The last few months have given us an insight into how we might do things differently.
Constrained social interaction, the reliance on technology to a new level, working from home and maintaining social distance instructions in public have all changed our collective and individual worlds. Some of this will stick. Some will not.
• Covid-19 coronavirus: Pandemic fallout tracks political divide
• Covid-19 coronavirus: Lockdown politics pit economic and health concerns
• Mike Hosking: Politics is creeping into Covid 19 coronavirus response
• Covid 19 coronavirus: 'All for her political gain' - Jacinda Ardern sued over lockdown
One of the more interesting aspects was the suspension of the normal ground rules of political engagement. Two politicians, the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Minister of Finance Grant Robertson, along with the Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, dominated media spaces and public attention.
Much of our normally adversarial system was put on hold while we struggled with the acute phase of a pandemic. It got the two of us thinking.
Should we revert back, as we are very rapidly doing, to adversarial politics? To some degree, that is probably inevitable (an inability to change spots and all that); robust political contest is also an important part of the checks and balances that are designed to keep our politicians and political systems honest. So we are not calling for the end of politics, where two or more people disagree on means to an end or on the ends themselves.
There should always be politics, with diverse views, differences of opinion and disputes, as the essence and hallmark of a healthy democracy. We are, however, calling for a change in the way we do politics: it is one (important) thing to have a legitimate contest of ideas but quite another to launch ad hominem attacks on others and to diminish their mana. Or to contest policies that have some clear community benefit.
The past few months have indicated that not everything needs to be politicised and made adversarial. Could there be a new normal in terms of how our political system and decision-making functions?
Two examples, one from some time ago, one more recent, illustrate what we might look to avoid.
Comment | Only domestic investment can raise our economic fortunes
Bridges 'burning own party'; could learn from Little says PM's ex chief
The first was the politicisation of the New Zealand Superannuation Act 1974. The act required employees and employers to jointly contribute eight per cent of a salary to a pension account, not unlike Kiwisaver.
The opposition National Party targeted the policy during the 1975 election campaign as evidence of state control, suggesting in the infamous Hanna-Barbera "dancing cossacks" cartoon ad that soon the "government could own everything". Once in government, Prime Minister Robert Muldoon moved rapidly to replace this scheme with National Superannuation. (As an aside, he initially sought to do so via two media announcements, which struck a junior public servant, a Mr Fitzgerald, as an inappropriate means of changing parliamentary law. Fitzgerald took Muldoon to court, and the Supreme Court ruled against the Prime Minister on the grounds that legislation can only be changed by Parliament, not via executive fiat.)
The short-term political gain and politicisation of a key policy area has since proven to be
disastrous. In 2014, Infometrics estimated that had the Labour Government's scheme been retained, the amount saved by 2015 would have been in excess of $300 billion with major benefits including a much greater level of New Zealand ownership of key resources and as a source of supplementary income during retirement that would have benefitted all New Zealanders.
The lesson here, perhaps, is that there are long-term risks associated with driving policy change on adversarial and ideological grounds. Doing so tends to rule out the sort of broad, inclusive policy conversation that leads to well-informed, durable decisions.
A more recent example of unhelpful politicisation might be the way in which some Covid-19 community initiatives have been portrayed and critiqued.
There have been plenty of examples of mutual aid and community care during the COVID-19 acute phase that demonstrate the virtues of social solidarity and empathy. One example was the community checkpoints designed to help preserve the health of communities who were at risk.
One question asked was whether these checkpoints were lawful and the New Zealand Police demonstrated admirable pragmatism and co-operation with the communities involved by their response.
But why were these checkpoints politicised, even after the Police Commissioner Andrew Coster had clearly explained that they were both legal and useful? Was it because they were organised by Māori communities? And why was attention drawn to the ethnicity of those manning the checkpoints when no such thing was done in media coverage of non-Māori who failed to comply with lockdown regulations?
This characterisation of a community initiative as taking away freedoms could just as easily – and more accurately - be promoted as exactly the sort of civility and community care that we should be encouraging. And the attempt to fan the flames of racial disharmony has no place in this country.
We are going to see significant change to many of the things we do as we emerge into a
post-Covid world. Some will provide exciting new opportunities, others will challenge
our personal and community well-being.
As the weeks and months pass, we need to think about how we can take some of the more positive elements from this acute phase of the pandemic into the ways in which we operate in the future. Keep the legitimate cut and thrust of politics by all means, but surely it is not too much to ask that we carefully consider those matters that should not be politicised?
• Professor Richard Shaw and Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley are from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University.