Is the left-right political debate still relevant?

In my opinion, the left-right political debate fell over in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It was helped in no end by the election of Margaret Thatcher, elected the Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1979, and of Ronald Regan, who became the 40th President of the United States in 1981.


Both of these power house economies determined through their leadership that they would switch to a programme now known as neo liberal economics. The market would rule and we moved from a society based on a cooperative model - from a "we" model to an individualistic model – an "I" model.

In New Zealand we had our own version with Roger Douglas championing change through a Labour Government led by David Lange. Only a Labour-led government could have got away with the level of change applied to New Zealand during this period, including the destruction of the union movement.

The left-right debate had its creation in 1789 during the French Revolution which led to the downfall of the French monarchy. To the right of the president sat his followers who were very well connected, wealthy and royalists. To the left sat those who championed change - revolutionists.

Scroll forward to the 1920s and 30s in New Zealand where a raging economic debate was taking place around the world. This was structured around capital versus labour, bosses versus workers, upper class versus lower class. The left-right debate from that day has taken a view that from the left side of politics you believe in taxing the rich and others more. You believe that the state provision of the major requirements of any society – health, welfare, justice, education and housing - is assured.

On the right hand side of that debate, there was a desire for greater individual responsibility and an acknowledgement that richer people should not be penalised solely because they were able to work wealth up. There was nothing wrong with gaining a good education and building up your wealth and you shouldn't be penalised for it - the "we" versus the "I" model.

These are the political debates, by and large, that helped shape the New Zealand of today.

It was in 1935 that the first Labour-led Government applied significant change to society. The father of the welfare state, Michael Joseph Savage, brought about lasting and significant change and was able to do this with a socialist programme because the country had just survived the great depression and prior to that the blood-letting of World War 1.

The appetite for change was significant. Savage answered that call. Regretfully, with his untimely demise in 1940, innovation around the welfare state stopped.

Scroll forward 40 years, past World War 2, the Korean and Vietnam Wars and the new philosophy called neo-liberal economics took off around the globe.

It preached that there should be a world with no boundaries, a world of globalisation and of free movement. There is no doubt that in the last 20 years of the last century, we have seen in human terms, the fastest increase in the standard of living for the most human beings in our human history.

As with all change, we then start to identify unintended consequences or perverse results of that change. Huge inequality, a less caring and connected community and a mean spiritedness has emerged.

We are now in the era where no one knows just where robotics and the digital revolution will land us. So rapid has been the advancement of the digital age, that we have our children importing 1, 5, 10 or hundreds of people into their bedrooms without our knowledge. Twenty years ago parents could manage who came through their doors, and why.

News is now obtained in bite size formats on social media sites. And at a time when we think we are far more literate, engaged and connected, nothing could be further from the truth.

So the old tribal debate of left and right is no longer a worthy narrative to pursue. It's now about what appeals to the crowd - and the crowd is more fickle. It's now about technology, climate change, culture and sexual orientation.

To suggest any Labour or National party after the David Lange and Jim Bolger regimes are true left or right parties is a nonsense. They are centrist parties at best. The Clark and John Key regimes changed the sheets but the bed remained the same.

David Lange and Roger Douglas in 1987 before they fell out. Photo/ file.
David Lange and Roger Douglas in 1987 before they fell out. Photo/ file.

Labour's narrative does not meet its substance. National's narrative does not meet its substance.

For example, once Helen Clark wrested control of the government from Jenny Shipley in 1999, at no time did she or her deputy Michael Cullen unwind the major settings put in place by Roger Douglas, that were entrenched by Ruth Richardson. The same goes for John Key.

Jacinda Ardern's rhetoric and narrative of a caring nation based on hope is commendable. Words are cheap and we await the substance and not the form.

Ardern has significant political capital. Her instinctive humanity and compassion as a new mother morphed into sincerity over the leadership of our nation following the massacre at the mosque.

The budget to be delivered at the end of this month is a defining moment for the Ardern regime. It can be a legacy moment or it can just be a changing of the sheets.