Don't blame the politicians; it's voters who set the tone
Auckland Unitarian Church, September 15, 2020
For today’s sermon I’d like to start with Plato’s comment that democracy is NOT a perfect system of government, because it encourages people who are selfish and irresponsible, and politicians who have to bribe them to stay in power.
In his book The Republic, published about 375 BC, he studied a list of political systems of his time, and how each of them had come unstuck, and led on to the next. The first two systems were ruled by aristocrats, then by landowners. He regarded both groups as idealists. Further down was democracy, which he saw as giving free rein to the lowest common denominator of people who were uneducated and driven by their own selfish needs. With democracy, he said, the leaders could not achieve a stable government, so it would decay into tyranny.
I wouldn’t put much weight on his view that aristocrats are idealistic. But I believe his ideas about democracy are still interesting, and relevant to us as we prepare for an election. In the secular education campaign this year I have been lobbying politicians from all our parliamentary parties, and it’s led me to feel empathetic towards all of them. They are doing their best to meet our concerns; we should not blaming them.
What do you think?
To create a map through this jungle of ideas, I’m suggesting we consider five guidelines, which have the common theme, how can we make democracy work, given that it is based on people who have different, selfish agendas, including us.
My wishlist is:
that we need to be well informed; looking at all sides of the issues of our time
we need to lobby our leaders with empathy for them
we need to find a way of respecting our politicians, including the ones we don’t like
we need to work for consensus
If they go low, we go high
So the first goal on my wishlist is for us be well informed.
This has become a major part of our election, and that’s just as well, since were are faced with very complex issues such as Covid-19. Jacinda Ardern and Dr Ashleigh Bloomfield have been giving lectures that I would rate high among the lectures I heard studying for my BA and degrees.
I think it was significant that Dr Bloomfield was given so much air time; a public servant getting as much attention as the campaigning politicians.
For instance, did you know prior to this year that when you sneeze, fine droplets stay in the air for days, but larger droplets end up sticking on the walls of a bus or lift and can infect people hours later?
I knew prior to this election that gene testing could tell where your great great grandparents came from, but I didn’t know it could also tell you where a virus came from.
And did you know prior to this year how often should people be tested if they work in an airport, or a supermarket, and how long they should be quarantined if they show a positive result?
This is very technical stuff, so how can we know who to vote for, if we can’t weigh up issues like these.
This is not the only election issue requiring us to be well informed. Another obvious one is climate change, which could cause far greater damage than Covid-19. It could make large parts of the world uninhabitable.
It makes me wonder: Do we need Green members in parliament:
to educate us about global warming
to educate us about options such as whether we should all be buying electric cars, or whether we should be getting rid of dairy products.
education alone will never solve these things; we also need to rally political support for them.
Global warming is arguably the major political issue of our time, but you would not think so by listening to our election talk.
There is a battle for facts in all elections. But more so now than ever before.
And my point is that this is not just a task for politicians but us. I suggest that part of the reason the US has the world's worst record over climate change, is that there are millions of voters who like freedom and don’t like any facts that interfere with their plans.
As Plato noted….. in a democracy even stupid people get to vote. Plato’s answer was to get in a tyrant in charge. Surely a better answer is to educate the public.
One of my heroes in this debate (besides Jacinda and Ashleigh) is the man in West Auckland, where there was an anti-Covid conspiracy demonstration, led by ill-informed people saying the Covid-19 threat was not real, and Bill Gates had secretly visited New Zealand to do something about it. This protestor did his own rival demonstration with a placard saying these people are idiots. I think he’s a good role model.
There is a lot of fact denial in our community… And some religious groups are a prime example of it. That’s why I include science among my sermon topics… I believe we need to make science a larger part of our culture, because we are making scientific decisions all the time.
The second goal on my wishlist is for us to lobby our leaders, with empathy.
That is the biggest lesson I have learned this year. It has been an eye-opener for me. I have done much more lobbying this year, and have had correspondence or meetings with a dozen politicians, and to my amazement I can identify with all of them.
This impression started for me when I was making a submission in parliament to the Education and Workplace committee, and part of my preparation was reading bios of all 11 committee members. There were things I could identify with in most of them, but not Nikki Kaye, the National party education spokesperson. I thought she was rather cold and right wing. But when I started preparing to meet the committee I thought there must be something that National Party people like about her, so I did a deeper Google search, and found:
· that she was very concerned about Chinese students who couldn’t get to study in NZ because of Covid-19; and landlords were evicting them, for fear they themselves might get infected.
· I found several political writers who reckoned she should be National’s next leader, because she is a very collaborative, centrist politician.
· So I made a point of inviting her to speak about it in this church, and to my surprise she came. She also asked me to post her updates on secular education… And I was impressed what a good listener she was. If I had been in Auckland central, I would have voted for her, though I would still have given Labour or Green my party vote.
I also contacted all the other parties’ education spokespeople, and there was not one of them that I did not like.
Golriz Ghahraman is the Green Party education leader and she met me for a quarter of an hour in March, and then for half an hour in a second visit where I hoped she might make this an election issue for the Greens. She didn’t agree with me, but agreed to pass my requests on to the Greens policy committee. And she was the only politician to address secular education when a new Education bill was in its final stages.
Chris Hipkins would be my favourite politician of all parties, because of his courtesy, and taking my objections seriously, and even more because he then shone as the new minister of health as well. He is a star in my view.
Even David Seymour, who is so far right I could not vote for Act… he also gave me 15 minutes of his time, and I agreed with two of his principles… freedom of speech, and the end of life bill. He is so approachable, he would be a good local MP… and if I had been in Eden, I could have voted for him personally, but not for his party. I am not surprised that the Act party has been gathering supporters rapidly in the last few months. That's him paragliding to get public attention.
So I get disgusted when I read the letters to the Herald and read only negative comments about our politicians. Nearly all of them have positive merits.
The third goal on my wishlist is to show respect for politicians you don’t like.
For all my previous remarks, Judith Collins is still a politician I don’t like. And I did a groan when she became leader of the National Party and Nikki Kaye pulled out of politics. But I had to admit that she was the most charismatic of the National party team, one of the most intelligent, one of the most articulate.
She has been maligned because of her involvement in the National Party’s dirty politics campaign under John Key two elections back. But as I remember it, she came in for a lot of flak that she didn’t deserve. A complaint was made about her connections with a Chinese businessman. It was investigated. She was suspended pending the investigation, and came out with a clean bill of health.
But most unfairly, John Key didn’t give her her former ranking back. There really was dirty politics then, as freelance journalist Nicky Hager pointed out… but Judith Collins was on the receiving end more than the giving end. And I believed she deserved to have a comeback.
Like her or not… I believe we should respect her. She is an articulate leader of the opposition, and unless we intend to deport all right-wing New Zealanders to America… she speaks for them; and we should respect them. They are part of the team of 5 million.
Part of democracy is respecting people you don’t like, and accepting that it would be bad for the country if we got all the things we believe in. We have no right to demand that other people share our concerns.
The fourth goal on my wishlist is to work for consensus
One of my favourite political causes is consensus decision making, and this is the main virtue of our proportional representation elections. I think it is good that we have five parties in parliament.
One of the features of Maori society is that they traditionally use consensus decision making on the marae, and in several churches, the Anglicans and Methodists, and maybe others, the two groups need to agree for a decision to be made.
One of the virtues of Jacinda Ardern over the past three years is that she was prepared to swallow dead rats and form a partnership with the New Zealand First party. She dropped one of her favourite programmes (and mine) when she agreed to drop the campaign for a capital gains tax. She has been harshly criticised for this. I am critical about her too. But I can also see another side to it: she was not wrong to work for consensus.
In politics we tend to focus on decisions made by a majority of 51 percent. I believe our political situation would be better if we listened to people from other political parties and tried to design policies that would have the support of 60 or 70 percent.
On the other hand, I notice that Jacinda is not working for consensus now, not in any way I can see. It would seem in her best interests if she could have given a lending hand to the Green Party, whose support is dropping toward the fate of not having five percent of the vote, and not having any MPs in parliament.
My toughest personal issue this election has been whether to vote Green (who I like) in favour of Labour (who I like even more) to give them both a better chance of forming a government. I ended up voting Labour, but now that Labour has a massive majority I am wishing that the Green vote had been higher and the Labour vote lower. We would then be getting better discussions about the environment. The National Party would have to address the issue more strongly as well, and as voters we would have had to spend more time considering the alternatives.
The final goal on my wishlist is: when they go low, we should go high.
I think Jacinda Ardern is quite good at this, but even better, I think is minister of education Chris Hipkins again. It shows in all his speeches, but was especially evident in the final debate over the Education and Training Bill. which got very little attention in the media. This was my personal top priority for the election so I stayed up till the end, watching for the sections about religious instruction.
Chris Hipkins was in the chair, and he was superb at going high. Whenever there was a question, he would thank the questioner, and say how helpful it was. When he referred to the background of the debate he paid a very high tribute to Nikki Kaye, who had by then announced her retirement, and said how good she was to work with, and how good she will be in her next position whatever that is.
Whenever he talked about the future of education. He kept wishing the best for New Zealand under the next government, “whichever government it might be”. And he capped it off by saying he expected the tone of goodwill to be out of fashion for a couple of months (because of the election campaign), but he hoped we would go back to co-operation after it the election was over.
Now I accept that this standard is so high, it is almost impossible to achieve. There have been moments in this debate when both parties have been negative, and self-justifying, and when Jacinda and Judith have been trying to outdo each other in toughness… especially over sacking members of their own party who misbehave. At one stage I was wondering whether we would run out of politicians on both sides of the house.
I especially felt sorry for the National member who was having an affair with a member of his staff…. and I thought so what?
But on the gentle side, I recall Dr Bloomfield refusing to get into a witch-hunt over the health department people who failed to ensure adequate security at a quarantine base. He too went high, when a number of journalists were going low, and looking for excuses to find every possible fault in the candidates.
I think that was a good lead.
So this election campaign has given us several good role models for going high, but I believe we voters also need to go high, by not denigrating people we disagree with. We are the ones who set the tone.
If we stop asking for heads to roll, head-rolling will go out of fashion. Some mistakes need to be tracked down; others we should tolerate, or deal with quietly.
If we are kind, we can expect our politicians to follow.
I wrote this addendum just a week before the election, and I stand by my earlier comments, about the merits of many of our politicians.
But I would like to add an overview as well. It seems to me that in addition to having some constructive politicians, I believe we have also had one of the cleanest elections I can remember (in my 82 years) All parties presented a positive view of their talents and goals, more than a denigration of others. With the exception, I believe, of Winston Peters. His approach can be understood; he was trying to blacken the Labour Party, so as to imply that Labour would be a disaster without him. I think this backfired.
Judith Collins also went in for a bit of insulting and distorting of Labour, which is contrary to the style of politics I am advocating, but she never let it obscure the issues, or the positive policies of both parties.
As a result of this courtesy on both sides of the election, I think we had three excellent TV debates between Judith Collins and Jacinda Ardern. They improved as they went along. The issues became crystal clear, which is a tribute to them and the three journalists who hosted them.
And it still remains a cliff hanger at October 10. If we get a National-Act government I will be personally disappointed, but I will feel all of the contestants have merits, and displayed them well.
Plato was wrong to come out against democracy. There are countries today where Plato’s concerns were fully justified; the US is one of them. But democracy is alive and well in a number of other countries, including our own. And we New Zealand voters can take some of the credit. We demanded that our politicians base their case on facts; we demanded that they be courteous; we showed empathy for them, and to a degree, we were successful in launching a new style in local and world politics.