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Time for a new approach

An op-ed for the Christchurch Press published 10 June 2009.

My experience in Parliament to date leaves me with mixed impressions. First is the positive challenge of addressing the critical problems of the day and the standing obligation of parliamentarians to help resolve them. But there is also a nagging frustration that we are not doing justice to the challenge. On reflection I see why. We lack the modern tools for the job.

The traditional conceptual framework for political perception, analysis and prescription is, today, letting us down, confining us to a monochromatic view of events. Accordingly the political establishment fails to identify the issues properly, the media reports the debate in simplistically distorted terms, and the electorate casts judgement in varying states of incomprehension and dissatisfaction.

What is required is qualitative change – a whole new framework that will reshape the process of contemporary politics in a way that more accurately illuminates the cardinal issues of the 21st century. In three fundamental ways – analytical, spatial, temporal – a new approach is required for more informed debate.

First, exclusive reliance on the Left-Right axis for political analysis is outmoded. Deriving from the factional politics of 18th century France, this rudimentary tool is misapplied to the multi-dimensional nature of contemporary political action. But the world has moved on from the basic issues of divine right or popular will, private or collective ownership, social charity or state welfare. Attempting to place individuals or parties on a point-by-point position along a uni-dimensional Left-Right axis has continually less meaning over time.

That is not to say the L-R axis is obsolete. In measuring economic efficiency versus social equality and individual aspiration versus the collective good, it retains relevance. But that simple framework is suffocating for political analysis today, confining debate to socio-economic issues that dominated politics in the 19th and 20th centuries – social welfare or private philanthropy, large or small government, private or public ownership. In the complex world of today, we need a more sophisticated analytical tool.

We need to add, to the Left-Right horizontal axis, a new vertical axis. The former concerns issues of production, the latter concerns issues of sustainability. Human societies can no longer be politically effective without this two-dimensional framework for public reasoning and dialogue.

Such a framework accords twin benefits. It postulates sustainability, including but not confined to the environmental crisis, as a political value of greater importance than human economic activity, comprising its own ‘vertical’ axis. Sustainability is defined as the ability of one generation to meet its living needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs – in other words, to pass on the planet in an undiminished state. Sustainability is now the categorical imperative, not than just another issue to be tossed around on the horizontal axis.

It also enables a more inclusive, accommodating approach to be taken for argumentation and contestation over the more traditional socio-economic issues of Left and Right. I have, for example, seen people from ‘far-left’ to ‘centre-right’ unite politically because of a joint commitment to sustainable living and policy. Conversely, there are people who hover uncertainly on the same spot on the Left-Right axis – say ‘centre-left’ – but who are poles apart because one is sustainable in policy and practice, placed above the horizontal axis, and the other is not, located below it.

We would henceforth have a two-dimensional cross-matrix for analysis – Left and Right; Sustainable and Unsustainable. Individuals, parties, governments, can be more accurately positioned in the political firmament. Leaders, media, voters benefit – not least in terms of the intensifying dialogue over the modern paradox of economic growth for a burgeoning human population on a finite planet.

Secondly we need to adopt a global world-view, avoiding an artificial division of the international community within which we search for our relative ‘position’. There is something fundamentally wrong about our policy-makers neurotically calibrating New Zealand on the OECD charts year-by-year as if the rich, ‘over-developed’ part of humankind is all that counts for the purposes of comparative performance.

We should be assessing ourselves within the UN charts. The principal chart should be the global Human Development Index, which incorporates consequential social issues of education and health levels around the world.

It is equally misguided to confine the criteria for such rankings to GDP, employment, and productivity levels. These are important indicators but they tell only half the story. We should adopt instead the Ecological Footprint and the Genuine Progress Indicator. These are the correct data on which parliamentary debate should rest, within which GDP is simply a component part.

Thirdly, we need to adopt a longer time-frame than the short-term electoral cycle that is imposed upon us by the institutional realities of modern democracy. Democratic politics is notorious for short-term promise, medium-term prevarication, long-term indifference. It is the uniquely dubious fate of the current generation to have broken the eternal promise of inter-generational justice.

We have committed this error not through wrong intent but erroneous methodology. In the short-term we argue the competing merits of Keynesian and Friedmanite policies as if these are the only solutions to our current economic challenge. In focusing on the role of fiscal policy and monetary policy as the means to material growth for societal redemption, orthodox economics unerringly misses the point.

This century, the challenge is on the medium-term implications of confronting the limits of the planet’s finite resources. Distracted governmental tinkering with taxation or interest and exchange rates will prove dangerously irrelevant to the task. A new paradigm – ecological economics – that draws on ‘natural capitalism’, fostering clean growth within Nature’s constraints, is the categorical imperative of contemporary economic management.

Three ways of reshaping our politics – refining the conceptual framework, broadening the group identity, extending the policy time-scale – are thus essential if we are to make sense of the 21st century and respond in a considered and insightful way to its formidable array of challenges.

If we do not, we shall continue to wallow in the mire of orthodoxy while the relentless change around us outpaces our ability to comprehend, adapt and, ultimately, survive.

Dr. Kennedy Graham is a Member of the 49th Parliament. He is a former NZ diplomat and UN official, and Senior Adjunct Fellow at the School of Law, University of Canterbury.

06/29/2009 – 00:00


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