IN 2014 Max Harris, a 26-year-old Kiwi working in Helen Clark's office at the United Nations in New York, fainted. He was diagnosed with Loeys-Dietz syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that often enlarges the aorta, likely to fatally weaken it. At the end of that year he had successful heart surgery.
In his 2017 book The New Zealand Project, Harris writes, "What would you do if you came this close to death and were then offered seven years of funding to do anything you wanted? When I told an audience at an early discussion of this project that my answer was 'write about New Zealand politics', they laughed. But to me it made sense."
Harris, whose PhD at Oxford University is on executive power in the age of Brexit and Donald Trump, is coming to Tauranga for next month's Escape! festival - and although watching from afar, is giving the Labour-led coalition Government a cautious pass mark.
"The new Government has been more vocal about values of empathy, kindness, and manaakitanga — and has started building a set of social policies to realise those values. They deserve credit for that.
The challenge is still to unwind some of the deeper causes of rampant individualism, which include a tax system that fosters inequality."
As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University Harris gained a master's and a bachelor's degree, and also has a law/arts conjoint degree from Auckland University.
He has worked at the Supreme Court as a clerk for Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias, as well as short stints at the South Australian Department of Premier and Cabinet (as a speechwriting intern) and the American Civil Liberties Union in New York.
Harris is keen to see younger people voting, but admits there is no one answer to mobilising this age group.
"There are different reasons why young Maori, young recent migrants, young Pasifika, and younger people in lower socio-economic brackets don't vote," he says. "Part of the solution is rebuilding community so people feel they have a stake in the election.
"Another part is presenting a politics that takes young people's futures seriously — by addressing long-standing problems such as incarceration, climate change, or inequality, even where they require political courage."
Although his detractors may dismiss him as an idealist, Harris is comfortable wearing that badge.
"I think it's important to be practical and specific about the changes we want in politics. But there's also a need for idealism and ambition, because it's through having high hopes and big dreams that we can mobilise people into action.
"It's through having ideals that we decide how our politics is falling short of what we need, and where we want to go in the future."
Max Harris talks about The New Zealand Project on Friday, June 1, at Baycourt and on Saturday, June 2, leads a panel discussion with MP Todd Muller, financial journalist Bernard Hickey and social affairs writer Emma Espiner. Tickets from www.ticketek.co.nz or Baycourt. See the full Escape! programme at www.taurangafestival.co.nz