• Gearing Up for the Election

    Yes, an election is in the offing – and we all know that elections can be polarising, as parties of the left and right square off against each other.

    But we should not allow our party and political allegiances to obscure the fact that, in a properly functioning democracy like New Zealand, what unites us is more important than what divides us.

    And party allegiances are not set in concrete. Even for the individual, they can change over time; and my own experience offers a case in point.

    The conventional view is that people are more radical in their views when younger and that they grow more conservative as they grow older. My progress was in the opposite direction.

    I grew up in a family that took it for granted that “people like us” voted National. I was brought up to believe in the right-wing values – that individual effort should be properly rewarded because it was what held society together and allowed us all to progress, that everyone had their “proper place” in society, that property rights were sacrosanct, and that respect for authority (not to say hierarchy) was the necessary basis on which an orderly society operated.

    It was only as I grew up and my life experience extended that I began to see further and to understand more. I began to see that a society that was happy with itself, because everyone had a stake and an equal chance in it, was not only morally required and appropriate, but also delivered a great practical benefit to all of us, both collectively and individually. I saw that serving the interests of the “have nots” as well as the “haves” was the proper business of government.

    Even today, when my current views are conveniently but not always accurately described as left-wing, I think I understand that most of those on my right are – while misguided – not necessarily ill-intentioned but seek in broad terms the same outcomes as I do. I am satisfied that, if the levers of power were to pass into their hands, no irremediable damage would be done to the fundamentals of a free and democratic society – not least because there would soon be another opportunity to persuade my fellow-citizens that there is a better way.

    There is no need, in other words, to demonise one’s political opponents. From the left, the right might well be attacked for being uncaring and selfish; from the right, the left could be accused of relying on others to fund their ambitions. But in neither case need we be too despairing if we lose the argument for the time being – the emphases and directions may differ but the fundamentals will remain the same.

    We are in the happy position in New Zealand, unlike those in many other countries, of being assured that most of those seeking the powers of government have no intention of seizing that power and keeping it in perpetuity. We are all – or almost all – democrats, and we engage in an entirely proper and productive competition for popular support. It is, after all, that need to please the voters that keeps our governments in check and doing the right thing.

    We might even learn that the terms “left-wing” or “right-wing” are, or should be, descriptive, rather than terms of abuse, and that their application to this or that opinion does not invalidate it or deny its legitimacy, and tells us as much about their user as about those to whom they are applied.

    So, let us welcome the firing of the starting pistol. It signifies that we are once again invited to engage in a decision that billions of people worldwide would give their right arms (and even their left arms too!) to have the chance to enjoy. And, when we express our personal preferences for one person, party or policy rather than another, we are exercising our democratic rights, rather than seeking to deny them to others. We are all entitled to warm to one politician, rather than another, and to think there could be a better way.

    So, let the battle begin – and let us be ready to salute the victors, and to live to fight another day if we lose.

    Bryan Gould
    5 August 2020