It is in the interests of political parties and candidates to know what the public wants. So it comes back to us, the public. What do we want? More important, what are our wants based on?
The focus of this reflection is our own values and attitudes, because what we expect of candidates comes back to what really matters to us.
It is tempting to say: everybody's wants are different; what difference will my vote make among so many? Probably not much if all we do is cast a vote.
And probably less still if our vote is determined by uncritical affiliation to a party, or some single issue, or a personality cult. We need some way of evaluating all party manifestos, all issues, and all personalities.
Can Christ's gospel be any help? Obviously, the gospel does not give us a blueprint for social and economic policies.
But social and economic policies are supposed to be in the service of human dignity and a humane society, one in which every person matters. In our form of democracy, the party system presents us with manifestos that are a package deal. Not every part of the package might be to our liking, or even to the liking of some candidates.
And so strategic voting and coalition considerations can be called for.
Even so, perhaps the most strategic voting of all - one that requires a collaborative effort and an informed public - is to put into the Parliament as many people whose personal integrity and values may well make the difference when it matters.
Which brings us back to values, starting with our own. Let us test our own values on just a few of the issues relevant to what kind of society we are creating.
First, the issue of refugees and asylum seekers. Christ said, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me." A quota is about how many refugees our country can receive, and that is a matter of good government. But our attitudes towards them is about us.
Ultimately, the planet belongs by right to all people, not to some more than others. How we share the planet comes back to decisions made by people who represent us.
How do we feel when sometimes innocent individuals or even whole ethnic groups are branded "for export"?
Then there are issues of famine, starvation, disease, homelessness, pollution of the world's air, earth and water, and human rights violations.
Can I really say these are not my problems? Can I resort to the cliche about "keeping out of politics?"
What do I expect of those who represent me in Parliament?
What values do we bring to issues of violence and abuse?
The public is right to insist on protecting people against thugs and sexual deviants.
But the public needs to set aside understandable but distasteful feelings of vengeance and try to come to grips with what is likely to minimise the chances that further innocent children will suffer at the hands of identified child molesters.
We must be willing to take the steps necessary to protect children and ignore our dysfunctional desire to simply punish.
However much it might grate on our feelings, the evidence tells us that assisting child molesters to put their lives together in ways that allow them to function effectively, is the most effective way to reduce the risk of them re-offending.
Strategies, including treatment, aimed at achieving this goal do not exclude holding the offender responsible. On that basis, would my attitudes make me part of the solution or part of the problem?
Then there are material issues. Have I ever asked a political candidate what he/she means by "a higher standard of living"? Chances are that they have never seriously reflected on the difference between having more and being more, or on the link between having more and being less.
Have I ever traced the links between having more, wanting more, spending more, borrowing more, earning more, and putting more stress on families and marriages and the environment?
There are dimensions of life that get squeezed out when market forces which are supposed to be in our service somehow become our master.
In addition, people are being mesmerised by the propaganda of consumerism, the pull towards constant and immediate gratification, and the trivialisation of life and of all that is sacred - especially by the entertainment industry.
Even increased expenditure on health, housing and education has not met growing needs.
Can we be satisfied with policies that only fine-tune an economic system which allows capital resources to be concentrated in fewer hands, and allows the concept of public service to be discarded in favour of the corporate mentality? How has that given us a higher standard of living?
Is there a connection between the economic system we have created and the constant need for more expenditure on health, welfare, unemployment and crime?
Does marriage matter? When two people take marriage vows, they commit themselves to each other for life and promise to be faithful. Not to make that commitment is not to marry.
Neither is any other relationship a marriage if it does not fit the description. "Male and female he made them ... saying, 'be fruitful and multiply'."
The so-called "right to choose" cannot change that.
So how much faith can we have in the judgment of politicians who say marriages and non-married relationships should all be put on the same footing?
What does that say about marriage? What does it say about the rights of children? Psychologists point out that a father's love and a mother's love are different and that each contributes differently to a child's development.
A same-sex couple cannot provide both kinds of love - not even by redefining parenthood to mean just child-caring.
Is it ethically acceptable to override the needs and rights of a child for adult agendas? Can we entrust legislating responsibilities to candidates who think the answer to that is "yes"?
We face issues around new birth technologies. When it comes to difficult decisions, do I still believe that every human being is sacred - or only some?
What is my position on bringing embryos into existence to be used as raw material for other people's medication, and then discarded?
What do I say to parents facing the birth of a child with serious defects? People are quietly accepting the practice of killing such children before or at birth - on the grounds that their lives would require great sacrifices on the part of others.
Are there special categories of human beings whom it is acceptable to kill? And who decides? Or is it never right to use any person as a means to other ends?
That brings us back to the purpose of social and economic planning. They exist for the well-being of persons; persons do not exist for the well-being of social and economic planning.
You might want to make that your yardstick when checking the beliefs and values of those who are competing for your vote.
* Peter Cullinane is the Catholic Bishop of Palmerston North. This is an edited version of a pastoral letter.