Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell On The New Breed Of Conservatives

November 14th, 2008

The premise of Labour’s election campaign was that John Key was either (a) a vacuum waiting to be filled by political expedience or (b) a secret hardliner masking his real intentions until he could gain power.

Both ways, the assumption was that something akin to an anti-government, free market agenda would be enacted, probably on terms hatched by National in collusion with the Act Party and its friends in business. Whatever, voters slept on through the alarm.

The more likely and more interesting prospect is that Key – like his mentor David Cameron in the UK – will be seeking a fresh formula for conservatism in order to re-install National as the natural party of government. To achieve that, the narrow Reaganite agendas of Rodney Hide and his friends will have to be sidelined, or only spasmodically affirmed. Therein lies the basic similarity between Helen Clark and John Key –both came to lead their respective parties in order to direct them away from failed hard right agendas, and both seem to instinctively recognise that laissez faire policies are too socially divisive to be politically sustainable.

For solutions, both Clark and Key turned to UK models for inspiration. Clark’s initial response was to draw on Tony Blair’s “Third Way” model, whereby the Clark government used the state to minimize the social impact of the economic framework that she inherited, and largely retained. Key is drawing upon Cameron to do much the same thing – to embrace the notion of the activist state, and to use Big Government openly to achieve the broadest possible consensus for the conservative enterprise. The irony being, if Key is to succeed, the social outcomes themselves will need to have quite a lot in common with Clark’s vision. Only if Key fails will New Zealand look like a world devised by Rodney Hide – with greater extremes of wealth and poverty, and ever increasing and ever costlier crime and imprisonment rates. That’s not an option for Key morally, or politically.

In the US, the debate over the future shape of conservatism is being played out in the wake of John McCain’s defeat, between what columnist David Brooks calls a struggle between the Old Guard Traditionalists ( read : the kind of tax cutting, small government radicals that comprise the Act Party) and the Reformers – who include Brooks and fellow columnist Peggy Noonan, writers such as Michael Gerson ( author of Heroic Conservatism) David Frum ( his book is called Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again) and right wing bloggers such as Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, whose own new book puts its ambitions right there in its title : Grand New Party – How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.
According to Brooks :

“The Reformers argue that the old [Republican] priorities were fine for the 1970s but need to be modernized for new conditions. The reformers tend to believe that voters will not support a party whose main idea is slashing government. The Reformers propose new policies to address inequality and middle-class economic anxiety. They tend to take global warming seriously. They tend to be intrigued by the way David Cameron has modernized the British Conservative Party.

Unfortunately, as Brooks concedes, the Old Guard currently hold most of the power centres : they run the think tanks, edit the main publications and control the donor networks of conservatism. As well :

They also command its dominant mythology….whereby conservatives see themselves as members of a small, heroic movement marching bravely from the Heartland into the belly of the liberal elite. [ GC: In the New Zealand variant, they struggle heroically every day to beat back the legions of the nanny state.] In this narrative, anybody who deviates toward the centre, who departs from established doctrine, is a coward, and a sellout.”

In the UK, Cameron deals with the potential for attack from the radical right on his ( reformist ) line by periodically pandering to the extremists – as he did recently with this January speech on welfare reform. – often enough to confuse them.

In general, what will Key’s centrist agenda look like? Before trying to answer that, I think its useful to clearly delineate the differences between the centre right and the radical right. A year ago in the Washington Post, the former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson talked about ‘an ideological identity crisis’ in conservatism, whereby a belief in limited government – which he claims, all true conservatives share – had atrophied into an ‘unbalanced hostility’ toward government itself, with crippling social and political effects.

“Anti-government conservatives…seem intent on leaving out some of the best elements of the conservative tradition. They have posed a false choice. On one side they assert, is liberal statism, the accumulation of coercive governmental power. On the other side, they argue, is the philosophy of freedom, reduced to a single principle of unrestricted individual economic choice.”

Gerson’s conclusion is an interesting one for a New Zealand government in which Bill English is the intellectual ballast, and the chief strategist. ‘The two intellectually vital movements within the Republican Party today,” he maintains, “are libertarianism, and Roman Catholic social thought.”

The difference between the visions that those two strands represent, Gerson explains, is considerable :

Various forms of libertarianism and anti-government conservatism share a belief that justice is defined by the imposition of impartial rules — free markets and the rule of law. If everyone is treated fairly and equally, the state has done its job. But Catholic social thought takes a large step beyond that view. While it affirms the principle of limited government — asserting the existence of a world of families, congregations and community institutions where government should rarely tread — it also asserts that the justice of society is measured by its treatment of the helpless and poor. And this creates a positive obligation to order society in a way that protects and benefits the powerless and suffering. This obligation to protect has never, in Jewish and Christian teaching, been purely private.

So, in other words, the activist state within the new conservatism should proceed not merely through a greater role of the private sector in the national economy. Though that is part of it, and will be achieved through the use of private public partnerships, and not primarily through the privatizations long advocated by the radical Old Guard. The Reformers will particularly embrace the state’s role in caring for the many victims of the free market that are generated by the economic settings – and in the US, Australia and the UK, the way it tends do that is via what George W. Bush has called faith based initiatives.

Under the Bush administration, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives ( led by its director Jay Hein) sought to promote and to expand public-private partnerships with frontline nonprofit organizations, to more effectively address “community challenges.”

In the New Zealand context, a more active role for the state in faith based welfare delivery would open up fertile ground for National within Maori and Pacific Island communities that are both heavily dependent on welfare, and widely unsympathetic to some ( but not all ) of the secular civil rights issues that have been promoted in recent decades by the centre left.

That process is already well underway. A few months ago, Key had begun discussing the potential for a highly centralized, “ super contractor’ model of welfare delivery in New Zealand. To that end, discussions were held mid year between the National Party and representatives of the Mission Australia organization – a huge church-based provider of family, community and employment services across the Tasman, with an annual turnover of some $A250 million.

Through economies of scale, such an organization can conveniently crowd out from state funding many smaller NGOs who have hitherto served a useful democratic role in sounding the alarm and suggesting the fine tuning needed when government policy is proving to be counter productive. A super contractor would thus arguably, achieve two goals for Key – it would be more economically efficient, even as it effectively lowered the profile of NGOs who had been critics of the National government during the 1990s benefit reforms.

Labour could see that coming. In anticipation of the likelihood that some existing NGOs might face a funding famine after the election, Michael Cullen channelled $440 million in his last Budget into fully funding essential services for those vulnerable families, children and young people that are being delivered by local community organizations. That move may only postpone the inevitable.

Until Sunday, we will not know if the ministerial posts being considered by the Maori Party will include a role in welfare delivery. But it would be surprising if they do not seek at least an under secretary input into the area, and if Key does not provide one. As the recession takes hold, the business of welfare delivery will offer a wedge opportunity for Key to divorce Maoridom from the secular humanism of Labour, through a church and state partnership approach to the issue of welfare dependency.

To support this enhanced activist state / private charity approach to social need, National campaigned during the election on offering larger tax rebates for charitable donations, in order to “give a big boost to the giving tradition in New Zealand.” National would not only remove gift duty from such donations, Key explained :

“This policy will : Remove the $1,890 cap on charitable donations. Donations of any amount, up to an individual’s total net income, will be eligible for the 33.3% rebate.
-· Remove the 5% cap on the level of donations that can be deducted by companies and Maori Authorities, meaning they will be allowed to claim a deduction for any level of charitable donation. In addition, all businesses, not just publicly listed or widely held companies, will be able to claim deductions.”

As this scenario unfolds, Labour and the Greens will need to react with more than just a secular criticism of exploitation and profiteering – though the opportunities for private profiteering from personal suffering will certainly increase. The critique, if it is to get traction among the communities affected, will need to engage on the level of community and moral values, and by fighting religious conservatism on its own terms.

After all, as Clark told reporters two years ago the Labour Party too, was based on a tradition of Methodism and Christian socialism. Politically, it may eventually require the left to embrace some aspects of welfare reform, by pushing for the upfront resources – eg to fund childcare, and employment training – that will be necessary to make the process humane for families and children. The main aspect that the left could attack head on will depend on whether welfare reform in New Zealand will include term limits, that set an expiry period for how long people can receive a benefit. Cameron advocates term limits, and they will be a litmus test for Key.

PPPs and beyond. Key is probably wishing he could have followed David Cameron into office, rather than preceding him. Ironically, it is now almost exactly 25 years since Roger Douglas launched the first experiment on using Reaganite economics at a national scale on living tissue, and New Zealand is once again at the forefront of such an experiment.

This time, it will be to test the replacement model for Old Guard radicalism – and to see just how and whether the new conservatism can be made to work at a national level. The Tories in Britain and Republicans in the US will be most interested to see how we get on, and which parts of the model work in practice.

Unfortunately, the prototype is being put into action here while the Key government is still tinkering with the design details. The rejection of r&d tax credits for instance, was a kneejerk Old Guard response that seems quite counter productive to the aim of fostering long term economic growth. As Fisher and Paykel CEO John Bongard indicated to RNZ this morning, there will have to be a replacement for those r &d credits, but we haven’t seen it yet. Similarly, the April tax cuts may boost consumption and keep the economy ticking over, but that kind of sugar fix is hardly a growth strategy in itself.

In fact, there seems to be only one relatively new tool in the economic policy toolbox right now. For the next three years, the main instrument of the activist state will be public private partnerships. National has plans to use PPPs extensively in roading, health, education and in prison construction and management – in order to generate wealth for its business allies, to soak up unemployment, and to create infrastructure.

The global financial meltdown will now make it harder to get some of those debt-financed projects off the ground but – looking on the bright side – this same financial crisis will also bring tighter discipline to bear on the terms of the PPP contracts, and on where exactly the burdens of risk are expected to fall. In boom times elsewhere, many PPPs have been little more than rorts that have privatized most of the profits, and socialized many of the risks.

In sum, we seem to be entering into a period where social problems are no longer ignored by conservatives, or treated as the inevitable tough-love workings of the market’s invisible hand. Why, a strong dose of paternalistic government, Douthat and Salam claim in their book, is very good for the working class, which “wants, and needs more from public policy than simply to be left alone.” Out in the suburbs, there is “anxiety among affluence, economic stress amid stock market highs.” Far too many on the Right, they continue, are anti-government. “They seem to have confused the American tradition of limited government, for an a-historical vision of a government that does nothing at all. “

The prescription should ring a few bells in New Zealand. For starters, the two young Reformers want their conservative vision of Big Government to set about forging links with voters by..,..”building an information superhighway” fit to match the scale of past great government endeavours, such as building the rail and electrification networks. Hmmm.

Who do you think is proposing to do exactly that, via a $1.5 billion scheme to build faster broadband for business, and oh, eventually for a few lucky home-owners waiting at the back of the queue ? Yes, that would be the Prime Minister-elect, John Key. Big Government is here to stay, so get used to it.


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    1. 18 Responses to “Gordon Campbell On The New Breed Of Conservatives”

    2. By Dave Brown on Nov 14, 2008 | Reply

      Big government was also central to corporatism, the New Deal and fascism, none of which were hostile to Catholicism. Catholicism can coexist with any system of oppression and provide a suitable opiate.

      When markets fail the capitalists always rely on the big state to bail them out and to wave the big stick against the resistance of workers who are made to pay for their crises. Key is not a Keynesian and his big government is corporatist not social democratic.

    3. By Terry Baucher on Nov 14, 2008 | Reply

      Fascinating stuff Gordon, thank you.

      One quick point: the limits on charitable donations by individuals and companies were lifted with effect from 1 April this year.

      For a group of professed thinkers what I find alarming about the right is their very unblinking adherence to neo-Reaganite/Milton Friedman ideology. The current crisis has to borrow a phrase made us all Keynesians now yet there is little evidence that the conservatives are re-thinking their economic ideology in the light of what is happening.

    4. By Truth Seeker on Nov 14, 2008 | Reply

      Reading the tea leaves, it looks like the reason National wants to go softly-softly in the first term is so they can focus on getting rid of MMP in 2011 and lock in a new, less accountable and representative system for 2014.

      That way, they can go hell for leather in the second term knowing they don’t face real democracy anymore…..and would be able to win power with 40% under FPP (or SM) just like they used to in the old days.

    5. By Tigger on Nov 14, 2008 | Reply

      Truth Seeker – I’m thinking exactly the same thing…

    6. By JQS on Nov 14, 2008 | Reply

      I think going down that ‘faith-based’ path is very dangerous for a secular government, like the devil they always ask for something in return, your soul.
      Brown – The New Deal actually supported unions, though. National’s plans are nothing more then to smash the unions. Their willingness to breach international labour conventions to do so is horrifying and makes me think they aren’t some new breed of ‘compassionate conservatives.’ That seems a contradiction in terms to me anyway.

    7. By KT on Nov 14, 2008 | Reply

      Collectivism is collectivism no matter if it is Labour/National or Republican/Democrats.

    8. By Jane on Nov 15, 2008 | Reply

      “Compassionate conservatism” is an oxymoron. George Bush was elected in 2000 by using this slogan and we saw the results. Decimation of the working class as usual, but also the middle class. We also saw the results of PPP’s. Corporate cronies such as Erik Prince (Blackwater private army) making billions at the expenses of the taxpayer. Another example is Bush’s “no child left behind” policy the title of which was designed to give the impression that education was a conservative priority. There was no extra funding for education, only a system of testing which crippled schools and teachers. If you read National’s education policy this is exactly what they have in mind. Look for the tests to be adminstered by private companies. New Zealanders have no idea what they have just voted in. Get ready for the “daddy state”.

    9. By Iain Parker on Nov 15, 2008 | Reply

      Old Parties:Same Results
      Kiwis have been indoctrinated to fear one party or the other. This a strategy of both of them. They deceive us into surrendering to the international regulations that govern our financial system, the Debt Based Private Money System that causes the wealth transfering Boom-Bust-Bankruptcy Pyramid Scam, so despite the ceremonial token gesture criticism of each other, they are for all intentional purposes exactly the same.
      All we have had from either of them over the last 80 years is ever increasing debt,taxes and inflation. This is an indisputable fact. They do not care how much they deceive you, so long as they can continue taking turns at being in government.
      If you continue to vote for them, you will get what you deserve; more debt, higher taxes and the cancer of inflation caused by the pyramid scam that is the privately owned central bank network controlled Debt Based Monetary System.

    10. By Dave Brown on Nov 15, 2008 | Reply

      “I was convinced we’d have a revolution in [the] US and I decided to be its leader and prevent it. I’m a rich man too and have run with your kind of people. I decided half a loaf was better than none – a half loaf for me and a half loaf for you and no revolution.” – Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

    11. By Paul Robeson on Nov 15, 2008 | Reply

      I think the quote by Key was that he was ‘mildy’ pro-tour is the interesting one.

      He is very mild about everything.

      The tour was on because the New Zealand government had signed the Gleneagles agreement and then cynically broke it. Key would only mildy give the international community the fingers, with less of the ‘hur hur hur’ vigour of Muldoon.

      He would only ‘mildly’ offer support to an isolated nation that was rounding people up on the basis of race, and forcing them into a second class existence. He would only mildly support the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and the killing of Steve Biko.

      What you say is simply what they have promised to do- tear apart some institutions old (ACC) and new (Kiwisaver)on neo-liberal principles, and mates rates for the business community.

      But then, presumably on mates rates as well, turn our retirement savings into a virtual venture capital scheme for the NZX, including you would presume their stockmarket programme.


      Our banks problem is reliance on foreign capital. We don’t want to save to make more available, but in fact spend more, and put the savings we have at greater risk.

      Not mild, completely mad.

    12. By Paul Robeson on Nov 15, 2008 | Reply


      ‘infrastructure programme’

    13. By simon on Nov 15, 2008 | Reply

      John Key goes where the votes are.

      That is all the analysis we need. He hasn’t bothered devoting any of his life to thinking any more deeply than that, so why should we do it for him?

    14. By Dave McArthur on Nov 16, 2008 | Reply

      I read the David Brooks article too and, like Gordon’s article, it contains interesting information and thoughtful reflections. However I conclude that the net impact of both articles is unhelpful. They are unsustainable because they adopt confusing and obscuring uses of the “conservative” symbol. As a result both articles work to promote acceptance of what they warn us against. Until our commentators face reality and take more care with their use of key symbols then they will continue to be a source of much misery. They will continue to frame fine work in the nonsense spun by the greed merchants of our times. Here is a quick note I shot off to David.

      Hi David from New Zealand
      Over the last decade I have been become very interested in the power of symbols – of how they resonate and what they reflect of our primal natures.
      I have noticed some very funny phenomena in our use of symbols and how our use often reflects a deep-seated denial of the Conservation Principle of Energy. I note how Americans describe the sector of its society that consumes resources in the most liberal way as “conservatives”. The people in the sector that tends to consume resources less liberally are called “liberals”.

      A web check indicates that, as in New Zealand, children in your schools join Conservation Clubs and learn how to be conservative and caring for the plants, soils, waters, air and creatures of this planet. So at an early stage they learn that “conservatism” is associated with care and compassion.

      So from this distance I see the USA as a very confused society and greatly lacking science.
      Here is a thought. It is by our actions that we are known. It matters little what we say, it is what we do that counts. For instance we may say we conserve precious resources such as mineral oil but if the reality is that we burn a barrel of mineral oil then physics and the Conservation Principle of Energy say that we have destroyed that barrel and it will not be replaced for many eons, regardless of the reason we give for destroying it.

      Surely the state of science more prevails when we conserve the “conservative” symbol and use it to describe what we do? Then the people who most liberally consume resources become known as non-conservatives while those who conserve resources are known as conservatives.

      You can see how this changes the discourse entirely. It is well possible the enhanced clarity of vision will help the USA from imploding entirely from liberal consumption of resources, as looks possible at present.

      I am interested in your response

      Dave McArthur

    15. By Brit Bunkley on Nov 16, 2008 | Reply

      The bottom line is how can we believe that Key will in realty install a centre right version of the centre left’s “third way”? (Like the differences between contemporary neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism, most points of difference range from trivial to illusionary.) Given Key’s unbelievable sudden shift in policy from right to left in the last 3 years, the “secret tapes” exposing the desires of National members, and the makeup of the party which include the bulk of the Hollow Men, I think it is entirely rational not to believe the Nats for a second.

      Of course the “big government” in the USA was also illusionary as Campbell implies; in that the Pentagon, a corporate welfare and bail-outs (“socialising risks”) used up even more government funds than did the liberal side of the single USA business party when in power – with dwindling tax dollars as social spending went by the wayside. I believe that the Nats will find a Kiwi version of Military Industrial complex to keep the gears of government grinding away without causing too much pain to the powerful who “own” the country.

      Most of all (and missing form the analysis), the media “fixed” this election for the conservatives. For example, on the liberal end of the spectrum John Campbell ran extensive smears against the left including a pre-election night extensive story on the “five headed monster” that would come into power if voters did not do what the powerbrokers wanted them to. Of course it is difficult to prove outstanding bias without presenting pages of analysis and examples. (I have kept as exhaustive notes as possible of my own of the amazingly slanted bias over the last 6 years – including glaring inaccuracies and outright lies…but this is just the tip of the iceberg.) We really need organized effort in NZ to expose the extraordinary level of managing consent by Big Media.

    16. By dw on Nov 17, 2008 | Reply

      Great article Gordon. You seem to be one of the only journalists actually providing any in-depth analysis and reporting on politics, and especially the historical basis and likely future outcomes of political decision making. Please, keep up the good work!!!

    17. By chris mousdale on Nov 17, 2008 | Reply

      John Campbell and Duncan Garners bias was total and naked. In the weeks prior to the election Campbell interviewed Key a couple of times and in both cases the interview ended with Key delivering party political message. Campbell grinning away “we should be charging you for that Mr Key..” of course they wouldn’t though. Key was shown the marshmallow-soft media environment of a station and program that was completely and explicitly Pro National. Garner out on the town boozing with Key and Co and John Campbell nursing the biggest chip-on-shoulder grudge in NZ media history, still fuming over Clark’s “creep’ quip from all those years ago. He wants to be NZs own cheeky ‘Rove’, but who knew his hero was actually Karl Rove?

    18. By wee poo on Nov 19, 2008 | Reply

      Daddy State?
      I hope it’s not a line up of dirty little uncles.
      Don’t investment bankers have turned out to be mainly gamblers in the current financial crisis?
      Hoping our new PM is not one of them, otherwise, GOOD LUCK is what we need indeed, NZ!

    19. By J Matheson on Nov 20, 2008 | Reply

      Excellent article, Gordon. I repeat my request for you to start up your own political magazine.
      In my saturated-blue town, there are 2 local papers, 1 supposed town interest magazine, which are owned and run by and for Act and National supporters.
      The bias became even more obvious in this last election, with Labour supporters barely able to gain any coverage of their views. The usual tactics such as larger headlines and front-page space for National and Act candidates and no attempt to get the other side of the story from the Labour candidate who had to request his refutation to be printed, and then it was underneath a repeated anti-government message pages in. The other paper and magazine printed nothing on Labour’s behalf and disallowed letters to the editor, but allowed any National or Act supporter, some of them anonymous, but more especially the sitting MP to make whole page damaging untruthful assertions about Labour.

      The hypocrisy of the business roundtable and National:Act bleating about the EFA which curtailed their huge spending base for election campaigning is breathtaking, when this country is without doubt a privately controlled media country and those moneyed business interests knew the Herald, for one, would fight their battle for nothing.

      The biased reporting in relation to the huge issue of emissions in the campaign did a lot of damage to this electorate vote for Labour. Now I find that National’s Nick Smith (24 April 2007) had actually congratulated Labour – “The sooner we get an emissions trading system in place the sooner we can make progress on climate change.” Was he ever pulled up on this? Had they already planned to incite farmers and mill workers to ‘riot’ against Labour’s ET scheme just before the election 2008? Had Roger/Rodney the Rottweiler already been briefed on his attack dog tactics which would then free Key up to avoid the dirty politics accusation? What did Key promise in return?

      In helping my Labour candidate I experienced the physical damage the Act and National supporters perpetrated on hoardings and the open hostility of Act and National supporters to anyone supporting Labour.

      John Key did not win fairly. New Zealanders have given up on their ‘Fair Go’ philosophy. That’s what upsets me more than anything about my fellow New Zealanders.

      Every town needs a magazine which is objective and follows the whole world view which your columns encompass. Every Labour supporter needs to know these ‘Nick Smith’ type facts so that we can answer the misleading and often downright lies about Labour. We don’t always know where to look for these facts and figures. We also need a running list of Key and National/Act/etc’s fact changes and u-turns.

      I am in a one-income family but will save $500 to invest in your magazine set up. Will anyone join me?

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