How do we decide how to vote?

As New Zealand’s national election nears, my mind goes back to a conversation I was part of years ago as a post-grad English student at Otago University. In the Senior Common Room of the College where I was staying at the time there were a young doctor and a young dentist, also doing post-grad work in their disciplines.

An election was approaching and the dentist was seriously undecided. “How do you decide who to vote for?” he asked. The doctor chuckled knowingly and said, “Hey, it’s easy. You’ve just got to work out whether you’re a ‘have’ or a ‘have not’. If you’re a ‘have’, you vote National; if you’re a ‘have not’, you vote Labour.”

Sounds cynical, and of course it is cynical. In fact, there’s the very definition of cynicism – “believing that people are motivated only by self-interest.” If we vote on that basis, the gap between the rich and the poor will continue to widen, and our society will become increasingly less compassionate and more divided.

It seems to me that the only way to vote ethically is to consider whose policies will do most for the poor, the powerless and the deprived. Diametrically opposed to the guideline quoted above is a billboard which I saw recently: “If you’re doing OK, then cast your vote for those who aren’t.” That is an altogether more commendable (and Christian) guideline.

It concerns me when an organisation like Family First puts out a voting guide which examines the values of the political parties on a purportedly Christian basis and totally ignores care of the environment, poverty, and housing affordability. Of course, issues such as euthanasia and abortion are important, but the narrowing of the focus to social and sexual issues is seriously misleading – and a distortion of Christian faith.

From a biblical perspective, care of the poor and care of the earth are huge priorities laid upon us.  Both of these values are trodden under foot when the primary focus is on maximising profits and accruing personal wealth. The degradation of New Zealand’s rivers, lakes and waterways has become painfully apparent in recent years and no effective Government action has been taken to counter this. Instead our conservation estate has been run down (with over a hundred DOC rangers laid off) and the current mantra is no longer “Conservation for Posterity” but “Conservation for Prosperity.” Whichever party we’re going to support, we can’t do it on the basis of narrow self-interest or complacency about the last nine years.

At this point you may be thinking, “But hang on. What about the economy? Doesn’t our nation’s welfare depend to a huge extent on how well the economy is managed?” Indeed it does. And there is a prevalent view that National is the more astute economic manager of the two major political parties, and therefore to vote National is best for the country.  But have a look at the graph below. It’s a NZ Treasury graph for the years 1972-2017 showing which governments have been in surplus and which in deficit. (I’m indebted to Kelvin Wright, till recently Bishop of Dunedin and my predecessor as Vicar of Sumner-Redcliffs, for posting this on Facebook and colouring the graph according to which party was in power at the time.)

Graph

While the  graph shows that the greatest deficits occurred during the Muldoon, Shipley and Key administrations, and the greatest surpluses under Bolger and Clark, the significant thing is that overall surpluses and deficits are pretty equally shared between National and Labour governments. So it is a mistake to think that one party will necessarily provide better economic management than the other.

That being the case, it is not naïve to vote altruistically for the party which will do most for the poor and powerless – especially when we recognise that the “poor and powerless”  includes the environment which does not have a voice to speak for itself.

6 thoughts on “How do we decide how to vote?

  1. thaumaturgos

    Thank you for this, are

    Your arguments are the very ones that had me decide not just to vote this year, but to stand for Labour. Yes, I had to weigh a suite of policies around ‘moral’ issues. But the call for those with power to defend and care for those without saw me stand as I am, and to do no other.

    Kind regards

    Sent from my iPad

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  2. Glenda Hicks

    Some good thoughts there Ron.
    I have a query though. What about the minor parties? You seem to be concentrating on National and Labour, whereas it is highly likely that NZ First, Greens and perhaps Maori Party will really decide who will become the next Government. So this is where ‘strategic voting’ could come in. I have in fact not voted for either main party for the last few elections.
    Also, a resource to share with your readers if I may. Theology House Library has a little book called: “How Just is the Market Economy?” written by Edward Dommen, a Swiss economist who used to work for a UN agency. I commend it as a very helpful commentary which I believe helps explain why we are where we are in terms of the Rich-Poor GAP. It is not a doctrinaire book, but sensible enough for me to want to send it to both Jacinda and Bill!
    It also highlights some interesting social economic theory from his countryman, Calvin!
    (For the timid, it is only 92 pages, and I understood most of it).
    Glenda

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    1. Thanks, Glenda, especially for the Dommen recommendation. Re your earlier comment: I’m certainly not excluding the minor parties, especially the Greens with my emphasis on care of the environment.

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  3. William Shepard

    Hello Ron,

    It is good to hear from you and to be reminded of our basic and primary social responsibilities. “If you’re doing OK, then cast your vote for those who aren’t” is certainly a good one liner to keep in mind and the graph at the bottom is illuminating. I don’t think I would be too hard on Family First, however. Their concerns are legitimate if limited, but most social activists narrow their focus, e.g. to human rights, environment, etc., or they would not accomplish anything. So too with Family First. i don’t think they are so up front with their Christianity as to give the impression that that is all Christianity is about – except of course to those already think that way.

    In any case, I do pray that these elections will give us a government that will act effectively for the deprived.

    In Christ, Bill SShrpsrd

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    1. Hi Bill, it is very good to hear from you. And I appreciate your thoughtful response. I may be being a little hard on Family First, but I’m aware that their voting guide is being offered to people at a number of churches, and so it looks as if it is presenting a Christian “take” on the policies of the various parties.

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