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Crossroads and roundabouts

Published in The National Business Review (Auckland), 13 April 2017

Among transport engineers, the consensus is roundabouts are preferable to crossroads. They reduce crash risks, improve traffic flow and are less expensive to maintain than traffic lights.

It now appears that this preference for roundabouts has gripped politics, too.

In the past, election years were often interpreted as crossroads. The country needed to make its decision between left, right and centre and then embark on the chosen path. Pamphleteers and opinion writers could easily include an “at the crossroads” in their headlines. The choices were clear.

In our pizza, pineapple and spaghetti version of democracy, no such hard choices are presented anymore. In their stead, politics has morphed into a giant roundabout. Sadly, it is a one without the qualities of traffic circles. Quite the reverse is true.

Our roundabout politics slows down decision-making, it blurs the differences between supposed alternatives, and it keeps the country going around in circles. The 2017 election is the perfect example.

The real issues

New Zealand should be at the crossroads right now. Not in a party-political sense, I should hasten to add. The issues in front of us have little to do with party politics, and even less with ideology. There are hard choices that need to be made on many policy fronts.

Yet, instead of leading us towards real choices, our political class does not talk much about these issues. They are even less likely to offer us any solutions.

How can it be that we discuss pizza toppings when our biggest city, Auckland, is choking on its growth? Why do we care about the chemistry within Labour’s leadership when our international education rankings are much lower than at the beginning of the century? And what is the point of guessing potential post-election arrangements when there are so few policy offerings made by the parties now?

Of course, it would be unfair to blame politicians or the media for this sad state of affairs. On these pages, Matthew Hooton and Chris Keall have recently explained that voters are only getting what they deserve. The public does not thirst for good policy but for entertainment. And that is exactly what they are getting.

Still, if you care for New Zealand (or even for democracy), it should make you despair.

There are some great ironies in this. The first is that with Bill English, we probably have the most policy-minded prime minister the country has had in a long time. In fact, Mr English is unusual even by international standards for his intellectual curiosity and deep interest in policy. He has more in common with the Platonian idea of a philosopher king than with a modern-day head of government.

Yet pressed into the corset of modern politics, even Mr English plays by the rules of roundabout democracy. Note not just his attempts to show his personal and funny side but also his increasing unwillingness to commit to any firm positions. “Wait and see” has become the favourite phrase in his vocabulary, particularly in news conferences and media interviews.

The other irony is that on the big questions, there is much greater cross-party agreement than is allowed to meet the public eye.

If MPs voted based on the convictions and knowledge, without fear of either their whips or their electorates, you would not recognise our political landscape anymore.

What we might choose

Chances are we would reintroduce interest on student loans because virtually everyone agrees that they were just an election bribe introduced by Labour and continued under National. The money saved could go toward students from poor socio-economic backgrounds who actually need more support rather than continuing the expensive middle-class welfare scheme we currently have.

Without political or electoral pressures, we might get rid of the Overseas Investment Act (OIA) or scale it down substantially. Most politicians know that the OIA is a bureaucratic monster we could do without but no one has the guts to say so in public.

Freed from the requirements of roundabout politics, we could speed up reforms of our planning laws. Across Parliament, there is no lack of understanding why housing has become as unaffordable as it is. But blame games, partisan tactics and fears of NIMBY revolts in some key electorates have prevented this intellectual consensus from turning into political action.

Perhaps we should feel sorry for our politicians. Their lives are lives lived in fear. Fear of the media that jumps at any sign of deviation from the established party line. Fear of the voters who may not want to be told the truth. Fear of various pressure groups that form the backbone of their parties’ support.

The result of such fears, however, is our roundabout democracy. It is a democracy in which you can indicate to the right and still turn left. It is a political system which makes it possible to go in circles. And unlike crossroads, roundabouts even allow you to smoothly return to where you have come from.

New Zealand deserves better than that. It needs to be presented choices for our future. It needs to have clear-cut alternatives offered by its parties. It needs to ensure that we solve today’s problems and not leave them to future generations.

At the very least, we should demand from our political leaders to show us some conviction and not only rehearsed media stunts.

And we should reserve roundabouts for easing traffic congestion.

Dr Oliver Hartwich is the Executive Director of The New Zealand Initiative and the author of ‘Manifesto 2017: What the next New Zealand government should do’.

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