28 January 2016
There used to be a State opening of Parliament every year, complete with a Speech from the Throne setting out the government’s agenda. That was followed by a full Address-in-Reply Debate, where most MPs spoke, on what was said or not said, as the case may be.
Nowadays, we have an annual Prime Minister’s Statement. Even that has changed over the years. Today, the actual Statement is merely tabled; the Parliamentary debate is quite truncated and highly politicised. Rather than being a formal presentation and consideration of the government’s agenda for the year ahead, it has descended to the depths of being no more than the opening round of the year’s political boxing match.
It is preceded – in the best of the emerging traditions of what passes to be sporting competition today – with the preliminary skirmishes. This farce is euphemistically and overly grandiosely referred as the state of the nation addresses. With rare exceptions (the Auckland rail funding announcement and the Greens’ election policy costing ideas, for example) these speeches are increasingly like the strutting bellowing of boxers at the weigh-in, or a pre-Big Bash team rant. Because of the ritual chest-thumping and knuckle dragging behaviour they display, they actually add nothing to political debate. Sadly, for many New Zealanders they are no more than the signal that the holidays are over, the politicians are back, so it is time to switch off and carry on with their own lives for the year ahead.
There is a place for passion, outrage and anger in politics. It should be rare and dignified, and never feigned, befitting a major issue of the day. Unfortunately, the competition for attention and the presence of some addled egos means that virtually every issue is now treated that way. All that means is that a moderately interested (at best) public sees this cant for what it is, and becomes more cynical and turned-off from what it perceives to be these contrived, insincere performances.
All around the world today people bemoan the lack of interest or engagement in the political process. Some are even suggesting direct action is likely to be more effective political involvement than following democracy. The challenge for all of is to develop new and better forms of public engagement than are currently the case. Politics as usual, in this country and elsewhere, will no longer work.
History’s great leaders have been those who have transcended the superficiality of their times to connect directly with people about the enduring issues that matter – personal and family security, access to opportunity, the protection of their rights and dignity, and the chance to live a good life.
That remains the challenge today. Everything else is extraneous. While it is naïve to think there can ever be full trust in the political process (it is after all a robust contest of ideas and values, where some win and others lose) there needs to be greater alignment of the public’s aspirations and the politicians’ focus. After all, the ultimate handbrake on reckless politicians and government is an educated and informed public holding them to account. As more formal political processes reduce, the handbrake is similarly loosened. To overcome this, and thereby restore a modicum of trust, the reinvigoration of education about citizenship (or what used to be called civics) would be a welcome step towards a more civilised, substantive and responsible form of political engagement than the loud, populist, shouting sports channel approach we have currently.