Has the National Party become politically correct? Its 2008 election candidate list suggests so, and in a sense it’s been rather PC for some time. Now the party is attempting to diversify itself by becoming ethnically-diverse and more gender balanced to reflect the modern face of New Zealand society. While of course there is absolutely no attempt to make the National caucus reflect the class nature of New Zealand society (which is overwhelmingly working class), it should be questioned whether this form of identity politics borrowed from the liberal-left is anything more than window dressing that obscures more important elements of what the National Party represents. [Read more below]
Under John Key National is modernizing by updating its look. Its recently-released party list includes a significant number of women and non-pakeha. Based on the new list, together with the most recent opinion poll figures, it looks like National could end up with a parliamentary caucus that included 17 female MPs (29% of the caucus), 6 Maori MPs (10%), 3 Asian MPs, and 1 Pacific MP. Furthermore, 11 of its MPs (or nearly 20%) would be under the age of 40.
These figures might not appear too radical on first glance, but in context of the National Party’s history they are fairly significant. For example, as recently as 2002, the National caucus only had one Maori in it – Georgina te Heuheu.
National's smart strategy
Party president Judith Kirk, says that National’s diversity project is about winning more votes in crucial areas like South Auckland. When announcing the recent candidate list, Kirk recalled: ‘I went to Maungakiekie, there was a fund-raiser there, and there were about 300 people…. About 200 of them were Pacific Islanders. That wouldn't have happened in the National Party 10 years ago’.
In many ways the National Party is philosophically suited to being a broad party that represents diverse sections of the nation. After all, as Colin James has recently pointed out, this was always the strength of the party: ‘In the 1950s and 1960s and even into the 1970s when it siphoned many wage-workers off Labour, National proclaimed itself, with cause, the national party. Labour, it said, was captive to the unions and therefore sectional’ (James, July 2008). Therefore in modern times, according to James, ‘The challenge is to make such people a commonplace and give National a convincing claim to reach beyond the white male pale, to be broad enough to claim long periods in office, as after 1949. In short, Key's real challenge is to make National a national party again’ (James, July 2008)
In diversifying, National is merely making a natural progression that stated in the 1990s when it quickly moved away from its farming base and developed a caucus reflecting a more urban New Zealand.
Bill English’s diversity project
Then under the leadership of Bill English, National embarked on the diversity project in 2002. English saw a need to broaden the catchment of the National Party if it was to be revitalised and regain the government benches, and bemoaned the elitist image of the party. ‘There was a smell…. that came across the party early in the ‘90s, too focused on the dollars, not worried enough about the people missing out. We didn’t do enough to challenge those impressions’ (quoted in Trotter, 19 Apr 2000: p.13). He even declared, ‘There’s a perception that rich people vote National, and it’s true…. I hate that. It would do us good to see us drive some those people away’ (quoted in Trotter, 2000c: p.13).
Chris Trotter wrote at the time, saying that ‘National has belatedly recognised the demographic realities of New Zealand society and is energetically browning its complexion’ (Trotter, 30 January 2002). Quite simply, ‘National cannot hope to win office without significant support from Maori and Polynesian New Zealanders’ (Trotter, 30 January 2002).
Similarly, Laugesen outlined the demographic challenge and response from National:
National has read the demographic writing on the wall, which will see the Maori population increase from 14% to 20% by 2050. Without a share of that vote and the growing Pacific Island vote, it will be difficult for National to win enough votes to govern. Leader Bill English has told his party it must go outside its comfort zone and change. He has set an example by learning Maori, and is now sporting a credible accent (Laugesen, 23 June 2002).
English’s diversity project was partially rolled back when Don Brash took over the leadership and was manipulated by spin doctors who wanted a more ‘mainstream’ look for National. This meant that the browning and feminizing of National was temporarily put into recess - although it should be noted that Brash did bring more Maori into Parliament in 2005.
This is about window dressing, and none of this is terribly surprising - especially that National is diversifying itself. This is a natural progression, and means that National is catching up with Labour, and in fact the caucus will increasingly look like Labour over time. And interestingly, after this year’s election it is likely that National will be more ethnically-diverse than the Labour Party which has given its safe seats only to pakeha candidates. If Labour do poorly and lose all the Maori seats, the Labour caucus might be all white.
It’s also interesting to see National’s middle-aged, pakeha, male Wellington Central candidate, Stephen Franks, diplomatically explain (or even apologise for) the fact that he didn’t get a higher list placing due to National’s diversity project:
The party list is a shop-window. It is reported as a symbol of the kind of people who will be looked after by a party. Accordingly, though I believe strongly in appointments by merit, not quota, it is imperative for the party to show that it is not composed only of people like me. There are plenty of people my age, colour and sex, so the shop window needs to emphasize those who are not.
The new ethnic minority candidates being embraced by National or not from the poor and working class. They are instead businesspeople and highflying consultants – people like Hekia Parata, Paula Bennett, and Sam Lotu-Liga. It should be clear therefore that the diversity of “New National” does not extend to class.
Apart from the ‘superficial’ identity politics of the ethnicity and gender of politicians, it’s interesting to look at the current/previous professions/jobs of the candidates. I.e what percentage of the National caucus will be lawyers, teachers, farmers, etc.? If you’re interested in reading some more about the, read the earlier blog post on ‘The social composition of National Party caucuses’. In this I argue that the social composition of National MPs has been changing significantly over the last couple of decades. Historically, the party has drawn most of its parliamentarians from its traditional core group of supporters: higher-income groups, such as farmers, professionals (lawyers and accountants especially), and businesspeople. In the 1990s the parliamentary party was gradually becoming dominated by professionals. Farmers only made up a quarter of a caucus dominated by those with professional backgrounds (constituting about a third of the caucus).
Diversity and the left
Philip Ferguson of the University of Canterbury has been a strong leftwing critic of the diversity projects that have been undertaken in New Zealand hand-in-hand with the implementation of neoliberalism:
when people on the left talk about, say, National, I just cringe. They are describing National from about 25 years ago under Muldoon, not the party of urban liberals that National now is. Key’s overtures to Maori and him turning up at the Big Gay Out in a pink shirt aren’t just stunts. Bourgeois politics today is as much about being “pro-diversity” and socially liberal as it is about being right-wing economically. In fact the two go together *of necessity*. The “more market” ideology best fits social liberalism, not social conservatism…. Key and English both speak the language of diversity, inclusiveness blah blah – all the liberal hogwash that Labour speaks and the whole middle class speaks: the liberal hogwash alternative to real freedom – to liberation and equality.
Much of the left still assume that the New Zealand Establishment is anti-PC. Ferguson comments:
this hasn't been the case for about 20 years. The dominant people in both the state apparatus and business management these days are pc. Take a look at economics and management studies textbooks and see these people's views. It's all about diversity and inclusiveness; in management studies now you can even do serious university courses on "Spirituality and the Workplace" at stage 3 level! You keep a spirituality diary as part of the course. Donna Awatere made a whole chunk of her first fortune selling anti-racist awareness programmes to private companies, whose execs no doubt loved the frisson of meeting NZ's self-styled most dangerous revolutionary. Every company of any significance in NZ these days has a 'Mission Statement' full of pc language, the companies linked to the Business Roundtable being no exception.
This brings into sharp focus the fact that there’s nothing particularly radical, leftwing or challenging about politically correct diversity. Rather than being any real type of liberation, political correctness is usually all about obscuring discrimination and privilege.
This is a point made clear in a recent book entitled The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. This book argues that diversity politics has been embraced by the Establishment. The book says that all political parties now fetishize racial difference, and that increasingly leftwing liberals merely want the 'moral certainty' of being able to see their conservative opponents as racist:
What American liberals want is for our conservatives to be racists …. We want a fictional George Bush who doesn’t care about black people rather than the George Bush we’ve actually got, one who doesn’t care about poor people.
And as one book review points out, the Bush administration has actually 'appointed a yet more racially diverse group of senior advisors to preside over far more divisive policies of malign economic neglect'.
Subsequently, there seems to be a strong argument for 'equality not diversity'. However, this is an approach that no party in the New Zealand Parliament – especially National or Labour - is currently interested in.