The frayed orthodoxy

Beyond the cries of 'Muldoonism' and 'North Korean', the Labour-Greens power announcement is an important landmark on the road to the 2014 election – a challenge to orthodoxy and the rise of an alternative

There is a scene in Bladerunner’ where the beautiful android Pris, played by Daryl Hannah, is shot and goes into a furious and wild death thrash, with her limbs flaying all over the show as her short shelf life disappears before her maddening eyes.

I have been reminded of this scene every time one of National's shills has predicted armageddon as a result of the joint Labour and Greens announcement of New Zealand Power, their proposed single-purchaser in the energy market. Here’s some of the wild thrashing: there’ll be capital flight (but not yet it seems); it presages a return to Muldoonism (in EVERY manifestation); and of course the claim that the Red-Green announcement represents a sudden lurch to the far left. 

For those of us who have been around a long time, the furious reaction was like a flip-side to the Orewa speech, when liberals massively over-reacted – led by then Prime Minister Clark labeling supporters of that speech as racist – which served to reinforce the arguments written for Dr. Brash. The political effect now, given the complexities of energy policy (and low emotional salience when compared to race issues), will not be replicated in this case (as measured by polls). But it does signal an important milestone in the development of an alternative government for next year’s election campaign.

First though, the contrast that is being painted by National and its supporters is that it is safe (but its opponents are dangerous saboteurs), it is reliable (but Red-Green is not), it is orthodox (while Red-Green will return us only to 1970s-style Muldoonism). It did take a week of flaying around but by Sunday, when I was on Q+A,’ the basic narrative structure had kicked into place, best encapsulated by the inimitable Michelle Boag’s line that the Greens were "the tail wagging Labour’s dog".

Expect to be deluged by this patter between now and Election Day.

How radical a change is the single purchaser model? Two British academics, Richard Rose and Phillip Davies, wrote an influential book on policy inheritance that helps to answer this question. They argue that the veneer of change, even perceived radical change, is frequently far less dramatic that it appears. They see four types of alternatives about public policy, informed by two questions: Are the intended ends of a policy going to change or stay the same? And, are the intended programme means going to change or not? The four types of policy alternatives are:

  • No change to intended ends or programme means – Maintaining Routine
  • Change intended ends but not programme means – Symbolic Gestures
  • No change to intended ends, change to programme means – Instrumental Adaptation
  • Change intended ends and change programme means – Innovation

Most extant policy, even after a change of government, sees the maintenance of routine prevail. Policy changes (which do differentiate the parties) can however conform to any of the three other policy alternatives. The politics of the symbolic gesture best embody situations like ‘Crusher’ Collins and boy racers; lots of noise but not much, if any, real change. Monetary policy is a further example; jawboning the dollar by the Governor changes little. Innovation is the rarest of all policy changes and perhaps only the Douglas revolution qualifies, although the old strategist himself never ceased to argue that his ends hadn’t changed at all, only the programme means.

Most policy change accordingly conforms to instrumental adaptation and that is how I see New Zealand Power. The ends haven’t changed, which is basically to provide secure and affordable power to New Zealanders and to business, but the instrumental adaptation is to a single-buyer model, which Labour and the Greens believe will better deliver the intended ends of affordability and which our artificially contrived market has empirically and conspicuously failed to achieve.

So much then for Albanian regression, North Korean emulation, or far-left communism; that dog really doesn’t hunt and I don’t think voters are as stupid as they are assumed to be to swallow this type of screeching. On Sunday I rather inelegantly tried to get across the idea of policy inheritance by saying that Steven Joyce must label himself a ‘filthy communist’ every time he looked in the mirror because his government presides over Kiwirail and Working-for-Families, not to mention a welfare state that National (through its history) played its own significant role in maintaining and growing.     

The specter of Muldoonism is an interesting one to contemplate, however. My long-held theory has been that we are now into the 29th year of the post-Rogernomics cycle of politics. Both the Clark Government and the Key Government have been consolidators of this inheritance (which is why supporters of respective government’s, from their different ideological perspectives, got or get so angsty about the lack of innovation).

That 29-year cycle is also now an old, frayed orthodoxy (two severe global economic downturns and one outright market failure have that questioning sort of effect on rational people and their perceptions of market infallibility) and those defending it in such an absolutist, pseudo-religious fashion can’t see the irony that they are more like Muldoon than the opponents they label Muldoonist.

Market absolutism is just as maladaptive as any other form of absolutism. It blinds.

But if you’re not hung up about ideology and focus instead of Muldoonism’s driving ontology you can see that at its decaying core was Muldoon’s doomed attempt, through intervention (in his case), to prevent all adaptive change: so too, now, for the market’s high priests and priestesses. They’re trapped in their own nostalgia. But times have moved on while they seemingly cannot. The perfect market that gets rhetorically confused with the actual market doesn’t exist, it’s an illusion, so the country can I think survive a contest of ideas around instrumental adaptations that make our mixed economy serve its people better.

The real import of the announcement is that Labour and the Greens have shown the voting public they have a choice in 2014. For the first time post-Clark one can glimpse an alternative government, which confirms what an average of the polls already sees as a 50-50 proposition. That in part also explains the furious and hysterical over-reaction by the old defenders of the absolutist neo-liberal faith. Their ascendant period is over and just like Pris they are railing against time.

If the two parties most supported by centre-left voters build on their collaborative efforts the shape of an alternative government becomes ever clearer in what will likely be a novel coalition choice confronting voters. The contest for 2014 is now under way and for Labour and the Greens this past couple of weeks should also alert them to one of their several imperatives: Frame or be framed.