Friday, August 14, 2009

Espiner: opposition shouldn't oppose, representatives shouldn't represent

Sometimes I really despair at the state of our political journalists. In his weekly blog, TVNZ's Guyon Espiner declares that the opposition is "on the road to nowhere" because - get this - they disagree with the government on Afghanistan and climate change. The reason for this is apparently a "convention" that both major parties stand together on foreign policy - something which even a momentary glance at history would show to be fiction. Labour wasn't afraid to criticise the then-National government's commitment to the Vietnam war, its desire for nuclear ship visits in the Muldoon-era, or its weak climate change policy under Bolger and Shipley. National expressed its longstanding opposition to the anti-nuclear ban from the opposition benches right up until it bowed to public opinion just before the 2008 election, and heavily criticised the Clark government's refusal to toady to George Bush and involve itself in a combat role in Iraq. While there may have been a bipartisan consensus during the early cold war, it has been dead and buried for Espiner's entire life. The two parties do back one another on trade, but that's because they genuinely agree on that issue, not because of any "convention".

Espiner goes on:

Now don't get me wrong. Labour should critique the government - absolutely. Dig, question, wind them up, put them under pressure, criticise, demand answers - that's what makes our democracy strong. But that doesn't mean taking a different position on every issue. If that strategy is followed the public reaction engendered is: "Yeah, well they would say that wouldn't they? They're in Opposition."
I disagree strongly. Labour's positions on both these issues flow from their values as a party and those of the people they represent. While they are not an environmental party like the Greens, Labour has always been more sensitive to environmental issues than big-business-backed National, and they have always pushed for an independent foreign policy rather than being Washington's vassal. Their positions on climate change and Afghanistan follow naturally from that (on the latter, they seem to have realised that what seemed like good tactics in 2001 make little sense now, in the context of a war which cannot be won on the battlefield, if at all). Contrary to Espiner, they are not opposing for the sake of opposition (a behaviour I detest), but genuinely advocating for the interests of their members and supporters. And that is what makes democracy strong - not silencing themselves for the sake of some fictional "convention" being spun around the gallery by a hack and regurgitated uncritically by another.

More generally, at its heart politics is about disagreement (and disagreement about ends, rather than simply means). People have different interests, and not all of those interests can be reconciled. Where they can't be, and there is competition over resources or a decision to be made, politics happens. I would expect a leading political journalist to understand and work to convey the basic facts of what he is reporting on. Instead, by seeking to cast disagreement as fundamentally illegitimate, he is trying to erase those facts (and that disagreement). And that does not make our democracy strong.