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The New Zealand Project, the response and the politics of our time

Max Harris’s new book on NZ politics has had a striking impact, selling out its first print run in weeks and sparking a vigorous debate, with responses at the Spinoff and elsewhere. We invited Max to respond in turn, and elaborate on his call for a values-based politics

Writing my book The New Zealand Project, and having the book released over a fortnight ago, was a privilege – but it’s also been nerve-wracking. Would anyone read it? Even if people did, would they find it useful?

The response so far has been heartening and encouraging. The book hasn’t been out for long and it’s difficult for me to assess its impact impartially. But I’ve seen an interest in the idea of a values-based politics, and have been reminded of the community of people already living out their values in political work. There has been a real curiosity – perhaps unsurprising in election year – about youth disengagement from politics. And I’ve had a positive response when talking about the importance of changing not just politics in Wellington, but broader political culture in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The reactions that have been the most meaningful to me have been ones from people who said they were not excited by politics in its current form – like the young musician who told me he’d “struggled with politics over the years” – but that seeing what I was doing and saying had encouraged him to be more interested.

Inevitably, there have been critical questions asked about the book. But as I say in the opening chapter:

I hope the book is read in the spirit in which it is written: as an attempt to amplify others’ voices, and an invitation to debate. Any personal book has limits. Other people might disagree with my proposals – and I’d welcome that disagreement.

Several themes have come up in discussions about the book: what are we talking about when we talk about “politics”? What is the opposite of a values-based politics? What would a values-based politics look like? And how much of all this is new? I hope that clarifying my own position on these themes will encourage further debate.

Going beyond party politics

Several commentators on the book have tried to focus on its implications for party politics. Danyl Mclauchlan, in a review that made some thoughtful general points, outlined my argument that politics should be driven by values – and, in particular, the values of care, community, and creativity. He then queried whether “left-wing parties and ideas” would be “more credible and successful if our political debates were framed by the values of care, community and creativity”.

It’s an important general question. But the book is not about how left-wing parties could be more credible and successful. It is about something more fundamental: recentring values of care, community and creativity in our political culture, across left and right.

It might seem an obvious point to some people, but politics is not just about political parties or parliament. Politics is the process by which ideas, individuals, and identities acquire power – in conversations, in campaigns, in everyday life. Clearly the work of political parties, and what happens in parliament, are hugely important within that process. Parliament can give weight to particular ideas, such as the importance of marriage equality. And I am interested in the book in the future of the state, and other aspects of electoral politics.Politics is also about campaigning and activism, since it’s campaigning and activism that can shift the weight we attach to ideas, individuals, and identities. Politics is about history, culture, economics, and other forces: all of these things affect the traction that ideas, individuals, and identities have. The recent pay equity victory is one example of how forces outside of parliament can put effective pressure on politicians.

It’s in light of this broad view of politics that I interviewed a variety of people in the book, such as Eleanor Butterworth (then at Wellington Rape Crisis) and Fiona McNamara (then at the Sexual Abuse Prevention Network); members of the social entrepreneurship hub Enspiral; Dr Diana Lennon, who works on rheumatic fever (amongst other issues) at Starship Hospital in Auckland; Bali Haque, a former school principal; the economist Arthur Grimes; and the head of the New Zealand Initiative, Oliver Hartwich. It’s because of this that I draw on the lyrics of Tono – the musician Anthonie Tonnon – and the story of rugby player Buxton Popoali’i. These are not just left-wing academics and writers; they are not all just experts. These are diverse people speaking from outside parliamentary politics, towards it, in an effort to make it better. I don’t claim to offer a representative cross-section of New Zealand society in these interviews, but rather examples of the broader set of people I think we need to involve in our politics.

If we think that politics is only about party-politics or parliament, we’ll end up with a narrow, dull view of what is happening politically in our country – and what is possible. We’ll also mislead ourselves: for instance, we’ll ignore the many ways that young people are engaging in “politics” away from the ballot box (something that came up in a conversation I had with Jessica Mutch on Q & A). We need to widen our perspective, to consider political culture as a whole, if we are going to draw upon the many political resources we have to address the challenges of our time.

Max Harris with Jessica Mutch on TVNZ1’s Q&A

What are the barriers to a values-based politics?

One way that I suggest we might tackle challenges of our time is by turning to a values-based politics. This isn’t about resuscitating the Values Party from the 1970s. It’s about people in politics – in campaigns, in the community, in parliament – being motivated by values, and seeking to secure values. It’s also about the media and other observers identifying the values and agendas that lie behind policies and politics, especially when we hear claims that policies and politics are value-free. In all of this, I understand values to be principles that we hold dear that contribute to a life well led.

I discuss three barriers to a values-based politics in the book.

The first barrier is technocratic politics – the view that politics is a technical exercise that is the province of experts. The idea that politics may have become too technocratic appears to have resonated with some people since the book has been released. One New Zealand economist, now working at the US Federal Reserve, agreed on social media that “debating core values frequently gets lost in amongst the technical aspects of economics”.

Others reacting to the book have wondered whether there is still some need for technocratic politics: for expertise and evidence and careful decision-making. To be clear, I don’t reject the importance of evidence in policy-making; I try to draw on evidence in the book. But my argument is that politics has become too technocratic, and that we need a strategic values-based intervention to ensure we don’t miss the first principles in a mass of facts. Again, it’s worth remembering that I’m also talking not just about technocratic government – but technocratic politics.

The second barrier to a values-based politics is the general loss of direction in New Zealand politics. Politics has become about muddling through – a series of pragmatic choices without an overall goal. Luke Craven, in a review of the book, has defended pragmatism and has said it “doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice our ideals”. I think being practical is important, and I try to sketch some practical solutions to problems in the book. But I also think that “pragmatism” is often code or cover for value judgments in politics. And I don’t think pragmatism is a good substitute for the big-picture debates we should be having about where we are going as a country or what we stand for.

One of the most encouraging features of the book’s release has been the sense that it may have energised some people to have more of these debates. A kind reader told me the book had reminded him of why it’s important to be a New Zealander. And I was thrilled to hear senior civil servant John Allen, a man whose thinking I deeply respect, say to me that – though he didn’t agree with all of the book – “You have succeeded in firing up a 56-year-old Pākehā male.”

The third barrier to values playing a more central role in politics is the rise of selfishness and self-interestedness in society at large. Part of the reason for this is the political project of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which deregulated markets, reduced public ownership of services, cut income tax, and decreased the power of unions – the project of neoliberalism. What unified this project was a commitment to a set of maxims about the importance of markets, the shortcomings of government, and the value of individuals being self-interested.

Nevil Gibson at the National Business Review has said that my book leaves out neoliberal achievements. But my book is not a general history of neoliberalism; it is focused on how neoliberalism contributed to a rise of selfishness and self-interestedness in society. I concentrate on how the late 1980s did not produce promised levels of export and productivity growth. I also note that increases in inequality (including in Māori and non-Māori unemployment rates) can be traced back to the late 1980s, and that New Zealand private debt mushroomed between 1991 and 2011 in a way that can be connected to the policies of the period. This is not to say that some economic changes in the late 1980s were not necessary. It is merely to say that we should be honest about the harms of neoliberalism, many of which have been highlighted internationally by economists, including from the International Monetary Fund, and domestically (most recently by Jim Bolger). We should also be willing to consider that neoliberalism may have given more power to certain ideas, such as the notion that individuals should pursue what is in their self-interest. And it may have diminished the force of other ideas – such as common purpose, public good, and the very foundational notion that we are all in this thing called society together.

Neoliberalism had a long history inside and outside parliaments, which I touch on in the book with reference to the Mont Pelerin Society set up in 1947. And it was not without its own values: values like private property, freedom, and efficiency. But my argument is that its emphasis on self-interest – not itself a value – crowded out space for values in politics, and made it harder for us to have a public debate about the values that we share. That, in my opinion, is the enduring legacy of neoliberalism; on this point I part views with Rob Hosking, who has queried whether neoliberalism continues to have a significant influence on New Zealand politics.

We are now in a position to have a debate about shared values again. But I argue in the book that a values-based politics can only succeed if we do some other work first. We, and in particular Pākehā, need to have an honest conversation about decolonisation – about understanding and owning our history, undoing the ongoing negative effects of colonisation, and centring Māori voices and views in order to secure tino rangatiratanga. That is needed for a values-based politics to be legitimate. We need to think more clearly about what the state is good at, and how much the state can deliver as part of a values-based politics. And we need to build genuine, informed people power.

An interesting feature of the coverage of my book has been the focus on neoliberalism and the relative lack of attention paid to the questions of decolonisation, though these are raised in multiple chapters. Decolonisation was discussed in some detail in Thomas Coughlan’s review of the book, and in Māmari Stephens’ discussion of the book’s ideas. But it seems we are generally much more comfortable, especially in Pākehā circles and within the media, talking about neoliberalism than we are talking about colonisation.

The book and its author

What a values-based politics looks like

My suggestion is that a values-based politics for our time could be guided by three, or three-and-half, values. The three cornerstone values of the book are care, creativity, and community. Care is a concern for the wellbeing of other people and things outside of ourselves. Community is about recognising that we are interdependent, and ensuring that we do not drift too far apart from one another. Creativity involves being willing to experiment, to be imaginative, to fashion things anew. These are values that I think most New Zealanders would support (though I accept that more empirical evidence on this point would be useful). They are values that I think are particularly needed in light of our history. They are values informed and enriched by Māori ways of thinking.

I say “three-and-a-half” values because I also suggest, tentatively, that love might be a basis for politics. By love I mean a deep sense of warmth directed towards another. Many people that I have spoken to, especially young people and audiences familiar with kaupapa Māori and Pasifika cultures, have been positive about the idea of calling for more love in politics. Some have queried whether politics is too broken, or whether love is too debased as an idea, for a politics of love to work. But there has been an inspiring willingness to explore the idea further. A couple of commentators have been more cynical. Danyl Mclauchlan dealt with the idea in one sentence in his review, saying that love “is a floating signifier, it means whatever anyone wants it to mean, and I shall pass over this idea with a quote from Oscar Wilde: that you’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.”

I won’t resile from suggesting that we should think about whether love might have a greater role in politics. Constitutional lawyer and thinker Moana Jackson told me, when I interviewed him for the book, that politics isn’t just the art of the possible. It should also be the art of what might not seem possible, he said. In the last week Pope Francis spoke of a “revolution of tenderness”, which is not all that far from a politics of love. People are disillusioned with politics the world over, and we face serious political challenges nationally and internationally: inequality, climate change, precarious work, and xenophobia, amongst them. To tackle these challenges we need to go beyond orthodox approaches to politics (accepting, of course, that a politics of love might not seem unorthodox to some ears, including some in te ao Māori). Some people can laugh off the idea of a politics of love. Maybe it won’t be a helpful way of seeing politics, when all is said and done. But I know that there is a broad group of thinkers and doers in this country – young and old – who are less cynical, less narrow-minded, and more willing to talk about it.

I use these values of care, community, and creativity – and in some places, love – as launching pads to propose some specific changes to our politics. I say that these values might take us in the direction of alternative approaches to incarceration, to a Universal Basic Income pilot, and to a different view of masculinity, to take just three examples.

The book never claims to be a how-to guide for securing these specific policy and legal change. I don’t believe any individual could write that guide. I do offer some suggestions in the book about how I think we might get from values to conclusions: through building creative coalitions of campaigners, encouraging politicians to be bolder, and pushing for changes (such as compulsory te reo Māori in schools) that might accelerate progress in particular fields. But I’m afraid reviewers looking for some kind of step-by-step instruction manual for left-wing political success have picked up the wrong book.

The book is instead trying to model a different kind of politics. It’s trying to model how we might find shared starting points in values (such as care, community, and creativity), and how we might argue from these starting points to the conclusions we want. It’s trying to leave space for others to do this, too: a step-by-step instruction manual wouldn’t leave the same kind of space for others’ views. Of course, different people are going to reach different conclusions about what care, community, and creativity require. That’s the whole point of the book. That’s values-based politics.

A new kind of politics?

The final question that has been raised by several commentators relates to how new all this really is. Marianne Elliott and Māmari Stephens are right that some of the ideas in the book – the call for decolonisation, or the notion of values-based politics itself – have been raised before by Māori writers and others such as Claire Browning, and that these other writers have received less attention in the past. It may be, as has been suggested, that I have received more coverage in part because I’m a Pākehā male, a familiar sight in political discussions, and because of what Philip Matthews has described as “the old world imprimatur” of Oxford, where I have been studying.

Danyl Mclauchlan makes a slightly different argument, saying that the book is “a compilation of arguments and policy statements that have been advanced by the political parties, thinkers and activists … for such a long time their ideas have become conventional wisdom on the progressive left.”

It’s up to readers of the book to decide whether this is true. I’ve never really believed we can create new ideas out of thin air. We’re all influenced by our traditions, our families, our educations, and our life experiences in coming up with ideas. What I believe in is the value of bringing ideas to new audiences, and bringing ideas that might be new from the perspective of those audiences. My small hope with The New Zealand Project is that some of the ideas in the book might seem new to some people: to young people, or those outside the usual political circles.

I also hope that some of the ideas I’ve gestured to in the book are not merely conventional wisdom, amongst the progressive left or any group. I haven’t seen other references to the idea of an Insecure Work Benefit. I have seen few discussions of how New Zealand might develop a comparative foreign policy advantage in peace arbitration. I don’t think others have suggested changing the definition of a recession to two quarters of dropping scores under the Treasury’s Living Standards Framework (once that Framework is converted into a single metric). Now, maybe these are bad ideas. Maybe they’ve been proposed before. But I don’t think they’re conventional.

Finally, I’ve tried to provide a new synthesis – to knit together ideas in a new way. I believe that is valuable, especially when readers might not have seen these ideas together in one place before. I’ve tried to combine the expertise of experienced voices (such as Tony Atkinson or Susan St John) with the urgency and idealism of younger people (such as Pala Molisa, Chelsea Robinson, and Eleanor Bishop). Changing our values will require intergenerational partnerships, not wholesale rejections of all that has come before us. I have also tried to connect up discussions of economics, colonisation and history, and gender. Often these issues are analysed in an isolated way. Thomas Coughlan is right, in his review, to say that the book is neither academic political theory nor a public policy handbook. I’ve tried to avoid fitting the book into pre-existing genres.

I know it’s easier to talk about this different kind of politics than to do it. I know that through campaigning work I’ve done in the past with young people, in groups like JustSpeak, Generation Zero, and Law for Change.

I also know, from that campaigning and activism work, that a better country won’t come from us demanding that single authors give us the answers; from us demanding that intellectuals tell us How to Do It. That wouldn’t be a smart thing to do.

A better country will come from us working together – yes, speaking outside of our bubbles, listening to people we don’t normally talk to, and continuing to listen in the face of uncomfortable disagreement. It will come from us finding common ground, and building off that common ground to experiment, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. It was a belief that this might be possible – not a belief that I had all the answers – that drove me to write The New Zealand Project. Taking the project forward is a task for all of us.


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