Peter Dunne bemoans the current sorry state of politics, which has seen the demise of give-and-take and balanced argument that had previously been the hallmarks of liberal democracy

Peter Dunne bemoans the current sorry state of politics, which has seen the demise of give-and-take and balanced argument that had previously been the hallmarks of liberal democracy

Anyone who tuned into this week’s television debate between ACT leader David Seymour and National MP Maggie Barry on the subject of Mr Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill in the expectation of learning more about a controversial subject that will affect each one of us in some way or another would surely have been disappointed.

Instead of witnessing an informed debate covering the vexed moral and ethical issues, the provisions of the Bill, what refinements of it might yet be required, and whether it is likely to gain the support of Parliament, viewers were subject to an unedifying slanging match between two politicians interested only in pushing their own viewpoint, and not being prepared to even consider whether there was anything even remotely meritorious in what the other was saying. Both were uncompromisingly rigid in their views, and neither was prepared to concede even a millimetre to the other.

Sadly, that display was not unusual. The contemporary failure of politics the world over has been the death of reasoned debate that has come to the fore in recent years. The give and take of hitherto nuanced and balanced argument that has been the hallmark of liberal democracy for so long has been replaced by the absolute assertion of one’s position, with no room for, or even recognition of, the possibility of compromise. From the rise of Trumpism, through to the utter humiliating farce of the daily shambles that is Britain’s attempt to leave the European Union, the result is the same. Reason and judgment have given way to absolutist intolerance.

Associated with this mounting intolerance is a new arrogance where politicians have stopped trying to explain themselves (after all, as Ronald Reagan once said explaining is losing – although as we now know, in his case, it may have been more an excuse for not remembering) and just arrogantly assert the opposite. When, for example, our Deputy Prime Minister, with a record of over more than two decades of anti-Islamic and anti-Asian speeches can baldly state that he has been consistently misrepresented, and, despite his words being on the public record, has been deliberately misinterpreted by his critics yet is generally allowed to get away with it, you know we have a problem. Or when a government promises to fix the housing and child poverty problems the country is facing, yet halfway through its term these problems are far worse than they were when it started but the government says it is making progress and things are actually now better than they were, you realise the extent to which reason, judgment, common-sense and truth have vacated our political scene.

So, in that sense, the Seymour/Barry debacle was not out of the ordinary. It conformed to a trend that has been developing over recent years, which has been steadily alienating people from the political process. It is no coincidence that as a consequence public participation in the political process has been waning. The days of mass membership political parties are long gone. Electoral studies have shown that today about 3% of the population belong to political parties, well down from nearly 25% a couple of generations ago. Not even the advent of MMP has stemmed this, with what data that is available showing that most parties, new and old, have faced declining membership over the period. And voter turnout at elections has also been falling - from almost 94% in 1984 down to just under 80% in 2017.

But the trend is not isolated to New Zealand. From a high of just over 80% in 1950, voter turnout in Britain has slipped to just under 67% at the most recent General Election in 2017. Even the Brexit referendum, arguably the most important constitutional decision Britain has faced since the 1707 Acts of Union that established the United Kingdom, attracted a turnout of just 72%. In the United States voter turnout for Presidential elections has never been high – the highest turnout of the last half century or so was about 63% in 1960 when Kennedy was elected. Trump was elected on a turnout of about 55% in 2016.

These figures will all continue their steady deterioration if the current sorry state of politics remains. And, sadly, all the signs are that it will. Liberalism, with its hallmarks of reason and tolerance, is in decline the world over, with no real signs of an early resuscitation. As The Economist observed recently, liberalism, which has been the world’s most enduring and successful political theory of the last 400 years is now disintegrating. Tellingly, it makes the point that “people are retreating into group identities defined by race, religion or sexuality. As a result … the common interest has become fragmented. Identity politics is a valid response to discrimination but, as identities multiply, the politics of each group collides with the politics of all the rest. Instead of generating useful compromises, debate becomes an exercise in tribal outrage. Leaders on the right, in particular, exploit the insecurity engendered by immigration as a way of whipping up support. And they use smug left-wing arguments about political correctness to feed their voters’ sense of being looked down on. The result is polarisation. Sometimes that leads to paralysis, sometimes to the tyranny of the majority. At worst it emboldens far-right authoritarians.”

Elements of all this can be seen in the Seymour/Barry debate, and in a manner of contemporary political actions in New Zealand and elsewhere. It is powerful food for thought in this country as we contemplate the lasting impacts of the Christchurch Mosque killings and how our society might change as a consequence. The need for a new national tolerance for diversity of race, belief and opinion has been frequently stated as an early necessary step to take. This week’s Seymour/Barry slanging match on an important social issue showed our current political discourse has degenerated into nothing more than “an exercise in tribal outrage”, and what a long road we have yet to travel to restore respect, tolerance and reason to the centre of our political stage. Only then will the coming generation of New Zealanders feel confident that they can renew successfully meaningful engagement with the political process so that we build up afresh a tolerant and open society not afraid to face up to its challenges. 

*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.

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.



I blame the media. So often the host asks a question and gets a rambling generic response which does not answer the question. Instead of insisting on an answer, they ask the next question on the auto queue. And if we get a decent probing host, then the politicians just refuse to come back on air (John Campbell has written about this).

The upside of the old days with one tv channel had an upside. If you wanted exposure, you had to front and answer - there was no alternative.

These days I go for podcast or you tube discussions on topics of interest. Tv is for the dead mind.

They also compulsively interrupt the person they're interviewing if it appears their "gotcha" question is being answered effectively. Sometimes they seem more driven to prevent questions being answered than to actually provide useful interviews.

Yes 1984 is a good stake in the ground. That was the end of Muldoon and his destroy the messenger or opponent personally & to hell with the issue, modus operandi. Before that the like of Nash,Holyoake, Kirk conducted fairly measured debating. Muldoon of course was the first to grasp the weaponry of television, he was good at it, knew it, over exploited it, and it got out of control. It was hoped MMP would dampen down all the shenanigans the electorate was heartily sick of. It hasn’t. Instead we just got another 30 or so MPs to add to the stew. And some of them have been real shockers indeed.

How to Spot a Sociopath

Superficial charm and good intelligence
Absence of delusions and other signs of irrational thinking
Absence of nervousness or neurotic manifestations
Untruthfulness and insincerity
Lack of remorse and shame
Inadequately motivated antisocial behavior
Poor judgment and failure to learn by experience
Pathologic egocentricity and incapacity for love
General poverty in major affective reactions
Specific loss of insight
Unresponsiveness in general interpersonal relations
Fantastic and uninviting behavior with alcohol and sometimes without
Suicide threats rarely carried out
Sex life impersonal, trivial, and poorly integrated
Failure to follow any life plan

Agreed re media.

And we have to remember that Dunne is of the echelon that became captured by the Rand/Hayek/Friedman free-marketeery. I'm not talking Left/Right, I mean the arrant stupidity which thought it could run an energy-using, resource-depleting, exponentially-increasing system, to anybody's advantage (given that it kills the elite off too, in the end game).

And whent he pendulum swung away from what was essentially a push for accelerating unsustainability (even if the tide ebbed for other ideological reasons) he couldn't go with it. Couldn't learn, admit mea-culpa. Now it appears he's trying to re-invent himself as a wise old ex-pollie. Some of us have longer memories

It appears that you are demonstrating just what Mr. Dunne is talking about. Instead of informed debate about the topic at hand, go instead for mud-slinging and personal attacks about something unrelated to the subject under discussion. You do not do your cause any favors with this style of rhetoric. I discount people that use the "attack the messenger" tactic. And yes, I may have a memory as well.

We hear too much interviewer and not enough interviewee. Just ask a simple non-specific question such as "Prime Minister - what are concerns about China at present?" then leave it to the audience to come to their own judgement if she answers "I worry about human rights and the rule of law" or "I worry about reports that their economy may be fragile because of debt problems" or "I only think about what is best for Kiwis" or "I worry about offending our biggest trading partner".
A pleasant apparently friendly interview can often be the most revealing.

I blame us - the general population transfixed by the latest reality TV show, constantly thumping out banal social media posts to impress (out point) online friends, and devouring trending hashtag feeds that re-affirm our omnipresent outrage. The politicians and media are playing to their audience. They've figured us out. (Us being the average 21st century citizen.)

However, people are still heavily consuming long form interviews and news. They've just moved to podcasts and specialist YouTube channels.

Those who seek greater depth are finding it elsewhere because traditional news media is often focusing on click bait.

I blame the interviewer asking closed questions designed for a yes or no response. Of course the issues are far more nuanced than a simple yes or no can justify. And then they get angry when the interviewee doesn't give them a yes or no? Talk about a lack of nuance - it starts with the question being asked.
When is the last time you heard a question starting with who/what/when/where/why or how?
Most often the interviewer brings up a random quote from the past, without context, and asks a closed question on the back of it. Purely designed for the benefit of the interviewer being able to put him or herself into the limelight by getting a "gotcha" moment, in the name of "asking the tough questions."


If we are going have "reason" at the heart of our politics, i.e. we debate to discover the truth, then we must actually believe in truth - an absolute truth. Truth became relative in many parts of our society and, therefore, there can be no meaningful debate, only expressions of preference. Consequently, we have "identity politics". Identity politics, combined with victim-hood and outrage culture, unites people into voting blocks and politicians capitalize on it. Ben Shapiro famously stated that "facts don't care about your feelings". Unfortunately, we live in a society where feelings don't care about facts. The only way to revitalise our democracies is to bring truth to the centre of our debates and for all persons (public, media, politicians) is to call out nonsense.

Jeffrey Tucker has a thoughtful article along these very lines. He traces the rise of identity politics to the 'Personal is Political' meme that started in the late 1960's, and has seeped into the culture, corroding it as it does so. It neatly explains the passionate cries for 'The Gubmint's Gotter Do Somefink' for every grazed knee and bruised ego, the retreat from mass participation, and the regression to tribalism of every description that we are now living through.

There are many problems with the slogan “the personal is the political” but two stand out. First, personal experience is as diverse as the people on the planet; surely not every personal experience can become a political cause without infinite clashes and contradictions. Second, the plan results in all-consuming state power to the point that you can’t speak, act, or even breathe without bumping into a cop – or a screaming mob.

Both problems have reached their boiling point sometime in the last two years. Surely you have noticed. In the name of justice, equity, and fairness, people are being fired from jobs for utterances or writings from decades ago. The wrong word or look can result in a mob attack and the loss of a career, no matter how successful one happens to be. The spotting of evil is endless and so fast-moving that it is impossible to keep up. Words and phrases that were the height of political compliance just five years ago (“his or her”) are now denounced as oppressively binary.

And the howling attacks against anyone and everyone who dissents is shutting down debate. One dares not take issue with, for example, the pummeling of a prominent person in absence of evidence for fear of doxing and flogging from howling moralists who will exact retribution against you. This explains the many strange pockets of silence on certain topics in the Twittersphere.


The saddest aspect to me is that, our cultures' having climbed, slowly and haltingly, out of the oubliette of quarrelsome tribes - a process that took five to six centuries if we date it from, say, Luther in 1517 - , we now seemed destined to be pitched straight back in.......

As the punchline from the old joke goes: "OK, break's over, back on your heads..."

What PD is identifying here is the nature of the type of personality being attracted to politics. Big egos, and absolute belief they are right, and hence an inability to listen to, accept, or even learn from a different perspective. Additionally they seem to think to do so will be a sign of weakness. There also seems to be a bit of "patch protection" involved, where they may feel their power is threatened. Pretty common in management really, especially in government service.

Rational debate is undermined by our political structure. You really have to be member of a party to get in to parliament these days. when was the last independant actually voted in at a general election? Back benchers are essentially muzzled when the get in. For years aspiring politicians have identified being shocked by their treatment when they first got into office. Piggy Muldoon was well known for running roughshod over others, I suspect Helen Clark and her off sider were very good at putting the knife in while giving hugs. So much for democracy!

I do believe that any analysis of the psyche of any individual who embarks on a political career would reveal, not necessarily all that deep down either, a personality that seeks to, and revels in, telling others what to do. And equally, on the other side , a bitter dislike of being told what to do.

Politicians are just a mirror of their constituencies. Politicians have learnt that their constituencies don't want to compromise, so politicians won't. Moderates are an endangered species and reviled by both extremes. Horse-trading, an imperfect means of brokering compromise, is practically a crime. And I wouldn't sheet home more blame to the right than the left. Ocasio-Cortez is the one who recently said "meh" to moderates.

Is this the debate between those two individuals that is referenced in the article?

Or is Peter talking about the Parliamentary debate?

Peter must be talking about the parliamentary debate? In the longer version with David Seymour and Maggie Barry, David offered her an olive branch which was promptly slapped away. They still both had their fair share of digs in between though.

(Childish personal smear deleted, Ed).

Many politicians hunger for personal adVancement

“Or when a government promises to fix the housing and child poverty problems the country is facing, yet halfway through its term these problems are far worse than they were when it started but the government says it is making progress and things are actually now better than they were, you realise the extent to which reason, judgment, common-sense and truth have vacated our political scene.”

When will we realise that we are on our own as individuals and it is up to us to make our own lives better? No political party can and will help. We only really vote to see how much is taken from our pockets.

What we see on the telly is symptomatic of our relationships in general - untrusting, non-believing, often violent, filled with bad language, lots of sex & frequently killed. My advice is don't watch the telly too much, it's bad for your health.

That the quality of discourse has degenerated is down to two things:
1. Disenfranchisement of many people from parliament by day to day struggles with living. Who can take an avid interest in politics when they're worrying about mortgage payments and little Johhny needs new shoes.
2. Lack of any quality political TV debate. Case in point TV3's The Project. This excuse for political inspection highlights the damage to political discourse by commercial interests with no serious intent to examine issues closely. State Owned TV1 isn't much better. And the politicians are happier that way.

Interesting conversation.
Our media is certainly pretty bereft of quality. It's very much lowest common denominator. Some of that is a product of a small population, I think some of it is also cultural.
Your point 1 - yes, although the day to day struggles should breed interest in politics, should they not? Is it exhaustion and despair with neo-liberalism? After all, the government is, really, a slightly left wing variation on neo-liberalism.

John Campbell is back on Checkpoint. He's a fantastic journalist, presenter, and human being. So there you go, some credibility is returning to the media.

We live in completely different times with numerous pressing issues flying at us like bullets. We all also have our own ability to make our own views known to the world, via what I am doing right now.
There are many threats facing the human race, most of the created by us, the degradation of the planet, climate change and our own overpopulation of the planet being the most glaringly obvious.
The competitive nature of economic systems, especially of the last 20 to 30 years have seen us pitted against one another, till now we barely trust our own shadows, everyone has it in for everyone else.
I believe we could be headed for deadly conflict unless we can work through this collectively, something I hold little hope out for at the moment.
Peter Dunne is being a bit nostalgic here, again, these are different times and uncharted waters we are in.

Nope. Its a societal issue particular to NZ I feel and the liies of UF never helps. Its impossible to debate a topic here you just get shouted down, punched in the face or called a racist. Sometimes all 3. Go to a Country like Holland and you can argue or debate endlessly without any supression or violence. We have much to learn.

Ultrafiltration lies???

I guess if you compromise you are accused of changing your mind, flip flopping, being wishy washy. Whereas if you stick to your principles you are arrogant. Case in point Winston Peters is wrong for backpeddling his earlier remarks, but his earlier remarks were wrong so it's a double bind, if he stuck to what he has said in the past he will still be dammned.

The problem is NZ is hypersensitive race, religion, and discrimination. It was bad before and it’s worse now! All meaningful discussion about any particular topic gets shut down when some sanctimonious individual plays the moral indignation trump card, or virtue signals to use the modern vernacular.