What's wrong with politics in NZ?

6:24 am on 19 June 2015

Power Play - If people wonder what is wrong with politics in this country they might have found the answer at the funeral of former Council of Trade Unions secretary Peter Conway.

Peter Conway

Peter Conway Photo: SUPPLIED

Mr Conway was widely respected not just within the union movement but also by employers and politicians from across the political spectrum.

Among all the tributes to Mr Conway, and there were many, one comment stood out.

Mr Conway was said to have described his own approach as a trade unionist as "being soft on people, but hard on issues".

What has that got to do with the way politics is practised in New Zealand?

Unfortunately here most politicians, but not all, practise the reverse.

Politics in this country is hard on people but soft on issues. As a result what should be serious policy debates often denigrate into political and personal points scoring. That often deters or alienates people who would, but for the "hard on people" approach to politics, have significant contribution to make to Parliament.

Mr Conway, who operated on the edges of that political world as he argued the case for working people, no doubt found that difficult.

First as the CTU economist, then as its secretary he was an eloquent participant in the country's economic debate.

His approach to economics differed markedly from that of the bank economists who tend to hog most headlines in this country.

He believed the economy was meant to work for people, not the other way around.

But while Mr Conway engaged unfailingly in reasoned debate about issues he believed important to the wellbeing of working people and others, too often in Parliament the debate is all about scoring points and attacking political opponents.

In the atmosphere which exists at 1 Bowen St the political game and how it is played becomes all important.

It is exemplified in how political leaders are judged. Most leaders are not judged on the substance of what they say but how they say it.

Perversely for politicians honesty and openness to new ideas are often weaknesses to be exploited by their political opponents.

Think of Labour leader Andrew Little's recent musings about superannuation. He quickly abandoned any suggestion he might be open to new thinking.

Sticking to a consistent line is all important even if it is not in the long-term interests of the very voters politicians represent.

And being truthful will often get politicians into difficulty.

This is not to say politicians are all liars as regularly portrayed in the news media. But the political system does not encourage truthfulness.

Nor is the news media free of blame. Politics is too often reported as sport where winning or losing is the most important aspect. The tactics of the teams, read parties, are analysed but the substance of the debate often overlooked.

Reporters love to catch out politicians on a lie. Yet when they are truthful they are more often than not depicted as naive in the news media.

Politicians cannot win either way. Lie and be lampooned. Tell the truth and be ridiculed by not just the media but by your political opponents and, often, your own side as well for being politically inept.

It is an approach to politics which does not necessarily promote reasoned debate.

To be fair it is not solely a New Zealand problem. All western countries indulge in the same political shenanigans, more often then not exacerbated by the influence of political strategists and marketers and the overwhelming use of public relations puffery.

No wonder voter participation, particularly among young voters, is on the wane.

So what does this have to do with Peter Conway?

In his role as economist and then secretary of the CTU Mr Conway had no interest in the banal game playing which accompanies much of the country's political discourse.

He was soft on people and hard on issues.

Mr Conway's focus - obsession almost - in the policy debates in which he engaged was to consider the effect any particular initiative would have on people, particularly the working people the CTU represented.

He never got so bogged down by the political games, even if he were frustrated by them, to lose sight of that.

Politicians of all stripes, and journalists too, should take note.

Follow Brent Edwards on Twitter @rnzgallerybrent