NORMAN KIRK’S COLLEAGUES called it the “bloody red book”, and privately lamented that he referred to it constantly at Cabinet. But Labour’s 1972 Manifesto was taken very seriously by “The Boss”. It contained promises which the voters expected a Labour Government to keep – and Kirk was not about to let them down.
It is a measure of how profoundly the practice of New Zealand politics has changed since the 1970s that, back then, both the public sector chiefs and the news media took party manifestos very seriously. The former detailed talented underlings to tease out the costs and consequences of the parties’ plans. The news media did its best to do acquaint the public with the same information.
Just how far party manifestos had been downgraded was demonstrated vividly by another Labour prime minister, David Lange, who frankly admitted to his party not bothering with a manifesto in 1987 – on the grounds that had his government told the voters what it was planning to do they would have voted it out of office!
What passed for manifestos in the aftermath of the radical economic changes of the 1980s and 90s were glossy documents containing few words and many pictures. Coherent arguments were replaced by bullet-pointed sentences inspired by the reactions of focus-groups. From being statements of party principle and purpose, manifestos simply told voters what they wanted to hear – as interpreted by the polling agencies hired to translate the vox populi.
Even then, there was no guarantee that these pre-tested promises would be kept. The extent to which cynicism had come to guide the behaviour of New Zealand politicians was famously revealed by the Labour Cabinet Minister Steve Maharey, who informed the House of Representatives that an unfulfilled party promise was: “Just one of those things you say when you’re in Opposition, and then forget about when you’re in Government.”
The exception to this downgrading of the election manifesto was the small, ideologically-driven party determined to present its transformational programme to the electorate in considerable detail. Perhaps the most famous of these was the manifesto prepared by the Values Party for the 1975 general election. Across 91 pages, its idealistic authors described the sort of nation the Values Party believed New Zealand could/should become. Retailing for $1.65 (roughly $20.00 in today’s money) Beyond Tomorrow became a best seller.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the impressive precedent set by their Values predecessors served as an inspiration to the Greens who remembered it. So much so that, even today, the Green Party makes an effort to present its ideas in some detail to the public. This year’s effort, The Time Is Now, at 48 A4 pages, may not be as inspiring as Beyond Tomorrow, but the Greens have, at least, made an effort.
No matter how odious comparisons are said to be, it is instructive to compare the opening lines of The Time Is Now with those of Beyond Tomorrow. The latter begins with a quote from Gandhi: “The earth has enough for everyman’s need, but not enough for everyman’s greed.” The opening line of The Time Is Now reads: “Our vision is a climate-friendly Aotearoa that honours Te Tiriti and meets the needs of everyone within the boundaries of the planet, so that we and the rest of nature can thrive.” The remaining 47 pages are intended to translate that “vision” into a consistent policy platform.
Introducing the Greens’ manifesto to the party’s AGM on Sunday (9/7/23) Co-Leader Marama Davidson began by describing what she believes to be the essence of Greenness:
“As Greens we have always found [our] humanity in being part of a collective.”
Not the best start in a nation whose majority culture is firmly founded upon the principle that the human individual is supreme, and whose touchstone novel is entitled Man Alone. Being of Ngāti Porou, Te Rarawa, and Ngāpuhi descent, it is entirely reasonable for Davidson to espouse the values of te Ao Māori, but for a party whose voter base is overwhelmingly well-educated, middle-class and Pakeha, extolling collective values may not be the most effective opening gambit – psycho-socially speaking.
Never mind. Let us proceed on the assumption that the Green Party’s members and voters are all staunch collectivists. Certainly, that would need to be the case if their commitment to an Aotearoa which honours te Tiriti is genuine. Especially when honouring te Tiriti involves facilitating “the return of whenua that was wrongfully alienated from tangata whenua, including through exploring a right of first refusal process that enables the return of private land to iwi, hapū and whānau at point of sale”.
To announce that your party is even “exploring” the idea of bestowing upon Māori the “right of first refusal” to privately-owned land offered for sale will certainly test the relative strengths of collectivism and individualism in New Zealand!
There was a very good reason why the Waitangi Tribunal was forbidden from considering privately-owned land, a reason which is, almost certainly, as valid today as it was forty years ago. Restoring the status-quo-ante that prevailed prior to the enforced alienation of Māori land is an invitation to civil war. One suspects that the Greens’ manifesto promise to “Implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in Aotearoa”, would amount to the same thing.
Not to worry, just a few pages on, under the heading of “Workforce”, the Greens’ manifesto promises to: “Legislate for a right to solidarity strikes and political strikes.”
One of the most effective political strikes on record is the general strike of Protestant workers organised by the Ulster Workers Council, which took place in Northern Ireland between 15-28 May 1974. The strikers successfully destroyed the Sunningdale Agreement establishing a power-sharing arrangement between the (majority) Protestant and (minority) Catholic communities under the auspices of the governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. The ruthlessly enforced sectarian strike forced the UK Government to restore direct rule from London.
This sort of political strike is, patently, not the sort of political strike the Greens were thinking of when they confirmed that particular element of their Workforce policy. But they should be under no illusion that it is but one of the many radical responses to which the Pakeha majority would likely have resort if UNDRIP was imposed from above by a Green Government.
Many readers will undoubtedly object that the Greens are fully aware that they will be in no position to enforce the policies contained in their manifesto, and that its content is purely aspirational. But, if that is the case, then they are merely children playing at the game of politics, and should not be treated as serious contenders for office.
A political party offering a manifesto to the public, is expected to have thoroughly debated its contents and satisfied itself that the measures proposed are both desirable and workable. And, further, that its MPs are committed, 100 percent, to implementing its promises. “Given the power, this is what we’ll do.” That is the pledge they are making. If the only purpose of publishing a manifesto is to make themselves feel better, then the Greens should abjure participation in any government.
Norman Kirk was very likely the last New Zealand prime minister to take his party’s manifesto promises seriously. What New Zealanders read in the “bloody red book”, was what New Zealanders got from “Big Norm” – until the pressures of giving it to them killed him.
If the “bloody green book” is not a document to be taken seriously, then neither is the party that wrote it.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website of Monday, 10 July 2023.