By Peter Dunne*
For each of us, there is a golden time in our lives, a period we look back on, where everything seemed rosy, where setbacks were few, and which we wish we could recreate tomorrow. It is but a pleasant memory, which rarely can be rekindled, as time and circumstances move inevitably on. Such nostalgia is not a problem. Indeed, it can be quite a positive experience. The only difficulty emerges when we try to recreate it, and fail to appreciate it was a snapshot in time that has gone forever.
For the current Labour-led Government, the golden time appears to be the era of the third Labour Government between 1972 and 1975. This was the era where bold decisions were made that stood out in stark relief to the years of conformity and complacency during the 1950s and 1960s.
China was recognised; the troops were brought home from Vietnam; the Springbok Tour was stopped; the French were taken to the World Court over nuclear testing in the Pacific and nuclear ship visits to New Zealand were suspended. Colour television and the second state-run channel were introduced; beneficiaries received a Christmas bonus; and the Queen Elizabeth Arts Council and the Waitangi Tribunal were established. A bold superannuation scheme we still hanker after was briefly put in place. There was talk of a new city being built at Rolleston near Christchurch and a national Ohu scheme, based on Israel's kibbutz system, was mooted for young people interested in communal living.
Heady days indeed. But it all came crashing down after the impact of the 1973 Oil Shock. Unemployment (which at one stage had been literally one person) and shortages of materials began to soar, delaying housing and commercial and industrial development; the Government was forced to borrow massively overseas to meet the soaring oil bill; inflation, which Labour had promised to "knock for six" exploded threefold; and, the Labour Government was swept ignominiously from office after just three years.
Yet, today, nearly 50 years later, it is the idealism, not the failure, that is remembered so wistfully. Ministers in the present Government, many of whom who were some years away from being born then, seem to yearn for a return to those apparently idyllic and simpler times.
There are a couple of lessons from the fate of the third Labour Government that the present administration seems unwilling to confront. The first is that the politics of the grand gesture - in this case, the establishment of the billion dollar Provincial Growth Fund, or the Kiwibuild promise of 100,000 new affordable homes, or the decision to stop oil and gas exploration, come to mind - have to be followed by actions of substance. Otherwise, the bold gesture begins to look like a hollow lie.
The second lesson to learn is the constraint of moving at a pace and direction the public feels comfortable with, and avoiding getting too far ahead of public opinion. One of the reasons why the 1984-1990 Labour Government was able to make its radical changes was because the public generally believed change was overdue. Moreover, the Government was constantly explaining its actions and decisions, giving the dual sense of both assurance that it knew what it was doing, and that the public was being taken into its confidence. Once the public came to doubt both these things after 1987, that Government's demise was as swift and even more dramatic than in 1975.
It was the Spanish philosopher George Santayana who observed that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. An ironic warning really, given that Santayana's work enjoyed a brief renaissance in the 1970s, with posters of his writings adorning the walls of many student flats, some 20 years after his death. In its nostalgia to recreate the spirit (or what the bumbling lawyer Denis Denuto better described as "the vibe" in the great Australian film, "The Castle") Labour could do well to remember the gentle words of Santayana.
*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister. This article first ran here and is used with permission.