Trotter: A swing right could tear us apart

Chris Trotter
Chris Trotter

Nearly three years ago, Rob Campbell  who (by processes we haven't the space to describe here) had undergone the remarkable transformation from Trades Hall brawler to capitalist investor  told me something I have not forgotten.

We were seated, very comfortably, at Auckland's Cin-Cin restaurant, discussing what was already quite clearly a financial crisis of global significance. As I recall, the proportion of the world's wealth that finance capital's croupiers had just raked off the table amounted to about one-third.

Rob's diagnosis of the situation was brutally clear. It would take upwards of a generation for the global economy to make good such colossal losses. The world, he said, was about to go through some very hard times.

I asked him what that meant in political terms.

"The greatest challenge we will face," Rob said, "as we go through this, will be maintaining social cohesion."

It is, perhaps, the greatest achievement of John Key's first term in government that the breakdown in social cohesion that Rob Campbell feared  and which we have just witnessed on the streets of England  has not taken place on our own.

For this the prime minister merits high praise.

What kept us together was his inspired decision to bring the Maori Party into his government. Had he not done so: had he simply relied on National's natural allies in ACT; things could have been very different. The Maori seats, for example, would have been slated for abolition. This move, alone, threatening as it did the very existence of the Maori Party (and leaving them with dangerously little to lose) would have tested New Zealand's social cohesion to breaking-point. Serious political disturbances  up to and including terrorist violence  could very easily have torn this country apart.

Simply for sparing us that terrible scenario, Mr Key deserves a second term.

The big question, I guess, is whether  having won a second term  Mr Key will be able to preserve this country's social cohesion for another three years?

Will the prime minister be strong enough to stare down the far-Right of his own caucus (along with their clones in the ACT Party) and pursue a policy agenda which, rather than driving New Zealanders apart, is designed to bring them together?

I have to say that, as things now stand, I am far from confident that the prime minister will be able to hold the line against a full-scale onslaught by the Right.

After three years of holding their noses against the cologne of compromise, they are ready to throw open the doors and let the winds of change blow through the House.

Mr Key, to his credit, is doing his best to win a comprehensive electoral mandate for the changes his colleagues are so desperate to make. In pursuing this objective, however, the prime minister is presupposing that the opinion polls are correct, and that National, for the first time since 1951, will secure more than half the votes cast on November 26.

My gut tells me that, barring an extremely low turnout, such an outcome is highly unlikely. And, if the turnout is low, then National's mandate will be next to useless. A dramatically falling level of electoral participation is one of the surest signs that social cohesion is weak and getting weaker.

The other factor militating against Mr Key joining the great "coherers" of the past: men like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Michael Joseph Savage; is that in 2011  unlike the 1930s  global capitalism is not threatened by either a communist Russia or a fascist Germany.

Hedged-in by such existential threats, the intelligent capitalists of the Great Depression threw their support behind the "stimulus packages" of their day.

In 2011, however, unconstrained by the prospect of being supplanted by either the far Left or the far Right, global capitalism is demanding austerity of the most socially-destructive kind.

If National, in a second term, bows to those demands, then my old comrade Rob Campbell's worst fears will be realised.

The Dominion Post