Tuesday, 2 September 2014

New Zealand elections and understanding political constraints


Until all the facts are in on Judith Collins, Adam Feeley, John Key and all the other government officials who’ll be hauled over the media coals in the next few weeks, I’m going to withhold my judgment.

Elections can get messy, that’s nothing new. I doubt there’s been a single democratic transition anywhere – at any time – without smears or dirt digging.

Everyone says it’s all “just politics”, and yet there’s something absorbing about seeing heads roll. People seem to have the memory-span of goldfish, and I’m not talking about the inability to remember all the bad things government officials did over their long careers.

It’s all the positive and constructive things they achieve that people seem to forget too. These drop out of the collective memory even quicker than the bad things. If only we could get rid of that person, then we’d be closer to utopia!

But the old sceptical adage that voting doesn’t really matter leaves most people scoffing or shaking their heads. Of course my vote matters! This political party is better than that party. My political party will definitely make a difference!

But all these election shenanigans seem to confirm my own political theory: that the elected government is not nearly as important in an advanced country’s societal system as the institutions are.

The rest of the theory goes something like this:

  • Each government’s goal is to stay in power for as long as possible. Therefore, the country they govern must remain at least economically stable, but preferably economically growing, in order for them to continue to be in control.

  • To keep the country growing, there are certain levers and policies a government must pull. These are called imperatives and they are the same regardless of political personality.

In other words, there is a left and a right wall (constraints) directing important government decisions. Only within that spectrum can a government move if they want to say in power. Arbitrarily moving outside this spectrum does not increase the size of spectrum.

(Sometimes a country’s spectrum will expand as a result of new technology, resource discovery or conquest, but this is very rare.)

These constraints are different in detail for every country. However, there are core imperatives such as low crime, potable water supply, sufficient food, trade route access, minimum regulatory standards, etc. Those constraints impact every government system regardless of ideological orientation.

Ultimately, in a democratic system with strong institutions and a mostly non-corrupt permanent government, it doesn’t truly matter which ideology or political party is in power at any given time.

This is because the imperatives (within those constraints) will always be completed if the health and wealth of the country demands them. Again, if those things are not done, the country fails or reverses and the government of the day loses their position in power.

Over a short time scale, some decisions are painful for a society. They are painful because in some form, the government moved either too close to the left or right edges of the wall of constraints, or they moved beyond those edges.

So how does this play out in reality? Well, the government of the day simply presents the imperatives to their public as if it was their idea. The opposition will complain that they would of course do things differently, but the truth is that – faced with the obstacle – each side must act between the left and right walls of constraints regardless of rhetoric.

That’s why the question for Judith Collins, John Key and any other government official should not be “ are they a good person?” It should instead be: “ can this person do the job they were assigned or not?”

In other words, are the institutions surrounding our government officials sufficiently robust and is the government or person actually operating within the constraint spectrum required of them by the country?

During election time it’s doubly important not to get caught up with personalities. On a short time scale, personalities matter only in the margins. On a longer time scale, personalities do not matter in the slightest.

Politicians are all going to be subject to New Zealand’s unique constraints anyway, sooner or later, so don’t worry too much about who’s leading. The trick is making sure the country you live in keeps up with the rapidly evolving global environment.

Some people and political parties might be better suited for this task, but ultimately it won’t matter who New Zealand chooses. All this may be a naïve viewpoint, but after all the transitions over the years, the trend line for New Zealand’s economy has consistently trended up.

It’s going to take some serious partisan work to prove one ideology or political party was responsible for New Zealand’s upward economic history.

After all, on a long enough time line, the result on September 20 won’t matter, so why don’t we all make a scrumptious sandwich and put our feet up for the day. Don’t worry about personalities; our institutions will take care of the country just fine.

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