Two recent columns took us back to the tumultuous decade of the 1980s.
Bruce Cotterill writes about the “Think Big” megaprojects forced upon us by the dogmatic authoritarian Prime Minister Robert Muldoon in the early 1980s.
John Roughan, in his swansong as a Herald columnist, celebrates the “courage” of the dogmatic authoritarian Finance Minister Roger (now Sir Roger) Douglas and his henchmen, who used the excesses of Think Big as an excuse to impose an even bigger megaproject in the second half of the decade: the neoliberal reforms that came to be known as Rogernomics.
Cotterill grants that the Think Big projects were “incredibly risky and ridiculously expensive” but he believes that it all came right in the end because we are the “beneficiaries” of them now. I know what he means but I disagree.
It can never be to the benefit of future generations to divert huge sums of money into long-lasting investments with negative rates of return.
Roughan credits Rogernomics with creating a “robust, open competitive economy”. But our income gap with Australia – a country which followed a much more moderate reform path – has widened, instead of being eliminated as the Rogernomes promised.
The 1980s were arguably the most wretched decade in New Zealand’s modern history, and not just because of bad hair, bad music and the Springbok tour.
Unemployment tripled, one manufacturing job in three disappeared, never to return. Together, the two super-megaprojects – Think Big and Rogernomics – ripped apart our economic and social fabric.
One good thing did come out of it: Mixed-Member Proportional Representation, or MMP.
Largely due to concerns about the evident ease that our politics could be captured by single-issue zealots, in 1992 and 1993, we voted in two referenda about replacing the First Past the Post (FPP) electoral system.
In the first referendum, I voted for retaining FPP because two experienced people whose views I respected – Helen Clark and Jim Bolger – were against the change. I now think I was wrong here.
For the second question (if there is to be a proportional representation system, which option do you prefer?), I voted for STV (Single Transferable Vote) and I think I was right about this. But we got MMP instead.
What have we done with it? On the face of it: not much.
For 88 years now – since the election of Michael Joseph Savage’s 1935 Labour government – the Prime Minister of Aotearoa New Zealand, who under our unicameral system is basically an elected dictator, has been the leader of either the National or the Labour party.
True, small parties now win a few seats and may even enjoy a few post-election weeks in the limelight before being buttoned up into unequal coalition agreements. This has usually been an unseemly process.
In 2017, the next three years of governance were settled at the whim of one Winston Peters.
Today I read that Te Pāti Māori may be “kingmaker” in the upcoming post-election manoeuvring. Is king-making what we wanted when we brought in MMP?
I think we wanted to do away with kings – to move to a system of genuinely negotiated co-operation between political parties: to coalitions of equals.
As for the cosy two-party dominant duopoly that somehow survives through it all – well, we have in New Zealand plenty of experience with cosy duopolies in business: they get stale, complacent, and even arrogant. So too in politics.
The current Government has perhaps slid furthest back, even into the bad habits of the Think Big 1980s, with a slew of ill-considered megaprojects: centralisation of polytechnics and hospitals, merger of TVNZ and Radio NZ, a $16 billion hydro dam we may not need at Lake Onslow, a $40 billion slow train to Auckland airport we do not need, rampant radiata reforestation, the Three Waters fiasco, and, of course, the usual election year bribing of the voters with billions of dollars of our own tax money.
In the past, many New Zealand voters, dissatisfied with the performance of the current major-party government, have tended to simply switch their vote to the other big party – and got more of the same.
But it is not the 1980s anymore, and they do have an alternative.
- Tim Hazledine is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the University of Auckland.