Lessons from New Zealand: The politics of division must end

29 Aug 2017

New Zealand is in the throes of an election campaign, and I’m sick of it (already).


Returning to New Zealand from the UK this week I was hoping, albeit in vain, for an escape from the divisive and toxic rhetoric that is British politics. But this virulent discourse only reached a new climax last week with Labour MP Laura Pidcock’s statement that she could not be friends with a Tory.


Yes, Ms Pidcock, you can, and you should be; the more you see yourself ideologically opposed to another, the more important it becomes to engage, understand, and even befriend those who do not share your particular set of beliefs.


To my British friends, I have always characterised New Zealand politics as ‘dull’, but co-operative, where all political parties (kind of) get along, share ideas, and work towards the common objective of bettering New Zealand for every successive generation.


This week, I have only found my characterisation disproven as the alienating rhetoric espoused by Ms Pidcock has been adopted here by those here on both sides of the fence. No longer is it a battle of policy, but a battle of personality and character.


Where, previously, different political parties in New Zealand politics may simply have represented different paths to a common goal, political discourse would now suggest that those on the opposite benches actively oppose your own ambitions to the point of destruction.


This campaign, the Prime Minister, Bill English (think: a slightly duller Theresa May) has been characterised by the left opposition as amoral, heartless, and a baby-killer who wants the poor to die in squalor. Meanwhile, only yesterday, New Zealand’s Leader of the Opposition, Jacinda Ardern (think: Jeremy Corbyn, but young and female) was described as a “health and safety hazard.”


These are mere anecdotes, but serve to exemplify the discourse that has become pervasive to politics in New Zealand, but also in similar Western democracies.


According to the ‘left’, right-leaning politicians seek to destroy the future of your children and the lives of the vulnerable in favour of short-term profits, while according to the ‘right’, left-leaning individuals hate the country, and intend only to deprive you of your liberties to hold conservative beliefs.


Admittedly, this politics of division is not new. In New Zealand, its roots can be traced to the vitriolic ‘Rob’s Mob’ of the 1970s, while in Britain, the characterisation of Margaret Thatcher as a ‘witch’ serves as evidence to this style of politics, but not as its point of beginning.


Owing to the online echo chambers in which many of us participate politically, this discourse is only worsening and becoming more and more vitriolic. The booing of Conservatives recently at London Pride in July — falsely suggestive of the idea that conservatism is incompatible with a support of gay rights — is but one example, as we seem to have become so obsessed with the ideological purity of our own views that we fail to appreciate any others as valid; equally valid in fact.


It is time we acknowledged that our own particular views — liberal or conservative — are simply the formations of experience and perspective. They are valid, of course, and we have the right to act upon them. But the views of those ideologically different, based upon a different set of experiences are also equally valid.


Tories are not nasty, it is not ‘wrong’ to be a conservative, and (if you’re not one) not only can you be friends with one (or many), but you should be. Being products of our own experiences, the only way to expand our own political viewpoints and perspectives is through engagement, communication, and understanding.


By permanently living within an echo chamber, choosing only to engage with those who share ideological similarities, the quality of this discourse is weakened and thus democracy is weakened.


Returning to New Zealand politics, in which its political leaders appear to be promoting the politics of ‘us’ and ‘them’ has therefore been disappointing.


When voters in this country go the polling booth on September the 23rd, they are not being asked to select an objective truth (“which political party cares about you future and which doesn’t?”). Instead, voters are asked express their opinion, their beliefs, and their experiences, through support for a party or candidate. No answer is incorrect, and no vote is ‘wrong’; it is time for us (on both sides of the chamber) to stop suggesting this.


The politics of division, the politics of ‘us’ and ‘them’, of ‘young’ and ‘old’, of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, must end. It is time to accept that just as your own views are not necessarily the only truth, neither should views of those politically opposite to you be seen as objectively incorrect.


Division is harmful to democracy. It entrenches views, discourages participation, weakens the quality of debate, and promotes ideology based upon false experience.


All opinions are subjective, including your own.



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