SOMETIMES the mask of politics-as-it-is-officially-presented slips and the true face of the political class is revealed. A particularly serious slippage occurred quite recently in a Spinoff feature about “partisan lobbyists”. Neale Jones, a senior backroom operative in the dreary days of Andrew Little’s leadership of the Labour Party, but now the go-to lobbyist for people and businesses in need of some face-time with Labour cabinet ministers (or the public servants advising them) did something no member of the political class should ever do – he told us exactly what it thinks of our democracy.
It is a fundamental mistake, he told the feature’s author, Asher Emanuel, to assume that the Labour Party has anything to do with the day-to-day decision-making of cabinet ministers and public servants. Never mind that Labour spin-doctors rattle-on about New Zealand having a “Labour-led Government”, the actual, this-is-really-going-to-affect-you, business of government takes place in an almost entirely non-partisan environment.
“The Labour Party is not the government” says Jones. “The government is the government. I don’t go and try to lobby the Labour Party. The party does have its democratic structures and its policy platforms and manifesto and that is something that the government — the Labour government, the Labour Party-in-government — the government tries to advance. But ultimately there is a giant beast called the government and it’s the public service, it’s MPs, ministers, ministers from various parties.”
It’s the same with policy. Jones is scornful of the whole notion of public policy being, at its core, a democratic process.
“A Labour Party member sitting in a dusty hall in Temuka is not writing the government’s policy”, Jones says. “Eventually there’s an impact. But you’re not dealing with that person in the democratic process. You’re dealing with the government.”
At least Jones was decent enough to throw that “eventually there’s an impact” life-line to all those benighted souls raised on the notion that ordinary citizens, sitting in dusty halls, might be able to change the way their society is run. Although, he makes it pretty darn clear that those party members will find it very hard to recognise their ideas in what finally emerges from the “giant beast called the government”.
As Emanuel observes, there is no way of escaping the need for expertise when it comes to influencing the formation of public policy. An organisation wanting to change things, says Jones, is unlikely to succeed without “a decent communications and government relations capacity.”
And, as Emanuel quips: “it helps to be of the political world.”
“If you’re not in that world,” says Jones, “you don’t know, necessarily, how to engage with legislation and regulation. You don’t know who the people are, you don’t know them personally. You don’t know what makes them tick.”
In other words: “Ordinary citizens wishing to change the world should not attempt to do so without a $200-per-hour guide. Citizens requiring guides should proceed to the nearest lobby.”
Emanuel is gloomily philosophical about the world Jones inhabits.
“A certain kind of realism insists that this is simply the shape modern democracy must take. From this vantage, these trends are an inevitability, principle must yield to practicability, and moral conviction is mere aesthetics.”
Jones, of course, agrees: “I got into politics for economic justice issues and I believe in social justice. But also, I’m a pragmatist and a realist and I focus on how to get things done. The measure of what we do is what we get done, or what we achieve.”
These, then, are the opinions of what passes for a “progressive” member of the political class.
But is Jones right? Do pragmatism and realism require the quest for economic and social justice to remain seated in the waiting-room of history until the political class – those professional servants of the “great beast called government” – are ready to receive them?
The history of social and economic change in New Zealand strongly suggests that Jones is very far from being right.
New Zealand’s social welfare system which, in its essentials, came into existence on 1 April 1939, wasn’t written in a dusty hall in Temuka. It was, however, written 80 miles down the road, in the tiny rural settlement of Kurow.
Its authors were Gervan Macmillan, the local GP; Arnold Nordmeyer, the local Presbyterian minister; and Andrew Davidson, the local schoolteacher. On the doctor’s dining-room table, these three – whose jobs had brought them face-to-face with the worst privations of the Great Depression – mapped out the contours of a system which would, eventually, take care of their fellow citizens “from the cradle to the grave”.
Nordmeyer and Macmillan took the plan to the 1934 Labour Party Conference, where it was enthusiastically endorsed and included in the party’s 1935 manifesto. By 1938 it was the law of the land.
Not bad for three ordinary citizens, gathered around a dining-room table in Kurow, North Otago.
And not a lobbyist in sight.