Peter Dunne says over the last two elections the genuine traditional liberal voice, so long a feature of New Zealand politics, has all but disappeared

Peter Dunne says over the last two elections the genuine traditional liberal voice, so long a feature of New Zealand politics, has all but disappeared

By Peter Dunne*

The 53rd New Zealand Parliament elected recently is without doubt the most representative in our history.

It contains more women than ever before – well over half the expanded Labour Caucus are women; there are more Maori and Pasifika represented; and MPs from Asia, Africa and South America.

There are more younger MPs than before – the average age of a New Zealand MP is now well below the international average age for politicians of 53 years. And there has already been international reference to the fact that our new Parliament is the most representative of rainbow communities of any in the world.

 As well, the range of political views represented in Parliament is also more representative ranging from the ACT Party on the right, through to the centre-right National Party, the centre-left Labour Party and the more left-wing Greens and Maori Party.

All this is positive, and something to celebrate. It confirms the burgeoning image of New Zealand as a nation in the vanguard of modern, progressive countries. It is perhaps little wonder that to many outside our country, still ravaged by the uncertainties of Covid-19, or bogged down in the racial and ethnic tensions now apparent in Europe and especially the United States, New Zealand appeals as the ideal oasis of sanity, decency and tolerance in an increasingly disjointed world.

Yet, true as all this is, and no matter how justifiably proud we can all feel about it, it masks nonetheless the reality that over the last two elections the genuine traditional liberal voice, so long a feature of New Zealand politics, has all but disappeared. None of the parties currently in Parliament today can claim to be a real liberal party.

ACT has frequently previously espoused pretensions in that direction but its libertarian focus takes it beyond the pragmatic and compassionate tone of a genuine liberal party.

The National Party has been steadily losing its urban liberal MPs for years, with the remainder now a very small rump within a party increasingly coming under the influence of the evangelical Christian right. Its previous strongly liberal MPs like Ralph Hannan in the 1960s, George Gair and Sir Jim McLay in the 1970s and 1980s, through to Nikki Kaye and Amy Adams of more recent times would all be increasingly out of step in the National Caucus of today.

While Labour has become more diverse in its membership in recent years, it has done so on the basis of becoming more the party of professional interest groups – teachers, lawyers, academics and health professionals – than a party of principle. A focus on representing the interests of those groups is no bad thing, but it does not mark out the party as any more liberal than it was in the days when its Caucus was dominated by predominantly conservative male, cloth-cap trade unionists.

For their part, to be fair, the Greens have never professed to be liberal. Their initially environment and conservation-based radicalism has now extended into social issues. As the Greens see it, the crises the world is currently facing demand radical action immediately. Consequently, they regard the more assured principle-based incrementalism liberals favour as just far too wishy-washy and slow to meet today’s challenges.

The Maori Party is different again. While it appears to share much of the Greens’ world view, it properly does so from the perspective of promoting the interests of Maori as tangata whenua, which cannot always be easily defined in terms of  where they sit on the liberal/conservative continuum.

In short, we are seeing the emergence of new political culture focused more on the representation and promotion of particular interests than the durable resolution of issues fairly across society as a whole. This much more starkly defined political environment currently leaves little room for the traditional liberal voice. Drawing together the strands of promoting social progress through a clearly defined role for the state in areas such as health, education and welfare, balanced by a commitment to sound economic policies, and an overriding respect for the rights of the individual regardless of social status, so much the historical space of the liberals, is no longer their sole preserve. Over the years, other parties have been selectively cherry-picking those parts of the liberal agenda that suit them.

New Zealand is not alone in this regard. The centre ground of politics, so long the hallowed space of the liberals, is being either squeezed or overtaken in Europe and Britain as well. Liberals are becoming an almost endangered species – nice, well-meaning people, worth having around when times are good, but somewhat of a luxury when the world’s various crises demand action now. The “yes, but” healthy scepticism of the liberal is increasingly seen as an irrelevant nuisance.

But for those of us of a traditionally liberal disposition all this has created a massive dilemma, as well as leaving us currently politically homeless. While we drew upon our customary pragmatism and sense of compromise to determine our vote for the recent election, it is not a sustainable long-term option. It is a matter of great frustration, tinged with irony, that this new, most representative of Parliaments contains no overtly liberal voice.

However, liberals have always played the long game. We understand that progress that survives can only be built on sound foundations and principles, rather than the however well-intentioned, temporary allures of the passing fads of the day. Therefore, we have the patience to survive and await the time when the liberal flame will burn brightly again. 

In the meantime, we look to this new government, and to Parliament as a whole, to govern with compassion and dignity, and to respect the rights of all New Zealanders, whatever their culture or background, as they do so.    


*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.

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14 Comments

I really struggle with those who think the National Party's best chance to retain power is through a shift to an even more socially conservative standpoint. Liberalism is the only thing that can save them - but they don't have the newbies coming through the ranks and the old-timers are just swapping each other in and out for the top job. Give me a pro-urban development, pro-tax reform and socially liberal National Party and I'll vote for as many times as I am legally able to - as would many in the centre. I'd trust them to actually execute decent policy, as opposed to Labour who can't draft it and couldn't do it even if they were able to.

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I agree. The fact that going into an election, the Labour party and its finance spokesperson rated much higher than their National counterparts among CEs and directors says a lot about National's fall from grace.

To be fair, it is easy for the opposition to boast better execution when promising to change nothing - sticking to the status quo and outright denying crises don't require complex economic management skills.
The majority of NZers believe in a leadership who at least acknowledges the system needs fixing instead of one that promises to only cut taxes, build roads and repeal regulations in the name of fixing our a faltering economy.

They were just going through the motions, aping what Key and English did and hoping that their success would rub off on them.

Think too that point was well illustrated by the brief appearance of Mr Muller, who it seemed, thought there was nothing at all preventing National from returning to the halcyon days of the Key government first two terms. Life was good for us then, and so shall it be again. Guess he woke up one morning. Bit of a pity actually, compared to others, he at least had a ring of sincerity about him.

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Regarding the current Greens, PD says “their initially environment & conservation radicalism has now been extended into social issues” - replace “extended into” with “overtaken by” and add “that’s a pity.”

"Where have the Liberals gone?"
Open homes!

Well Peter I certainly agree with you that our current "political culture [is] focused more on the representation and promotion of particular interests than the [...] society as a whole". Take housing; rather than focus on the implications on society as a whole our govt would rather try keep those with a vested interest in keeping house prices high happy. Hearing Grant Robertson state recently that having house prices rise is better than having them fall nearly made me sick. What is more important is the impact on society and if the impact on society is negative then let them fall! Imagine if he said the same thing about cars or milk.

Ha, that is exactly what the RBNZ is saying about cars and milk, not to mention beef and butter, petrol and diesel, nappies and prams, beer and wine and everything else. Inflation Is Good For Us, we are told. They really have got Orwell's Doublethink down pat.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doublethink

Yeah I know, crazy world. I know inflation is meant to be good for us, but I’d love to hear the public response to mr Robertson saying that it’s great that milk etc is going up in price cf. to houses.

"While Labour has become more diverse in its membership in recent years, it has done so on the basis of becoming more the party of professional interest groups – teachers, lawyers, academics and health professionals – than a party of principle."
Are any of the political parties of today in NZ "a party of principle"
The other special interest groups would be the developers and renter class. (residential property investor or speculators). One could stretch this to the RBNZ and banks as well.

Dunne is done.

It was a flawed 'philosophy' and a temporary one.

Mexico is Central America.

PD has a fairly telling comment here; "we are seeing the emergence of new political culture focused more on the representation and promotion of particular interests than the durable resolution of issues fairly across society as a whole" Suggesting that perhaps the polarisation of society is getting worse. So equality and equity will suffer, social ills will get worse and ultimately so will social division. Not a pretty portent.

Alongside that as natural progression is self interest. As it becomes necessary for Joe Public to navigate himself through every increasing divergent and unforeseen aspects of life, it is natural to then have defences at the ready and to employ them as needed. That function can readily enough then go from self defence to attack in the form of ambition. You see it for example on the rugby field, particularly juniors where every player wants to score the try, rather than fourteen creating it for one, but for a hard tackle, best left to one of the other fourteen.