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Policies or Character?

  • July 1st, 2008

 This post sets out an email exchange (edited) after a neighbourhood meeting last week. These meetings used to be called "cottage meetings". Supporters volunteer their homes to give neighbours and friends an hour or two to get to know candidates face to face. Hot debate can emerge.

At this particular meeting a sceptic was pressing for specific National policy on matters not familiar to me. Another guest intervened with the view that the last thing citizens should be doing is falling into the trap of encouraging political parties to develop detailed policies. I supported one of his reasons with some personal experience,

Here’s what followed –


That was a very enjoyable evening on Monday.

I was interested in your experience that the predominant attitude at select committees, if the media is absent, is "what would be good for New Zealand?" It is certainly my experience over more than 25 years now that virtually all ministers genuinely seek to serve the community. Some are more successful than others, but I’d add that nearly all leave office better ministers than when they started.

Part of the reason for this is that in office, ministers realize that policy development is a professional activity of which political activism is only a part. It takes time and effort to define feasible alternatives, and to evaluate them using the preferences which emerge from the political process (which may not be those of the policy analyst).

That was what I meant when I said that the last thing I want is politicians and enthusiasts making policy.

It is also relevant to your efforts to ensure that public servants in Wellington Central can expect to feel valued by a National-led government.

It is also true that one of the clearest conclusions of psephology is that electorates respond to their evaluations of leading politicians more than to policy statements. This has been true since polling started; if we had polls earlier, we’d probably find that the great issues of the nineteenth century – Irish Home Rule in Britain, or slavery in the US – determined election results far less than we usually assume.

It is the media that preserves the myth [that parties should be judged by the volume of policy], anxious to maintain its own role as arbiter of policy proposals. It is also the media that keep us thinking that elections are about government rather than the composition of parliament.

I was glad to see you hold your ground against pressure to line up against wind-farms or for incentives for business (by which the questioner really meant subsidies). I hope your political colleagues will do the same (to all lobbyists, even those who seek commitments to objectives I favour).

We need to think about what should be revived from the 1980s. What we are most missing is the conscious effort in the 1980s to get things right and then explore how they could be made acceptable.

There were errors – New Zealanders want more collective activity than was assumed. I think this is true even of educational policy, including the bits in which I was involved. I think you would be unwise to put a great deal of weight on private schools; I suggest you think about what we want through "public education"; I expect less emphasis on public ownership to evolve naturally. (What is ‘public" about the "public transport" which generates favourable responses in the electorate?)

Your themes of risk-taking, and making an impact on crime through ensuring that a price is exacted without descending to being exclusively punitive are a good basis on which to appeal to the electorate. I suggest you might like to add reviving "investment" as requiring above all active monitoring to ensure that returns justify the initial sacrifice – the business community but also many others are disillusioned with treating investment as equivalent to "expenditure on an objective I like, at the expense of somebody else."….

Best wishes

I went back with the following (with examples since edited in) –


Thanks for taking the time to follow up.

I’ve never heard any public advocacy of the position that policy should not be the first priority of a political party.

I’ve only come myself to accept over the last 5 years that assessing character is the much more important task for voters in an election. The people are right to be more interested in revealing gossip than serious policy pronouncements, because many politicians shuck policies like clothes. [Think "closing the gaps", "returning to the top half of the OECD" and the biggest of them all, (not that I’m complaining) a Labour PM from the left signing a free trade deal, flanked by union leaders, in a country with notorious labour standards whose manufacturers are demolishing ours.]

Few policies thought to be vital during an election are nearly as important as the unexpected shocks met when governing. They must be dealt with on the basis of character and predisposition, in the absence of party debate. [No one, including Bush would have thought of running on a policy to respond to a 9/11 event. The policies commentators now cite as defining achievements of the Labour goverment – law for civil unions, prostitution liberalisation, anti-smacking law – were never seen on a manifesto].

I’m willing now to defend the relevance of ‘gossip [what the targets always call ‘muck-raking’ in elections, though I try to play the ball not the man myself. Wishart’s work is at least as important to the health of our political system as the more ‘elevated’ commentators, whether or not he gets some interpretation wrong. Though Nicky Hager’s latest work to me seems blatantly hypocritical, not just naive, he at least thinks important the question voters should be asking of the leading people in all parties – "are you honest, do you routinely lie to save yourself"? Clark’s reactions to John Campbell’s interviews over ‘Corngate’ were the most valuable information voters got during the 2005 election – yet the BSA punishd TV3 for eliciting them. Would the people have re-elected Clark or Peters if they’d been more focused on the questions underlying Hager’s strategy?]

I suspect the intuitive focus of the people on illustrative stories [instead of policy] could be more penetrating than the preoccupations of the intelligentsia, [as long as the media are prepared to expose inconsistencies in ‘stories’ – a recent (trivial) example being the American couple used as a typical kiwi family for the recent Labour flyer].

Would you object if I posted some of your comment on my blog. I’d like to see if there’s a reaction. It’ll be attributed if you agree, or otherwise just as the comment of a wise professor who’d attended a ‘cottage’ meeting.

Regards etc

My correspondent came back –


 I was vaguely aware of the psephology results from the Michigan studies which occurred while I was at Oxford in the 1960s, but was still startled by a lecture by Ralph Brooks – who you might remember from your student days – when he claimed that floating voters were less well informed about policy choices than voters who always supported the same party.

I nevertheless was still suitably humbled when I admired John Hewson’s [unsuccessful Aus liberal party leader] "Fightback" document for its honesty and transparency (although I did not necessarily agree with all its content) only for Donald Stokes, then at Princeton but the major figure in the Michigan studies, to say that it showed Hewson knew no political science and would be a long suicide note. He was right.

Yes, you can use what I wrote – what you choose – and attribute it.


 I thank you sincerely Professor Gary Hawke.


  • Mike Mckee
  • July 1st, 2008
  • 2:58 pm

Character every time for me.
That’s why this time round it is so easy for the party vote.
The individual , that’s a different kettle of fish as I don’t know who’s running yet!

However in our vacuous (western) society people tend to use ability or their perception of ability to discriminate and make decisions on who to go for.

Women have been trained to do the same for marriage or partners by culture and media nowadays.
the so called courting period of old was to see out the Character in the man.


The Civil Union Act, passed in 2004, was promised in the Labour Party Manifesto for the 2002 election.
[Thanks Graeme, and I did not check to see whether the Greens adopted Sue Bradford’s Member’s Bill as a policy matter in 2005 after she’d had it in the ballot for some time]

  • Mike Mckee
  • July 5th, 2008
  • 11:05 am

This whole thing over us (NZ) being quiet about the rubbish coming out of the UN Human rights Council so we can get on it.

This shows character.
But what character?

If it’s just to get on to biff off those rubbish countries who shouldn’t be there then maybe I can accept.
But if not for that reason.

Then it says it all about NZ’s character.

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