POLITICS Labouring a Point

Trust has special meaning in politics. Remember that when the electioneering starts and you are invited to trust candidates, leaders and parties.
This became important in the 1990s because trust in the main parties, in politicians generally and in the institutions of our democracy fell away.
In part this reflects worldwide trend in our sorts of democracies. As we have grown to expect more from our governments since social security, state pensions and state-funded education and health systems became universal, successive generations have become more picky.
We pay more taxes than earlier generations did and we expect more for those taxes than did those generations – not only more in volume but also better tailoring to our individual needs and wants.
Half century of consumerism has made us much more aware of and discriminatory about what we consume from our governments. And as society has diversified, the consumption patterns – of legislation, education, social services and other items of government – have diversified too.
We used to be divided into workers (and sympathisers) – Labour, and bosses (and hangers-on) – National. Now we are separated by multiple dividers: socioeconomic, ethnic, age, sexual orientation, moral proclivities and so on. Parties have multiplied to respond to the multiple constituencies.
Accordingly, governments find it much harder to please.
It didn’t help that in the 1980s and early 1990s governments broke fundamental promises, not just in policies but about what they stood for.
The Labour party in government abolished the ‘guaranteed job’, which was at the heart of the protective society that its supporters thought it stood for. Then the National party in government went radical, the opposite of the moderate liberal-conservative party its supporters thought it was.
Voters couldn’t trust their chosen parties to behave as the parties they believed they were. That loss of trustworthiness was exacerbated by rough economic times. Dismay was main driver of the vote for proportional representation in 1993.
The sense of betrayal is wearing off, not least because Helen Clark’s governments have done broadly what they said they would do and looked little more ‘Labour’, because the economy has been buoyant and because whole new post-1984 generation, which has never known Labour and National as they once were, has grown to adulthood.
But ‘trust’ is nevertheless an election factor. Certainly, that is what Helen Clark and Michael Cullen think. They put it in their speeches, wear it like badge.
And they don’t just mean parties doing what their supporters think they stand for, though Clark and Cullen make much of their Labourish legislation since 1999.
Nor do they mean just honesty. That wouldn’t wash anyway after Clark’s forged signatures on paintings for charity which parked small cloud over the 2002 campaign – though voters treated that as amusing rather than scandalous.
In fact not telling the truth is not disqualification in voters’ eyes. In the 2001 election campaign Prime Minister John Howard made picnic of Tampa refugees allegedly throwing children overboard. That turned out to be false and during last year’s election campaign it was revealed that Howard had been advised in 2001 the claim was not substantiated yet made his play anyway. He was re-elected in 2004 with bigger majority after campaigning in part on trust.
So you don’t necessarily have to tell the truth to be trusted politically.
That is because political trust is trust that government is competent at administration, solving problems and dealing with shocks – and doing that broadly in line with voters’ preferences.
Competence will be core claim by Clark and Cullen in the election. The counterpoint they will try to set up is divided National unready to handle the hard yards of governing – the more so since it has been at loggerheads with all potential coalition partners.
Put this frame around that claim: house prices start to fall; news commentaries foretell belt-tightening or worse; people who have merrily borrowed up to their eyebrows inside the house price bubble get nervous or scared.
The old wisdom would say that is recipe for change of government.
But is it? Not if scared voters decide that it is even more important in unsteady times to have ‘competent’ government, one they can trust to steer them through the rough patch.
That is the ‘trust’ Clark and Cullen will really be talking about this winter. The question will be: have they earned it?

Colin James is Management’s regular political writer.
Email: [email protected]

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