|Meet The New Boss: We are living in a political culture unmoored to anything more edifying than the petty priorities of personal ambition.
LABOUR’S VICTORY over Dr Gaurav Sharma will be complete, final, and soon. In roughly twenty-four hours (23/8/22) he will be expelled from Labour’s caucus and relocated to the farthest-back of the back-benches. His expulsion from the Labour Party proper will follow just as soon as the members of its ruling council can be gathered together on Zoom.
While some pundits are speculating that the waka-jumping legislation might be used to eject Sharma altogether from the House of Representatives, the Labour leadership seems to have already decided there is no need to go that far. Sharma’s crusade has, to date, been on behalf of himself. He is seeking a redress of wrongs, real or imagined, about which most voters simply do not care. Jacinda and her colleagues will be quite content to leave Dr Sharma pissing into the wind.
Which is a pity. Because the political culture of the New Zealand parliamentary complex could do with a radical shake-up. Not only on account of the bullying behaviour which pervades both Labour and National, but because it is a political culture unmoored to anything more edifying than the petty priorities of personal ambition. The picture presented to the public is of a politics almost entirely barren of principle. Accordingly, voter cynicism, not to say disgust, grows ever stronger – to the detriment of our entire democratic system.
But not, it must be said, to the detriment of the over-arching ideological infrastructure of neoliberalism. In both major parties there is a common horror of unorthodox economic ideas, which manifests itself in the rigorous suppression of anything resembling the promotion of an alternative economic regime.
One would have to return to the late-1980s and early-1990s to encounter a genuine clash of economic ideas within either Labour or National. That these factional struggles preceded the splits that gave rise to the NewLabour Party (later the Alliance) and NZ First is, of course, the chief explanation for the determination in both major parties to enforce an all-encompassing economic orthodoxy at every organisational level.
This horror of disagreement and debate is, however, born of something more than mere “voters don’t vote for disunity” pragmatism. In the Labour Party, particularly, there is a deeply entrenched conviction that the promotion of policies unsanctioned by the leadership should never be taken at face value. The assumption is always that alternative ideas are nothing but a front for those angling to provide alternative leadership. The proposition that economic policy can hardly avoid engendering strong principled objections is rejected out-of-hand. Advocacy of unsanctioned economic policies is condemned as an attempt to cast caucus colleagues in an unfavourable moral light – i.e. an ego-driven assault on the integrity of the “team”.
Nowhere was this attitude towards dissent more obviously on display than during the period when David Cunliffe was leader of the Labour Party (2013-14). The personal animus directed towards Cunliffe was so intense that it fundamentally undermined his attempt to steer Labour to victory via a more leftward course. Rejecting neoliberal economic theory was presented by Cunliffe’s caucus rivals as tantamount to rejecting common-sense – something only an excessively ambitious and/or slightly unhinged person would do. Cunliffe’s fate became a cautionary tale. Factions based on principle, rather than personality, were bound to founder.
Cunliffe’s election as leader by Labour’s rank-and-file, followed by the wafer-thin defeat of the current Labour leadership faction by Andrew Little, may also explain the Ardern Labour Government’s apparent disdain for one-person-one-vote democracy. If the faction of common sense could be defeated by ill-informed and/or ill-intentioned party members, then, clearly, there was something wrong with the whole democratic idea. Far better to leave the matter of choosing a party leader to the people who know the potential candidates best. In other words: personality must always be allowed to trump principle.
The National Party’s woes in the fraught business of selecting candidates may also be traced back to the decisive victory of neoliberalism over paternalistic conservatism in the run-up to the 1990 general election. As with Labour, the assumption at both the summit of the National caucus and the National Party organisation soon became that only oddballs and trouble-makers questioned the moral and practical efficacy of neoliberal economic policies.
Steven Joyce’s corporatisation of the National Party in the aftermath of its worst ever electoral defeat in 2002 effectively disconnected all the levers of democratic accountability that mattered. The qualifications for entry into National’s caucus were narrowed to evidence of unwavering support for the economic status-quo, coupled with an impressive CV – ideally in the fields of commerce and law. The not altogether welcome outcomes of National’s recruitment processes serve as a warning of what can happen when adherence to principle becomes a matter of conformity, not character.
The only matters in which a measure of disagreement within caucuses was deemed acceptable were those that did not impinge directly on economic policy. If the public’s growing suspicion that the major parties had become ideologically interchangeable were to be allayed, some dramatic public demonstrations of political diversity were needed.
Marriage Equality, Euthanasia, Legalising Cannabis, Decriminalising Abortion. On these “conscience issues”, the full glory of principled political behaviour could be put on display. With the Whips removed, the public could glimpse, if only for a moment, what a legislature freed from the dead hand of ideological orthodoxy might look like.
Such visions had to be momentary, however, for the very simple reason that allowing factions to form within parties, or, worse still, encouraging genuine ideological differences to develop between parties, would only result in such factions being replicated in the general population. And a general population engaged in genuine debate between factions and/or parties capable of making a real difference to the direction of economic and social policy would place the whole, over-arching ideological infrastructure of neoliberalism in the gravest peril.
Also imperilled would be the profoundly elitist and democratically deficient culture of “governance” and administration that has grown up to keep the neoliberal state apparatus ticking-over. Popular engagement in the running of public institutions terrifies the professionals and managers who have, over the course of the past four decades, come to see themselves as the sole repositories of competence outside the private sector.
Genuine discussion and debate are not encouraged in a public sector now entirely beholden to the cult of expertise. Increasingly, at the levels of both local and central government, the people’s elected representatives find themselves being gently “nudged” in directions deemed “appropriate” by the experts. Genuine discussion and debate, by making it plain to ordinary folk that there is more than just one way of looking at an issue, strikes at the very heart of these “experts’” unmandated authority.
Said ordinary folk can only hope that the sudden rise in “expert” commentary on the perils of misinformation and disinformation is not the first sign that the neoliberal nomenklatura is preparing to strike back against the risible political pretensions of the “deplorables”.
Dr Sharma’s alleged “mad”/”bad” behaviour has made him dangerous to know. One can only imagine what might have happened if he had rebelled in the name of something more critical to the wellbeing of New Zealanders than his personal reputation.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 22 August 2022.