John Gardner: Time to treat voters like adults

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Breivik's has made it almost impossible to raise any discussion of immigration policy without inviting the charge of racism. Photo / AP
Breivik's has made it almost impossible to raise any discussion of immigration policy without inviting the charge of racism. Photo / AP

Tapu Misa and Laurie Penny writing in the aftermath of the Anders Breivik killings have pointed to the rise of far right parties in Europe with Penny suggesting that Breivik was pushing to an extreme ideas that are "entirely current in mainstream debate".

But what Breivik's action has, in fact, done, is to make it almost impossible to raise any discussion of immigration policy without inviting the charge of racism. Who wants to identify themselves with those closet racists whose blog entries start with the mealy mouthed disclaimer: "Of course I am shocked by Breivik's violence but he has a point ...?"

The rise of the far right is, indeed, largely fuelled by anti-immigrant feeling but it is also a symptom of another mood that is equally ominous for democracy and which can be found in people who wouldn't go within spitting distance of a right wing party. Regardless of whether you are opposed to immigration or, like me, happen to think it adds to the richness of a country's life it is clear that it is an issue on which many people feel they weren't consulted or given any choice.

It is the starkest example of the growing alienation of the political class from a growing proportion of the electorate and in the case of immigration there has been little acknowledgement that any unease might be valid. For the right the economic arguments overrode all others and on the left the racist card was always a trump.

Laurie Penny talks of the "disenfranchisement of the working class." I would suggest that many people in the West who might not be considered working class feel that governments have ceased to be representative of their views. They believe that not only are their values not shared but are actually held in contempt by ruling establishments of whatever political persuasion. There is a significant and swelling section of the public who feel, rightly or wrongly that governments pursue agendas that have never been put to an electoral test and so the exercise of the vote has become pointless.

Politicians have never ranked much above journalists in public esteem and constant media exposure of the ruling classes' inclination to feather their own nests has not helped. But there is a difference between thinking that politicians as individuals are prone to grab all they can get and believing that the processes of democracy itself have failed.

The idea that Washington is the root of all evil is surely one of the factors in the growth of the Tea Party movement. Peddling the argument that central government is the enemy has always had an appeal at the fringes but it is more menacing if that belief becomes more widely held.

The only people who can address this disaffection are, of course, politicians. And what, apart from refraining from sinking their snouts too deeply into the trough, should they do about it?

The answer is not populism and the apparent failure of Act's ugly use of Maori issues is perhaps a heartening sign that it doesn't work here. But one approach to winning back a little public respect might be the counter intuitive effort to stop pandering to what politicians, or their spinners and advisers, believe to be public opinion. The temptation to sugar the pill seems irresistible. If the voters were treated like adults and there were robust open discussions of potentially unpopular policies and their consequences it might make it easier to defend representative democracy.

* John Gardner is a former Herald assistant editor


- NZ Herald

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