Where to for values-driven politics?

DOUG SELLMAN
Last updated 10:43 04/09/2014
Doug Sellman
DOUG SELLMAN

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OPINION: Student Volunteer Army co-founder Sam Johnson recently made a call for "values-driven politics". Professor DOUG SELLMAN considers what that might mean.

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Can any good come from the current Dirty Politics saga? Or do we have to accept that politics in the new social media era is inevitably jungle warfare, eagerly watched as entertainment by some, while others despair and disengage.

Sam Johnson calls for a values- driven politics  following his revulsion at the revelations in Nicky Hager's book, Dirty Politics.

In fact, a change to the way politics is conducted appears to be one of the book's aims.

Hager concludes the Preface: "Exposing dirty politics is an essential step in allowing reasonable people to understand and to choose other approaches."

But where do we go for a values- driven politics? Perhaps we need to look no further than ourselves and begin with the positive values expressed in the ideals of the three main political parties. Below we will see that these reflect our own higher human character. However, commitment to a more grown-up political environment is necessary for these values to be discussed, prioritised and translated into astute public policy.

National primarily stands for individual freedom and personal responsibility. Labour has social fairness and collective responsibility at its core, and the Green party is primarily based on sustainability within a global context. A parallel can be drawn between these political values and the main constructs of human personality.

A compelling model of personality has been developed by US research psychiatrist Professor Robert Cloninger. Three dimensions of character described are self-directedness, co-operativeness and self-transcendence. These represent fundamental relationships we are each engaged in. Self-directedness is the relationship we have with ourselves, co- operativeness is the relationship we have with others, and self-transcendence is the relationship we have with the wider global world and beyond.

People who are high in self- directedness are individually focused and purposeful and perhaps naturally prefer political values of individual freedom and personal responsibility. Those high in co-operativeness are empathic, helpful and tolerant towards others and might therefore be drawn towards the values of social fairness and collective responsibility. Those high in self-transcendence appreciate the wider context in which the human world operates and therefore might tend to favour sustainability as a fundamental political value. Being high in one dimension doesn't preclude being high on one or other of the other two.

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In a 21st century environmentally- stressed world a political system is needed that not only retains the enduring values of individual freedom and social fairness (rather than perpetuate an unnecessary conflict between these two ideals), but also one that emphasises environmental sustainability.

These three value systems are now beginning to play out around the world as the central organising framework for political conceptualisation. A fourth, restoration of indigenous values through remediation of historical injustices, underpins all three. In New Zealand, this is politically expressed in both the Maori and Mana parties.

In summary, there are three fundamental political ideals - individual freedom, social fairness and environmental sustainability - which reflect three constructs of human personality. These provide a natural set of political values, to which historical justice can be added, to act as a safety valve for dealing with indigenous anger from the past.

A values-driven politics based on these will go a long way to preventing four evils threatening the happiness of citizens and peace within Aotearoa New Zealand - loss of personal autonomy, increasing rates of poverty, accelerating environmental degradation and eruption of violence from historical injustices.

Johnson's and Hager's call for moral rejuvenation in politics is refreshing, but not necessarily easily achievable. A more civilised politics can't be taken for granted. However, just as teenagers mature into adults through a shift in brain functioning from limbic system to prefrontal cortex, dirty jungle politics can shift to a higher state as well. A values-driven politics requires mental and emotional energy to lift attitudes and behaviour from our reptilian depths to the elevated but fragile level of human rationality, empathy and wisdom.

Bullying attack politics motivated by power and greed can be trumped by value-driven politics with sufficient effort and leadership. However, two things are needed: Firstly, political champions across the political spectra dedicated to higher values and fostering a more mature political environment; and secondly, a voting public prepared to put time and energy into supporting and promoting such individuals. It is easy to drift apathetically or drool like infants over scandal and gossip. It is also easy to be taken in by the beauty contests and lolly scrambles of shallow election campaigns or be influenced by attacks and smears of venal blogging.

Reorientation towards a values-driven politics is the best that could come out of this important "Dirty Politics" saga of 2014.

Doug Sellman is Professor of Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine at the University of Otago in Christchurch.

- The Press

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