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Tuesday, July 16, 2024
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The politicians’ part in political polarisation

It remains to be seen whether rebottling the government’s Three Waters Reforms programme as “Affordable Water Reforms” will be sufficient to get those so opposed to the former to swallow the latter.

Putting the affable Kieran McAnulty in charge of selling the lightly retooled approach to fixing our ageing water infrastructure [which approximately no one really appears to deny needs doing] will probably be pretty helpful in rural communities where the original proposal has tended to go down like a bucket of cold sick.

Both McAnulty and Prime Minister Chris Hipkins certainly seemed to be at pains to hose down lingering concerns about the “co-governance” aspect of the reforms during the relaunch at Greytown’s Memorial Water Treatment Plant yesterday.

Hipkins iterated his insistence that the term “co-governance” was always a misnomer, while the recently elevated Local Government Minister suggested this confusion has been capitalised on by political opponents who’d “rather talk about co-governance than talk about the fact that their proposal doesn’t stack up financially”.

Perhaps so. But that doesn’t really acknowledge the unnecessarily polarising way in which the government previously presented the reforms, preferring to imply that any objections to the “co-governance” component were racist, rather than clearly articulate what was actually meant by the term.

Comments Hipkins made earlier this week about how polarised political debate has become in New Zealand also didn’t explicitly address the role that politicians themselves play in ginning up ‘the discourse’ to often toxic effect – even if he did concede that “political disagreement has become more personal”.

Speaking to Newsroom, the still new-ish PM noted that whereas in the recent past, “you could get stuck into each other in a parliamentary debate and then sit down after and have a beer about it, that seems to be fading away”.

“It’s become like, that person was horrible to me in a debate so therefore they’re a horrible person”, he said, a tendency that’s leaked out into wider society, where many seem to prefer to cluster in their carefully cultivated bubbles, viewing those beyond their ideological barricades as beyond the pale – and possibly even an existential threat.

What’s absurd about such an outlook is how little material difference there really is between the Labour and National parties.

Whatever way the election goes in October, you can rest assured whichever of the main parties forms the government will be a presumptive supporter of our social welfare system, while taking a neoliberal approach to the economy.

As a prominent economist pointed out to me several years ago, 97 per cent of any annual Budget [prior to the spending spigot being turned on full blast during the pandemic, anyway] is essentially expenditure that would be committed to regardless of which party is in power, while allocating the remaining three per cent is essentially a branding exercise.

Which is what most of the theatrics in Parliament used to be too – sound and fury that ultimately signified nothing much at all. If our MPs can get a collective grip on themselves and recall they have much more in common than not, the rest of the country is likely to follow suit.

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