Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Myth-Making and Politics



We are all familiar with Donald Trump's recent mythmaking. He "won" the election, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Votes were either "stolen" from him, or, alternatively, the Democratic opposition shuffled in bags full of "illegal" ballots to swamp his stellar achievement. Trump's efforts to create a myth worked with many Republicans.

We've had a few political myths in New Zealand too. When I knew less than I do now, I believed some of them myself. One of them is that New Zealand was always an "egalitarian" society where there were equal opportunities for all. Tell that to your grandparents who lived through the Great Depression! Historian, Melanie Nolan, recently remarked that our egalitarian image is a "rich amalgam of truth and myth". She is right. Politicians always did, and still do, claim that their policies are aimed at creating equal opportunities. But equal opportunities have never been able to create equal outcomes. We aren't all born with the same abilities be they athletic, musical or mental. Nor do we possess equal levels of energy, health or guile. And at no point in our history have we seriously argued that ability should be disregarded when hiring a worker or a teacher, choosing an Olympic athlete, or selecting an All Black. Everyone knows that New Zealand would never have won the Rugby World Cup if we'd simply gathered a team off the streets.

And where does the myth come from that it was Roger Douglas and the economic reforms of the 1980s that started inequality in New Zealand? There's been plenty of inequality throughout our history. By election day in 1984 there were 101,000 unemployed people in the country; as soon as arbitrary controls were lifted, it was clear that inflation was running at about 16% per annum, and the country was staring at a budget deficit of $5 billion if swift steps weren't taken to rein in spending. It wasn't David Lange or Roger Douglas who closed the foreign exchange markets on 15 July 1984 that signaled a crisis. Instead it was the Governor of the Reserve Bank, Sir Spencer Russell, in consultation with the head of the Treasury. The notion peddled assiduously by some academics and journalists that inequality suddenly took off as a result of Rogernomics overlooks the fact that house prices had been rising rapidly thanks to decisions taken in 1979. There was a burgeoning number of children born into one-parent families, thanks in large measure to the Domestic Purposes Benefit after 1974, and the liable parent contribution towards a child's upbringing wasn't being policed properly. Growing numbers of children were already going without, years before Douglas became Minister of Finance. The ties that held New Zealand Society together - if it had ever been together - had already frayed. And we've made little effort to fix things since.

By 2008 there were 104,000 DPBs being paid out and nearly 51,000 unemployment benefits. But Labour's mantra was that Rogernomics had created these problems. It suited the then Left to identify a problem and blame someone else for something they didn't have the will to fix. In 2021 numbers in the underclass continue to accelerate. And they will keep on doing so do until parents are held to account for raising the children they bring into the world. But of course this solution doesn't have a good political ring to it in 2021 any more than it did in 2008. Those children, however, are usually the ones who never get a good education, whose health is more often neglected, and who are more likely to end up at the bottom of the heap, and consequently unlikely to enjoy equal opportunities, let alone have any chance of an equal outcome from life.

Why do some politicians and commentators propagate myths? It's usually because they think they might profit personally or politically, or at least bolster their own arguments. Trump, God help us, wants to run again for the presidency, so he blames his opponents for his personal predicament. The political Left with its rag-tag collection of sloppy thinkers wanting to find an easy excuse for our mounting social and economic problems finds an effective distraction in still blaming Roger Douglas even though it's gone 32 years since he was Minister of Finance.

Myths are welcome comforters, but have never been a sure guide for the future. The second Ardern government passed its 100 days this week. It seems to be propagating a new myth: that kindness is enough. But if you are a child at the bottom of the heap, kindness can be rare indeed.