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Dunne Speaks: Are the Politics of Moderation Dead?

Dunne Speaks

17 September 2015

Guardian political writer David Torrance says the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party and the earlier rise of Nigel Farage and UKIP mark the death of moderation in politics and the rise of a new breed of anti-politician, governed more by conviction than pragmatism. Leaving aside the minor point that Jeremy Corbyn has been an MP for over 30 years, so is hardly a fresh face, and factoring in the phenomenon of the Scottish Nationalists which owes more to the uncomfortable artificiality that is the current United Kingdom, does Torrance’s thesis hold weight beyond Britain’s shores?

The rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as the early stars of the United States Presidential race might suggest he is reflecting an emerging international trend, as might the election earlier in the year of Greece’s radical anti-austerity government under Alexis Tsipras (although on current polls he will lose the snap election he called a couple of months ago, to boost his mandate, suggesting that any phenomenon might be short-lived.)

Canada might also succumb to the Torrance theory. Long-term conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in the electoral fight of his life – a three way contest where the radical New Democrats, until recently the third party in Canadian politics, are leading the field.

But in the southern hemisphere Torrance’s thesis might not be so accurate. John Key has been a comparatively moderate Prime Minister and at this early stage of his third term seems just as popular as ever. Across the Tasman, Tony Abbott has just been ousted as Prime Minister by the more urbane Malcolm Turnbull, because Abbott was seen as too hard-line and gaffe prone. And Turnbull’s first comment as Prime Minister was that he wanted to govern like John Key.

So perhaps the death of moderation is just a northern hemisphere phenomenon, brought on by the failures of successive governments of the left and the right. But the signs here still suggest it is not travelling south – yet. Labour is still pathologically scared of putting any markers in the ground, lest it upset people, and even the Greens under James Shaw suddenly seem and sound far less threatening. The flame of the liberal democratic UnitedFuture still flickers, and ACT’s radical edge has been replaced by the quirkiness of its new leader. The Maori Party remains the quiet achiever for its constituents, who reward it by voting Labour in ever-increasing numbers.

All of which leaves New Zealand First, certainly as racist and nationalist as Farage’s UKIP, but the party both major parties want to avoid to ever having to work with in government because of its disruptive nature. However, its alleged resurgence following the Northland by-election has had no impact, so it is doubtful that it is having any role in the death of moderation in politics here.

Moderate politics seem set to continue in New Zealand, arguably because of our egalitarian society. We just do not have the extremes of wealth or deprivation here to drive masses of marginalised people to mobilise for political representation. While that remains the case, the incentives to upset the apple cart will not be strong. Political parties will carry on pretty much as they are, representing pretty much the people they do today.

John Key well knows that, in the end, all politics are local. So the continuity of moderation here will only be upset by a significant external shock, which may be why the government’s operating mantra seems to be “act only as we need to”. It certainly explains why it has taken such a pragmatically cautious line in response to the refugee crisis, and to rising sea levels in the Pacific because of climate change.

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