Tough but fair debates

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 2 August 2013

Recently, I met a New Zealander who asked me how I, as a relatively newly arrived foreigner, experienced New Zealand. I returned the question straight back to him. Though he was born and raised here, he had spent the last 20-odd years abroad and only recently returned home. So he was almost as new to the country as I was.

Funnily, both our perspectives on New Zealand were overlapping as we stumbled over the same issues. What irritated both of us the most was the strange ways in which political debates are conducted. We thought the degree of polarisation in New Zealand was a lot greater compared to Britain and continental Europe. Political discourse here did not allow for any nuances but resorted to stereotypes, clichés and name-calling.

One such example is the opposition’s plan to introduce a single-buyer model for the electricity market. Neither he nor I was particularly fond of the idea (unsurprisingly, I might add, because we are both economists).

However, we found it hard to get overly agitated by the issue. At least not in the same way in which government politicians denounced the Labour/Greens plan as ‘Stalinist’ or ‘North Korean’. Conversely, we could not see why a more liberalised electricity market had to be described as ‘extreme right-wing’, ‘capitalist’ and ‘an exploitation of consumers’. The single-buyer model may be far from ideal but it could probably be made to work. In any case, we could at least understand why this plan was proposed and what it was meant to achieve.

Certainly one can hold strong and vastly different views on policies without morally denigrating the other side. Neither does it hurt to admit that your opponent may be driven by the same wish as you to positively contribute to society. He may still be wrong, to be sure, but that does not make him a bad or socially repugnant person.

What is desirable, therefore, is a political climate that allows mature conversations on policy. Not every proposal is automatically dubious just because it originates from your political opponents. A more civilised discourse that is tough but fair is what New Zealand lacks.

In this spirit, The New Zealand Initiative is proud to host the Next Generation Debates. Student teams from Auckland, Canterbury, Wellington and Otago universities are battling out the big issues of our time. Join us for the finals:

Auckland semi-final, EY (Britomart), 14 August, 5.30pm
Wellington semi-final, Mac’s Function Centre, 15 August, 5.30pm
Wellington Grand Final, City Gallery, 22 August, 6.00pm

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