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, partisans of the political philosophy that would come to be known as “Thatcherism”, were fierce opponents of this aristocratic style – believing it to be one of the most significant causes of Britain’s national decline. Like Margaret Thatcher herself, they saw the ordinary man and woman in the street as an infinitely safer repository of political authority than any silver-tongued Oxbridge mandarin. Clear away the detritus of aristocratic snobbery (about which Thatcher, the grocer’s daughter, knew a great deal) and doctrinaire socialism, these “radical Tories” insisted, and all would be well.
New Zealand’s experience vis-à-vis its public service has been somewhat different. Here, the senior ranks of the nation’s public servants were profoundly mistrusted by the militant missionaries of neoliberalism. Not because their instincts were aristocratic (like Sir Humphrey’s) but because, thanks to New Zealand’s interesting political history, their instincts were high-mindedly social-democratic.
Throughout New Zealand history the most positive and long-lasting reforms and innovations have been initiated and administered by partisans of the state. To the men (and they were very nearly all men) who masterminded the bureaucratic coup d’état which gave this country “Rogernomics” and “Ruthanasia”, the idea of an activist state was anathema.
That the people of New Zealand might prefer their country to be run that way: that its positive freedoms gave them life chances they were loath to surrender; mattered not at all to these bureaucratic revolutionaries. In their eyes, the superiority of neoliberalism was self-evident. The idea of validating it at the ballot box was as nonsensical as voting gravity up, or down.
This disdain for, and outright hostility towards, the idea of popular sovereignty: manifested (at least initially) by the elite guardians of the neoliberal flame; was to have profound consequences for the future of democracy in New Zealand.
In terms of practical politics, the imposition of neoliberalism in New Zealand was hugely assisted by the legacy of the right-wing populist National Government of Sir Robert Muldoon. Shrewdly, the Labour politicians tasked with the imposition of policies utterly at odds with their party’s principles enlisted the aid of Baby Boomer activists from the new social movements: anti-racists, environmentalists, feminists, gays and lesbians; whose causes Muldoon had for so long frustrated. They were the social activists who largely replaced Labour’s democratic socialists and trade union advocates. With the anti-neoliberal resistance driven out of the party, these “social liberals” inherited what was left of Labour.
Unlike the “Old Left”, however, this “New Left” was profoundly suspicious of the ordinary man and woman in the street. In their struggles for women’s rights, Māori rights, gay rights and the “rights” of the natural environment, the new social movements often found themselves outnumbered – sometimes by as much as ten-to-one – by the conservative majority.
For many social liberals, therefore, democracy was not the solution, it was the problem. If majorities were allowed to rule, then genuine social progress would be reduced to a snail’s pace. At all costs, social liberal reforms must remain the preserve of political elites. Conscience votes cast by individual MPs were acceptable. Binding referenda, which gave the final say on radical economic and social reforms to the people themselves, were not.
A generation after Rogernomics and Ruthanasia, New Zealand has thus been ushered into the worst of all possible worlds. A political class, generally, and a public service, especially, in which democracy is viewed with hostility and suspicion; and majority rule derided as a right-wing mechanism for allowing racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and transphobic prejudices to run riot.
Given the opportunity, this benighted Kiwi majority will vote in favour of treating every citizen equally, or, even worse, proudly uphold the principle of freedom of expression. Given a chance, this majority will vote for social-democracy over neoliberalism.
“And that, Minister, would be a disaster!”
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 October 2021.