Political lessons from Down Under

former NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark and her husband cast their votesLast week the United States went left. A few days later New Zealand went right. In both countries national elections turned the political tide after long administrations: in the US, eight years of Republican leadership under President George W. Bush; and in New Zealand, nine years (three terms) under the Labour-led government of Prime Minister Helen Clark. The message from the electorate was, in part, "You've had long enough. We want to see what someone else will do."

More important, especially in the US, was the financial crisis and economic recession; when the economy is in bad shape, governments change, and the direction seems hardly to matter. Issues that were small-to-medium irritants in good times assume critical mass when people are struggling financially and fear losing their jobs and homes. Such issues in both countries include taxation, crime, health care coverage and the quality of education.

So here is a bit of advice for the new left-leaning leader of America from a little, newly right-leaning country at the bottom of the world: if you want a second term as the President of the United States, there are a few things you should avoid like the plague.
In New Zealand the Clark government refused to back the war effort in Iraq or Afghanistan, except in minor non-military ways, while "the War" became a decisive issue for American voters. New Zealand's insignificance in the geopolitical scheme of things makes us an unlikely target for terrorist attacks, and Clark's stance could only enhance that status. How popular her position was is difficult to tell.

What was unpopular with large numbers, if not the majority, of people was the social legislation that emanated from Wellington and ultimately increased the electoral swing away from Labour, handing the centre-right National Party and its allies a larger victory than expected. The effect was similar to the exasperation in Britain at the "nanny state" constructed by 12 years of Labour government there.

So here is a bit of advice for the new left-leaning leader of America from a little, newly right-leaning country at the bottom of the world: if you want a second term as the President of the United States, there are a few things you should avoid like the plague. Mr Obama, are you listening?

First, don't mess with morals. The lobby groups hammering at your door for gay "marriage" rights do not represent the majority of citizens -- and especially not the majority of those black and Hispanic citizens who voted for you so solidly -- as the California ballot on this issue showed. In our country a government with a liberal sexual agenda legislated so that homosexual partners, and others not keen on marriage, could have the benefits of marriage in a civil union. This has proved so (un)necessary that a mere 300 such unions were entered into last year and 400 the year before. All this law achieved was to upset a lot of people who do not agree that homosexual relationships are equal to marriage.

In a similar vein the Clark government foisted on us one of the most liberal laws on prostitution in the world, treating it as just another job. The result has been an increase in street prostitution, especially among under-age girls, brothels operating in residential areas, increasing links between prostitution and drugs, alcohol and gangs, and the littering of streets with used condoms -- all of which makes residents and shopkeepers in affected areas extremely unhappy. Local councils are powerless to protect their communities. This is not the way to win friends among voters.

Second, do not intrude on family life without justification. Our former government allowed a member from its Green coalition partner to push through a law banning the smacking of children as a form of correction -- against public opinion, which has consistently defended a smack for that purpose. In a recent New Zealand Herald poll no less than 86 percent of people did so. Ordinary people don't do a lot of smacking and do not want to make a big deal of it, but 300,000 of them were driven to sign up to a petition for a referendum on the subject, only to be told by Big Nanny that it would not be put on the electoral ballot.

The anti-smacking law was represented as essential to protecting children against really brutal treatment when it was, in fact, an evasion of the real causes of child abuse, in particular the lack of stable family life based on marriage. The government then went on to run an advertising campaign against "family violence", again avoiding the issue that the worst violence occurs overwhelmingly occurs in households that are not families in the optimum sense but collections of people with shifting relationships.

It was evident that behind these evasions was an ideological decision to treat all types of living arrangements as equal, both morally and in their effects on children. Instead of promoting marriage as an important part of the answer to social problems -- as the US has done -- New Zealand would follow "Breakdown Britain" on the path of fighting "child poverty" and making the government the missing parent in every solo parent home.

The cost of this, according to a report issued shortly before election day, is around NZ$1 billion a year, which is a lot of money in a country with a GDP of $211bn a year. At the same time, the combined effect of taxation policies and family assistance programmes actually creates poverty traps -- particularly for married couples from low-income families -- and therefore disincentives for parents to get married and stay married.

Do make sure, Mr Obama, that you don't increase the welfare burden in your country by ignoring the importance of healthy family life. People won't thank you for it at the ballot box next time.

Third, try not to do things hastily out of distaste for "the religious right" (and I'm sure you won't). Labour and its Green partner got angry at the last election (2005) because a religious sect did a leaflet drop attacking Green policies as "socially destructive", and supporting the Nationals. The re-elected government then rammed through parliament an Electoral Finance Act, containing what the country's leading newspaper calls "unprecedented restrictions on free speech and clamp on electoral year expression". Its restrictions applied to all citizens all this year until the general election, not just three months before as in previous elections, and it generally dampened political advocacy. It is difficult to escape the impression that dislike of religious influence in the public square was at the heart of this hasty and unpopular legislation.

It is true there were many people not particularly worried about liberal social legislation but who were impatient with waiting for tax cuts, worried about rising crime and tired of the "we know what's best for you" attitude so typical of left-leaning governments. The green agenda and the government's desire to shine in the Kyoto Protocol stakes was unpopular with farmers, who in some cases found themselves unable to chop down a tree or clear a drain because of the elevation of environmental values over human values. Urbanites were infuriated by a policy of banning incandescent light bulbs and forcing the use of energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs. The final Nanny-State straw was a proposal to enforce low-flow showerheads in order to save water and power.

Well, Mr President-Elect, whatever you do some people will complain about it. Mostly they will complain about taxation, health care, the cost of living, housing affordability and so on. But a liberal, unrepresentative social agenda will make more people than you think uneasy. And when the big economic and international issues are not going well -- as they probably won't for long -- they will let you know it at the ballot box. That, I think, is our experience Down Under.

Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet.


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