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April 6, 2014 | by  | in Opinion Politics |
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Let’s Agree to Disagree

It’s easy to laugh at the losers in Labour. Three weeks ago, this magazine published an article in which Labour MP Shane Jones attacked the Government for obsessing over international students. In the same article, Labour MP Raymond Huo attacked the Government’s failure to encourage foreigners to study in New Zealand. Once again, Labour didn’t know what they thought. Little wonder their polling struggles to reach 30 per cent. Little wonder they’re stumbling towards irrelevance and defeat. Two members of the Labour Caucus disagree on something. What an embarrassing revelation that is.

It’s rare for Kiwi politics to deviate from tribalism. MPs opposing the will of their party forge significant moments in our political history – think Tariana Turia opposing the Foreshore and Seabed Act; think Marilyn Waring opposing Muldoon on the nuclear-free issue. MPs are not members of political parties, they’re appendages. When you run for Parliament, any individual political identity is incinerated in the flames of internal party democracy. You are Labour, or you are National or you are Green. Individuality is for those without power.

In the UK, MPs frequently vote against the will of their leaders. Prime Minister David Cameron has lost parliamentary votes on military deployment in Syria and support for the European Union. He abandoned his transformation of the House of Lords after losing the support of too many government backbenchers. And in America, the ideological rifts within the Democratic and Republican parties render those labels redundant. A tightly whipped vote would be considered an affront to their democracy.

But we Kiwis allow ourselves to be caricatured as either a Balclutha dairy farmer or a genderqueer Māori from Te Aro. The conformity within our political parties leaves many of us without a voice, the truths we care about unspoken. Perhaps you’re a working-class bloke with no time for either the tossers in Labour or the rich pricks in National. Tough luck. If you don’t fit the cliché, politics is not for you.

Perhaps we can blame MMP. Perhaps list MPs can’t be expected to speak against the party hierarchy to whom they are beholden. Perhaps the price of proportionality is the bravery to make it worthwhile. But our cowardice is much older than our electoral system. And electorate MPs too are beholden to internal democracy. The National MP for Northland relies as much upon his party as he would if elected from the list.

The truth is we’re boring people. We don’t like to cause trouble. We’re pragmatists, and when competence is the only criteria by which we elect our leaders, dissent is equivalent to treachery. To agree to disagree is to concede that we cannot rely upon objective solutions, that the political machine must maim as often as it medicates. Those excluded from our politics should be unsurprised to find themselves among the wounded.

 

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