According to former Labour cabinet minister Steve Maharey “social democracy is in trouble”. Who cares? If challenged to define social democracy, most people would shake their heads and shrug. It is not a term that pops up very often in New Zealand political discussions. Whether or not it is in trouble is, therefore, unlikely to keep anyone except left-wing politicos awake at night.
On the other hand, if Mr Maharey were to say “Labour is in trouble”, then New Zealanders would have no difficulty at all in understanding what he was saying. With Labour riding high at 48% in the polls, they might question his grasp on political reality, but at least they would know what he meant.
A more interesting question, especially in the context of National’s unfolding leadership contest, might be “is New Zealand conservatism in trouble?” If, for example, the National Party caucus were to make Judith Collins Leader of the Opposition, what would stand out as the most important item on her political agenda?
If her past record is any indication, the law and order issue would be right at the top of her to-do list. It was, after all, in recognition of her get-tough approach to boy-racers that she was given the political nickname “Crusher”. She has worn it with pride ever since.
The law and order issue works exceptionally well for right-wing politicians because it allows them to play directly to the average voter’s powerful emotional response to the horrors of serious criminal offending. People see the damage inflicted on the victims and their families, and their first response is to demand that the person, or persons, responsible be subjected to the harshest possible punishment.
They do not want to hear the explanations put forward by bleeding-heart liberals or left-wing academics. As far as they are concerned the people who kill, rape and injure innocent human beings are evil monsters. Lock them up and throw away the key.
End of story.
In the febrile atmosphere whipped-up by right-wing political firebrands and media sensationalists, the demands of due process and constitutional legal safeguards are received with scorn. If the police have arrested you and brought you to trial, then you must be guilty.
Sir William Blackstone’s famous legal dictum, “It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”, cuts little ice with a public whose blood is up. To the mob, the idea that the law might occasionally allow the guilty to escape punishment is an insufferable provocation.
All of which encourages the electorate to seek out and support those politicians who promise to strengthen the powers and purview of the State. That this will inevitably entail curbing the independence of the judiciary, authorising the increased surveillance of citizens, and locking up an ever-increasing number of their fellow citizens bothers them not at all.
On the contrary, the State is perceived as their champion: A counter-force to all those “activist judges”, annoying civil libertarians and immoral defence lawyers who demand proof of guilt “beyond reasonable doubt”, and who bleat on about the “rights of the accused”. What about the rights of the victims? Do they not deserve justice?
The perverse consequence of this kind of conservatism is that, far from preserving the traditions and institutions bequeathed to us by past generations, it actively seeks their destruction.
In place of the liberties of the citizen, extracted at great cost from the arbitrary power of the State, these “radical conservatives” advance the notion the collective welfare of the people can be secured only by suppressing anyone who sets their individual “rights” against the obligation of the State to execute the people’s will.
The political consequences of this decidedly troubling variety of conservatism are observable in the so-called “illiberal democracies” of the Russian Federation, Hungary and Poland. In these countries, elections still take place and opposition parties continue to exist alongside a diversity of media outlets. The crucial factor which distinguishes illiberal democracy from the real thing, is that in illiberal democracies the definition of “the people” is radically narrowed to exclude all those who refuse to support the governing party.
In winning power, illiberal democrats avail themselves of all the opportunities genuine democracy provides. Once elected, however, they move swiftly to delegitimise and marginalise their political opponents.
In practice, illiberal democracy generally proves to be a crushing experience.
Chris Trotter is a left-wing commentator.