Cunliffe: NZ the land of the long grey cloud

In it for the money: Steven Joyce’s comments and the report into the earning potential of uni courses points to the Key Government’s obsession with financial reward
In it for the money: Steven Joyce’s comments and the report into the earning potential of uni courses points to the Key Government’s obsession with financial reward

Thank you to those correspondents who wrote to express their sympathy at the recent loss of a family pet.

Many of you were touched, having undergone similar experiences; others simply moved; and in one case, through a delightfully backhanded compliment on your columnist's single readable piece to date, evidently surprised that a so-called "leftie" might be allowed to own a dog, let alone mourn its passing.

Left and Right are such elastic terms - never been quite the same since the National Government of Robert Muldoon blended obnoxious social policies with big-state economics to produce a God's Own version of a - rotten - banana smoothie.

The snap election in 1984 removed Muldoon and installed Labour's David Lange. Under his voluminous coat-tails lurked a mob of panting neo-liberals. The Rogernomes set about their work with messianic zeal. They sold off every bit of the family silver they could lay their hands on, making a few people, including a cabal of overseas shareholders, very wealthy indeed - while putting large numbers of ordinary New Zealanders out of work.

Sunday Star-Times columnist Simon Cunliffe.
Sunday Star-Times columnist Simon Cunliffe.

The Labour Government of that era proved socially reformist, introducing anti-nuclear legislation, advancing biculturalism, promoting cultural self-expression, hauling gender and sexual politics out of Muldoon's shabby, darkened broom closet. Anyone recall the Moyle affair? Never mind - just showing my age.

So those of a conservative mien who wish to insult the writer might more accurately fling at him the soiled epithet of "liberal" - except, of course, as regular readers will appreciate, that would be worn as a badge of pride.

And there is much in the current political and social milieu to set that badge flashing red. For in its pursuit, across the totality of public life, a free-market, managerialist, technocratic, individualist and ultimately unimaginative agenda, mired in short-termist administration, the current Government truly does seem intent on snuffing the life out of what remains of the liberal project.

I was reminded of this last week with the publication of a Ministry of Education report ranking university degrees by their earnings potential. On the face of it, not a biggie - indeed, a useful service for prospective students - except that the thinking around it betrays all so transparently the current orthodoxy: if you can't make a good buck out of it, it ain't worth doing.

"What I think it will do," Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Minister Steven Joyce said, "is you will see a move away from fine arts and performing arts into a stronger demand for more career-oriented areas."

It's an affront to the notion that an education is of value in its own right; and that the creative thinking this country needs for its social, cultural and economic wellbeing often arises precisely out of the fine and liberal arts arenas.

It falls within the pettifogging pragmatism that passes for government in this country, where real leadership and civic inspiration are increasingly neutered by the totalitarianism of the ill-informed and its opinion poll proxies.

Where is the articulation of nationhood, the overarching project that speaks of fairness, of justice, equality of status and opportunity? Where is the hope for the hopeless and the reward for the good, the godly and the inventive? And what would it have to say about the relentless retrenchment from visions, values and public-spiritedness towards the privileged individualism that increasingly pervades our culture?

Since we are being deluged with so-called State of the Nation dribble, what might it also have to say about the following?

Climate change: we seem rather abruptly to be abandoning the overwhelming consensus on anthropogenic warming - with all the consequences that could entail.

Education: in 2013, the Government will divert hard-earned taxpayer cash to underpin the establishment of private, unaccountable, ideologically dodgy charter schools.

Privatisation of state energy companies: deja vu all over again?

Prisons: In the words of Bill English - a "moral and fiscal failure". Will Government policies and rhetoric begin to reflect this reality?

Public service: the cult of managerialism - it is a cult, with its own exclusive language and compulsion to excommunicate dissenting voices - has infected public service faster than a pandemic of chicken flu. Its acolytes are rewarded with promotions and vast salaries for sacking thousands and introducing costly "consultants" alongside counter-productive, hare-brained schemes.

Public broadcasting: the market will tells us all we need to know . . . Yeah, right.

Unemployment: stubbornly high - apparently a necessary condition of the free market.

Grist for the social democratic mill. But who can and will begin to recapture this liberal heartland? And what, these days, does inspiring leadership in this country even sound like?

Sunday Star Times