Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Social Divisions


Journalists and politicians looking for something to say about the election
keep claiming it revealed "deep divisions" in New Zealand society and use
that meaningless buzzword "inclusiveness". Yes, the election revealed
cleavages; elections always do. Regional, occupational, even ethnic
divisions have been a feature of democracy since the beginning.

In the nineteenth century parochialism was paramount. Many settlements were
jealous of others, suspecting (usually without justification) they were
getting more of the Public Works and Railway expenditure. By the time of
"King Dick" Seddon and his successor, Sir Joseph Ward, issues like women's
suffrage, prohibition, leasehold versus freehold land tenure and Bible in
Schools produced disunion. A South Island (Liberal) vs North Island (Reform)
cleavage opened up and dominated politics in the 1910s and 1920s. Once a
basic transport infrastructure was in place, linking all parts of the
country, we settled into a more urban-rural political divide. Much energy
was invested in the rules determining electoral boundaries. When deciding
the quota the issue was whether all people were counted (favoured by rural
areas where in those days there were more kids), or only adults (more in the

In the 1960s foreign policy took on a partisan aspect. Keith Holyoake's
decision to put a small number (initially 123) of soldiers into Vietnam
caused ugly scenes at several elections. Both the Prime Minister and his
wife struggled through angry crowds, Norma Holyoake famously wielding her
capacious handbag to good effect on one occasion. Robert Muldoon was
probably the most divisive character ever to inhabit the Prime Minister's
office. His claimed capacity to "counter punch" - most thought he landed the
first blow - caused some larrikin to throw a pie into his face in 1976. His
calculated refusal to call off the Springbok tour in 1981 set the young and
city-educated against provincial, rugby-loving New Zealanders, like never
before. From memory, Muldoon was our first PM to need a body-guard. The
reforms of the 1980s engendered their share of animosities, too. The
Geraldine woman who swung a dead lamb on a rope close to David Lange's nose
set a new low in election campaigning techniques.

So what's so new about the election of 2005? Yes, many rural towns and
cities voted differently from the metropolitan areas. They often have, never
more so than in the Springbok election of 1981. The most noteworthy features
of our recent election were the clear policy choices on tax reform, the more
prominent role of Maori issues, and the increasing annoyance shown by the
politically correct minority at the backlash against their smug agendas and
those of their media cheerleaders.

There is little dispute that the Don Brash/John Key tax package was the more
popular; most stood to benefit from it. It gradually sank in that Michael
Cullen's package was a greatly extended system of welfare in drag, with
abatement rates that were disincentives to earning more, and getting ahead.
People realised that self-help would become the casualty, or the black
economy would be stimulated, or both.

This time, Maori were never far from the spotlight, unlike in the past when
they voted Labour with increasing reluctance, switching only briefly to New
Zealand First in 1996. This time Maori tried to turn their 15% status in the
wider community into something much stronger by strategically fighting in
the Maori electorates, but keeping Labour beholden to them with party votes.
However, their new prominence comes at a cost. Several issues have now come
into stark relief. Are Maori entitled to special treatment ahead of all
other races? The wider public overwhelmingly feels no. Has the raft of
special policies introduced over 35 years helped improve Maori social
statistics, or has it been siphoned off by a small elite? A growing number
feel the latter. And has funding of wananga, health and educational
programmes been properly supervised to ensure that the money goes for the
purposes for which it was intended? I suspect 90% of the population,
including many Maori, would say no.

So Maori Party MPs face a huge challenge. Most New Zealanders will be
watching to see if they clean out the Augean stables that have developed as
a result of separate funding. Most of their leaders are known to have supped
well at the taxpayers' table, and the public will question further five-star
treatment for them. Their new prominence could be a boon to racial harmony,
or it could open up a new ideological division in New Zealand politics.