The scent of local body elections is in the air, and candidates are emerging. It’s time to reflect on what you want from your local body politicians.

Many voters will have some small matter that irks them – a wonky footpath, funding for their sports club, or the need to better regulate the activities of their neighbour’s Jack Russell. That’s how most look at politics.

Sadly politics has descended into a lolly scramble, where many vote for the politician who promises the most. But somehow voters need to look at the big picture rather than their personal desires.

Before you can sensibly elect a government or council you need to consider the nature of mankind, the nature of politicians, and the nature of government.

The nature of mankind

Throughout the ages mankind has had an insatiable desire for hero worship. We want to create someone to look up to – a great leader, superior in mind and morality. Sometimes it has been royalty or papacy; more commonly these days presidents and prime ministers, whose opinion the media seek on every subject.

“We must conquer our desire for hero worship.”

Those disinterested in politics look to pop stars, Hollywood actors, newsreaders, the sporting elite or complete nobodies like the Kardashians. This is extremely distressing since many of these people prove to be dim-witted and unbalanced individuals.

Take the recent furore over Israel Dagg referring to one of his rugby-playing counterparts as a ‘fag’. This is low-grade offending as far as rugby players are concerned, but still there was much advice offered as to how All Blacks should behave. “They need to recognise the responsibility they have as leaders in New Zealand society and the influence they have on a whole generation, not just young people, but they represent all New Zealanders now,” decreed new National MP Louisa Wall.

Now, rugby culture might have improved slightly, but you still don’t have to delve too deeply to find blisteringly foul language, sexual misconduct, rampant drunkenness and violence. I’d suggest we ignore Louisa and not use them as leaders and role models for our nation. Let’s just appreciate their athleticism on the rugby field and accept that they are otherwise quite plausibly boofheads.

Politicians are only slightly better, probably due only to the onset of maturity. Their recent misdemeanours are not hard to recall – drunkenness, fraud, speeding, drunk driving, false expense claims, misappropriation of funds … you name it.

Of course all these ‘heroes’ quite like the adulation and, realising they’re really no better than the rest of us, don monkey suits that border on ridiculous. The latest pope has been a revelation in ditching the pompous papal garb for the simple white cassock. I just wish our mayors would do the same and forego the cat fur and mayoral chains nonsense.

My point is simply that politicians are no better or wiser than most other professions. They are no different to you and I, even if they often look and sound better. They have hairy thighs, dandruff and troublesome haemorrhoids. In fact next time you are greeted with the warm handshake and salesman smile of a politician, think ‘haemorrhoids’ … it will help you keep things in perspective.

We must all work hard to conquer our desire for hero worship.

Mankind’s second delusion is that, if governments would only do their job properly, we’d live in a veritable utopia – a great education system, wonderful healthcare, low unemployment, low crime, all owning our own homes and a nil death toll on the roads. Politicians are sincere in their part of the folly and are forever telling us a good deal of this is possible, with them in power, with a few minor tweaks and a lot of patience. For generations this mutual folly has led to great euphoria as a new champion is elected to power … and then disappointment as they fail to deliver.

With a few rare exceptions governments cannot fix the problems of the world. Get on as best you can without them and don’t waste too much time lobbying them.

One of the worst culprits here are Mäori. Sure they have some fair complaints, but Mäori have appeared at the wrong end of the health, education, crime and wealth statistics since statistics began, and government initiatives have made no progress on these matters. And they’re not going to. Ever. The smartest Mäori have realised that and made a fist of things on their own.

A government solution should never be Plan A (but politicians so want to be Plan A). If there are any problems in life, people foolishly cry to government to fix them.

If your issue is child poverty, run down swimming pools or boy racers, the easiest way to solve the problem is to demand government fix it, or give an interest group the money to do so. For example, often queuing up at council meetings are sports clubs. Making $200 on a sausage sizzle ain’t nothing compared with what you can get from council, with a good pitch. One sports club told me recently, “Council have told us not to worry about investing in new facilities. They say eventually they’ll accommodate us at the sports park.”

The nature of politicians

All their Plan As notwithstanding, politicians are usually not that bright. Ronald Reagan, who wasn’t that bright, once said: “The best minds are not in government. If any were, business would steal them away.” Matt McCarten said it more bluntly recently in the NZ Herald: “Sometimes I despair at the stupidity of some of the people who run our country.” He went on to give prime examples from both sides of the house – most notably Peter Dunne, considered one of the brightest until recently.

There are two types of politicians: well meaning do-gooders and egotists. I prefer the egotists. All political parties are led by egotists and all mayors I know of are egotists – and that’s OK. Note the spectacular success of the Greens since they made the transition from Nandor and the Earth Mother, both well meaning do-gooders, to Russel Norman and Mateira Turei – both clearly egotists. Egotists always get more done.

The problem with egotists is they want to do cool, popular things, as this might just make them cool and popular.

The nature of government

Governments aren’t naturally good at anything. They are slightly less competent than the private sector. Communist countries are, or were, a good example of this. Their wealth grew much more slowly than in the West, and the only good examples of old school communism left, Cuba and North Korea, are trapped in a time warp.

Now, capitalism and the private sector are not perfect. They make a hash of things quite often; just slightly less often than governments do. Failure is a useful part of our lives and essential to the function of economies.

Governments are less successful than the private sector for several key reasons. They’re not putting up their own money; they’re obsessed with being popular and re-elected; and, as stated above, they aren’t our best and brightest.
All this leads to the very rational conclusion that you shouldn’t want them to do very much.

Why then did Helen Clark’s government give councils powers of ‘general competence’ so they could broaden their scope? You should only want your politicians to do what the private sector won’t do, or can’t be trusted to do. Like, making sure the water supply is good. Hang on, if governments are more likely to make a hash of things than the private sector, do you really want them looking after the water supply?

What we’re actually nervous about is the private sector controlling the water supply, not administering it. The same goes for health care, schools and road construction. It’s access we worry about, not who does the job.

What we really want is for government to protect us from shoddy private sector operators, and to ensure we have basic access to the necessities that underpin our society – roads, water, power, etc.

This all boils down to regulation. The job of governments, local and central, is to draw up good laws and regulations to enforce them. So what grade would you give them on regulation for, say, power reform, the environment, building regulations, financial regulations, transport infrastructure, or dog control. If you’re like me you’ll dish out a few ‘Fail’ grades there.

There is an alternative framework that is much more popular than the one I propose – particularly amongst politicians and most economists. They say that government can empower businesses and the community and work with them to provide better outcomes. They can choose the projects that they see benefit the country and back them – as in the SkyCity convention centre deal.

History provides some evidence that this is indeed the best approach. It happens to a significant degree in China, where communism is all but dead, replaced by state-sanctioned capitalism. Regular travellers to China are bemused as to how this works, as they can often build several new office blocks, only for them to stand empty after construction. State-sanctioned capitalism is essentially fascism. The fascism that led to Mussolini was originally a left-wing concept not so far from what China has today.

The other example of where state-sanctioned capitalism was a triumph was Germany. Indeed Hitler might have won the Nobel Prize for Economics, with Germany’s economic model adopted around the world, if they’d called time in 1939.

A great economic miracle occurred between 1933 and 1939. In 1933 the German unemployment rate was 33%, many banks and businesses had collapsed and the suicide rate was more than three times that of Great Britain. Successive governments collapsed before they could make much difference.

Shortly thereafter a new government, both powerful and durable was established. In six short years it righted the economy, lowered unemployment to 1.5% and gave the nation its pride again. The government even offered workers cheap holidays – a very popular initiative. Such were that government’s achievements that most of the German people were ready to follow the Nazis to the end of the world – and they did.

Now I’m not suggesting we’re on our way to fascism quite yet, but both communism and capitalism are nudging in that direction.

It begs the question though … do you want a really powerful, really successful government? Personally I’d rather bumble along in a free society, where government just provides basic regulation and stays well out of our lives in every other respect.

So what do you want your local body politicians to do? It’s worth thinking about, eh?

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