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.)
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.