• Who’s Extreme?

    Whatever one may think of John Key, he can at least do his sums. He knows that anything less than 49% of the vote at the next election is likely to mean that he loses office, and that a Labour-led government will take over.

    It is presumably fear of that outcome that has led him recently to sharpen his attacks on his political opponents. The contest, we are told, is between a cuddly-sounding “centre-right” and a threatening “far left”. A Labour and Greens alliance is a “devil beast”. We’ll soon be back to Cossack dancers, though North Korea rather than the Soviet Union seems to be the bogeyman of choice used these days to frighten voters.

    It is always regrettable, and bad for democracy, when low-grade abuse takes over from reasoned argument. And it is even less defensible when the targets for such abuse are able to locate their political whakapapa in the democratic tradition which they, perhaps more than any others, did so much to build.

    As it happens, though, we have now been presented with a rather more convincing example of extremism close to home. The paper leaked by a National party insider and reported in Saturday’s Herald reveals the determined efforts being made by a small group of zealots to foist upon this country policies that are supported only by a tiny percentage of the population – that is, the proportion that would normally vote for Act.

    The dream of these “fiscal conservatives” (who would find an enthusiastic welcome in the wilder Tea Party reaches of American politics) is to move elected governments out of the way so that the voters don’t matter and the country can be run by big business. To this end, they are, according to the leaked paper, working to place their supporters as National candidates in winnable seats, to target control of local authorities, to get their supporters promoted into top public sector jobs, to dominate media coverage, to build up a war-chest of “business money”, and to secure influential positions in strategic organisations – and all without revealing to their National party colleagues that they are engaged in a conspiracy against their own party.

    This might seem far-fetched, but we have been here before. As Nikky Hager revealed in The Hollow Men, Don Brash and his secret backers were engaged in just such a conspiracy, and they nearly pulled it off. We nearly elected as Prime Minister in 2005 a man who had concealed his true intentions from the voters and who would have done enormous damage to this country, both economically and socially, and not least to race relations. If Don Brash had won, even many National voters would have woken up to ask “what have we done?”

    Nor should we comfort ourselves with the belief that it couldn’t happen again. The tiny number of “fiscal conservatives” in this country exercise a disproportionate influence in business organisations, especially in some of our major industries. And the senior ranks of today’s National party are not immune; we are told in the leaked paper that even one or two very senior members of the present Cabinet may well be sympathetic to “cleaning out” the “wet wing” of the party and to ensuring that a National government will do whatever is required of it by big-business donors.

    If John Key is anxious about extremism, than that is where he should turn his attention. But at least he himself can be acquitted of wanting to foist these unrepresentative views on an unsuspecting public?

    It is certainly true that he is no ideological conspirator – he doesn’t have to be. He presents as essentially a pragmatist who goes with the flow.

    But pragmatists still make judgments according to the beliefs they hold; they may swim with the tide, but it is the one they always choose. And the tide he chooses is not very different from the one chosen by his own extremists; the record shows that it is one that leads inexorably to a John Key government conducted in the interests of big business.

    New Zealand voters, like the Americans, may have lost sight of what is extreme and what is not. Eduardo Porter of the New York Times reports that, while polls show that Americans believe that their political ideology has changed little in recent decades, what it means to be “conservative” or “liberal” (as the Americans use it, now a term of abuse in many circles) has changed considerably.

    Porter drew attention to the success achieved by extreme right-wingers in moving the whole spectrum to the right. In surveys 25 years ago, for example, 71 percent of Americans
    believed it was the government’s job to take care of those who couldn¹t care for themselves, a percentage that has now fallen to 59%.

    So, while we must salute the public-spiritedness of the National party leaker who presumably recognised the danger of extreme views to both his party and the country, the danger is far from over. Without our realising it, a government whose priority is to support big business interests is still coming our way.

    Bryan Gould

    1 June 2013