06 November 2011

Fear unbridled government? The answer isn't a coalition

When Geoffrey Palmer wrote "Unbridled Power" his concern was primarily about the lack of constitutional limits on government in New Zealand, and how Cabinet would dominate single party government which itself would almost always dominate Parliament.   Jonathan Milne has taken the latter tack in his latest article in the NZ Herald.  His hypothesis is that small parties will do badly this election, and that there is a real chance of something "dreadful" - one party government.

Of course he might think he looks like he is making a rather generic point about the advantages of coalitions and minority governments compared to single party majority government.   Yet he hardly hides his colours at all.  He doesn't pick on Rob Muldoon "banning inflation", spending billions on Think Big and bribing voters with national superannuation, he doesn't pick on Norman Kirk for creating big government businesses, expanding the welfare state and greatly expanding subsidies for government trading departments.  He wouldn't.  You see he isn't exactly an economist, or a historian or a political scientist, he's a leftwing reporter.  What other explanation is there for this comment:

The controversial free market reforms of the Rogernomics era were pushed through by the all-powerful fourth Labour Government without warning or by-your-leave. Similarly, there were few fetters on the National Government when Ruth Richardson presented her slash-and-burn Mother of All Budgets. No presidential veto, no senate or upper house sitting in oversight, and no small coalition partners to soften the hard edges of these governments.

All governments are "controversial", but you'd only say that if you thought that.  Except Jonathan is naive.  In 1987 Labour asked for a mandate to continue the reforms, got one and continued.   "Softening the hard edges" is the sort of comment one would only make if you disapprove, and those who disapproved were Jim Anderton and Winston Peters, and their bands of socialist, nationalist and xenophobic state worshippers they founded.

I opposed MMP in 1993 primarily because I had seen the previous two governments implement the most politically courageous policies in modern history.   Governments that cut subsidies, cut public spending, including cutting benefits.  They restructured government departments, made thousands redundant and privatised in the face of venal xenophobic hysteria.  Farmers, state sector workers, beneficiaries, pensioners and unemployed people were unhappy at the time, not a state of affairs most political parties are keen to promote if they want to be re-elected.  Contrast that era to the smile and wave of John Key, and Helen Clark's middle class welfare, and cash thrown at various interest groups (and craven acceptance of support from Winston Peters).

Even at the time of the 1984-1993 governments, the "hard edges" had plenty going the other way.  The fourth Labour Government opened up the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process, created bureaucracies for conservation, the environment, womens' affairs, youth affairs, Pacific Island affairs, and sowed the seeds for the Bolger government to pass the RMA.  Foreign policy saw New Zealand effectively step away from being aligned with the United States in the Cold War.   Education and health care remained firmly within the grip of the state sector and the rent seeking unions that dominated them. 

For Jonathan, stopping governments doing all they want is a good thing.  Which of course would be all very well, if what they wanted to do is more.  However, Jonathan's opposition to single party government is not that, indeed he rejects it because of history when governments were deliberately pulling back from spending money they didn't have, and telling people what to do.

He showed a childish thrill to think of the Greens and National working together on transport policy - because two conflicting ideologies must produce the best results.   He mentions NZ First, ACT,  Jim Anderton, Peter Dunne and the Maori Party, as if he misses them having influence (remember the positive influence of NZ First after 1996?).

Somehow he links Brian Tamaki to Peter Dunne, and then concludes while the Greens might not be good on "roading policy", one party government is "far worse", and his only evidence is the reforms of the 80s and early 90s.   That's just being rather vacuous.

Frankly, if either National or Labour were committed to privatisation, commercialisation, cutting government spending and winding back the state, I'd say bring on one party government.  However a Labour-Green-Maori-Mana government would be a four headed hydra of disaster, which would easily spook foreign investors and send more aspiring New Zealanders abroad. 

Unfortunately Jonathan hasn't really bothered to check what the two main parties have on offer.  National is hardly driven by a desire to engage in major reforms, it is instinctively conservative.  Labour is hardly seeking to engage in radical reforms, although is at least masochistically more interesting than National.

So no Jonathan, one party government after this election wont be perilous or dreadful, it will be "meet your new boss, same as old boss".  Politicians wanting to boss people around, spend their money while saying "it's good for you".  The only difference with a coalition is that the flavour changes.  Maybe if National needed ACT, and ACT gained 10 seats, there might be something more radical - presumably that's when Jonathan gets upset because that's not what he meant.  You see to him, like so many reporters in New Zealand, government should be there to fix problems, not get out of the way.

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