Loyal opposition reaches oblivious conclusion
It was a stroke of unintended brilliance, which has blighted democracy ever since.
When John Cam Hobhouse coined the term loyal opposition, in jest, he could’ve had no inkling he would help dignify 190 years of two-party parliaments, where typically the only loyalty shown by the opposition is to its immediate prospects of re-election.
Had the phrase been available 190 years earlier, it might have provided a measure of defence for at least some of the nearly one hundred parliamentarians executed for regicide or treasonmost, it has to be said, in retribution for the execution of Charles I during that period, as Britain finally managed to emerge from monarchy into something approximating democracy. As a Radical parliamentarian, Hobhouse would presumably have been bemused by the oblivious persistence with two-party thinking of parliaments, particularly those such as New Zealand’s that are elected proportionally.
With John Key’s predictable exit before the going got tough for his party, National supporters are having to face the prospect of being side-lined for the foreseeable future. Although many won’t lament the departure of a do-littleabout child poverty, global warming, Māori and Pasifika incarceration rates… prime minister, the every-other New Zealander who supported a Key-led National Party doesn’t deserve to be automatically denied representation in parliamentary decision-making; to be defined as the losers in a two-party system, nor vice versa.
Such was John Key’s natural inclination to work inclusively, when he formed the Fifth National Government he not only negotiated a confidence and supply agreement with the ACT, Māori and United Future parties, he also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Green Party. He even offered to work with Labour, whose incoming leader, Phil Goff, lacked the courage to call Key’s bluff. This was, after all, the second year of global financial crisis, which provided more than enough justification for forming a grand coalition, whereby Parliament put the needs of the country firmly ahead of those of the parties. For his troubles, Goff went on to lead Labour to its worst defeat in history, from which it is yet to show signs of recovering, although a by-election featuring Jacinda Ardern might finally get the party’s polling off life-support.
The substantive global crisis, of course, is not financial. Nor will it neatly be described by a concise year range such as 2007–2008, or, if it is, latter year will likely lie in the 22nd century at the earliest. With the near-infinitesimalpossibly little more than 0.04% of government spending in the United States, for example resources devoted to studying anthropogenic global warming, the timescale during which the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet will disintegrate is entirely unknown. What is known however, is that it will directly contribute 3.6 metres of sea-level rise. The dislocations that drought, sea-level rise and unsurvivable temperatures will cause with dwarf today’s climate–conflict refugee crisis—and the xenophobia-inducing economic refugeeism that fuelled Donald ‘build that wall’ Trump’s campaign, and popularised Enoch ‘rivers of blood’ Powell, in the late 1960s. The scale of the disruption that is gathering is unprecedented, except for bolide strike, such as came very close to sending extinct the ancestors of Homo sapiens sapiens, 66 million years ago. For most, the scale is utterly incomprehensible. Meanwhile, the contemporary Fourth Estate—the principal, solemn duty of which is to inform—shows scant awareness that it has a box seat to the biggest story since the dawn of civilization.
The response required to the climate crisis involves the broadest imaginable range of actions. Some of these can only be planned and executed by governments, and some require the actions of individuals. An example of the former is large-scale electrification, such as of ports. This, of course, requires considerably more power than can be generated intermittently on the rooftops of Green Party members’ houses. Exemplifying the latter is need for an immediate, near-moratorium on breeding. Humanity needs to pull over, pull on the handbrake, switch off, and quietly consult the roadmap, rather than barrel further into territory hostile to habitation. Despite the rapid and widespread adoption of the notion of sustainability, acknowledgment that the long-term carrying capacity of the planet is finite, is somehow exempted from scrutiny. Even to offer family planning aid is deemed politically incorrect, much less advocate policies whereby China’s population growth, 1980 to 2013, was 38 percentage points lower than that of India. Given that, to be sustainable, population probably needs to settle back to half its current number, it is beyond reckless to grow it to 9.7 billion by 2050, during the period that unambiguously calls for radical, globally coordinated climate action. The existential challenge humanity now can’t postpone is whether the majority of young women, for the next several generations, are prepared to voluntarily remain childless.
It is a profound ask. But given the high probability that life is going to become very brutal for billions, in the lifetimes of children born today, those who make the sacrifice will likely live to bless that selfless choice. The pain of grandparents who have enjoyed comfortable lifestyles witnessing their descendants living in near poverty is bad enough, but parents watching their children starve will wish they hadn’t been born, much less their offspring.
Except for China’s 1.4 billion souls living in a one-party autocracy, two-thirds of the global balance of 6-billion live with at least a semblance of democracy. This would suggest that addressing democratic dysfunction is a climate action imperative, given that the considerable time to recreate the only rational alternative, a meritocracy such as China once strove to be, is unavailable. Besides, it is most unlikely that nominally free people would vote to de-enfranchise themselves. The referendum rejecting Matteo Renzi’s proposal to make Italy’s house of representativesChamber of Deputies less representative arguably illustrates this. The proposal was designed to allow the party with the most deputies elected, to receive a bonus of 340 seats, to allow it to rule absolutely. John Key favoured a similar first-past-the-post-on-steroids, when his party unsuccessfully attempted to turn the clock back on proportional representation—barely 16% supported Key’s preference. ‘Renewables’ Renzi’s resignation might not have been required, had he targeted la navetta parlamentare, the:
…parliamentary shuffle, which sees bills being endlessly amended by one house only to be sent back and forth between the two, modified again each time. The system is more like a political veto power than a constructive legislative check.
Other measures diminishing democracy, such as Geoffrey Palmer’s current proposal to extend New Zealand’s parliamentary term to four years—a proposition that was rejected two-to-one by referendums in 1967 and 1990—also deserve to be fiercely resisted. Three years is not an unusually short term; that of the United States House of Representatives is only two years.
Proportional representationas implemented in Aotearoa, mixed member proportional should have brought about grand coalition government, but instead it has perpetrated loyal-oppositionist thinking, whereby the unsuccessful of the two largest parties sees its role as rubbishing most of what the governing coalition advances—whereas, logically, it is the very party that should be helping with policy. If Gareth Morgan’s genius Opportunities Party concept works, Parliament will become synonymous with Government. By declaring that Opportunities Party parliamentarians won’t join either a Labour-led, or National-led coalition, Morgan is effectively asking for Parliament to work as a grand coalition, towards implementing evidence-based policy. Longer-term, however, coalition building must be democratised. The mixed member system might be the Rolls-Royce of party proportionality, but it needlessly diminishes voter choice, as demonstrated 20 years ago when Winston Peters, after campaigning relentlessly against National, ‘promptly’he actually strung the nation along for two months formed a government with it, thus sealing the fate of both parties at the following election. It is a simple matter for voters, once they indicate their party of choice, to likewise indicate which other parties they support in coalition.
If politics continues to be dominated by self-interested party politics and obstructionist loyal oppositions, democracy is at great peril, strongly demonstrated by the election of a serial liar as president of the United States, with the support of only one in four registered voters, and with 2.8 million fewer votes than his rival. The obvious conclusion to a patently dysfunctional democracy, wilfully oblivious to declining public confidence.
Thanks to the Opportunities Party, Aotearoa—the first full democracy—can lead the World out of the blighted loyal-oppositionist era.