Perhaps the most famous election slogan in New Zealand’s political history was that which took Robert Muldoon’s National Party to a landslide victory in 1975.
It was: “New Zealand the way you want it.”
Few would agree that, 36 years later, New Zealand is the way its citizens wanted it then or want it now, if talkback radio callers or writers to newspaper letters columns are anything to go by.
But the so-called silent majority seems to have a different take — although in New Zealand, as Austin Mitchell once famously quipped, we have more of a “mumbling majority”.
Indeed, the 2010 New Zealand General Social Survey showed that nine out of 10 Kiwis were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their lives overall.
According to a Statistics New Zealand release, Kiwis’ level of satisfaction was above the OECD average, and comparable with that of Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada.
At the same time, the survey, taken between April 2010 and March 2011, showed nearly half the population reported they had “not enough” or “just enough” money to meet their everyday needs. Those least satisfied with their lives were reportedly the unemployed and people living in one-parent families.
Why is the lack of satisfaction, reflecting probable real hardship, for the 10 per cent not more of a concern for the 90 per cent?
The numbers — for starters. If the split was 60:40, the situation would be far more interesting politically.
The national character has also changed since the 1970s. We have become a far more atomised society since Rogernomics and Ruthanasia in the 1980s and 1990s.
According to some commentators, we are one of the most unequal societies in the world, with consequent dire prospects for our long-term economic and communal wellbeing. But, given the overall level of satisfaction with the status quo and life in New Zealand in general, it is not surprising that the ruling National Party enjoys a large lead in opinion polls.
A popular Prime Minister and an avoidance of overt social engineering by Government, coupled with a slick public relations machine and clever use of marketing, avoiding any drastic changes that would alarm too many, make it difficult for opposing ideas and parties to make headway.
In their statement for the New Zealand General Election, the Catholic bishops of this country called the faithful to a be “dynamic and active advocates” for political choices such as valuing human life and dignity, protecting the poor and vulnerable, enhancing social relationships, preserving the goods of the earth and creating peaceful, reconciled communities.
But satisfaction with life, which seems widespread in New Zealand, is a recipe for voter apathy.
It will be interesting to see what the voter turnout is at this election, as a creeping apathy seems to be on the rise. The bishops also reminded Catholics that elections are not a time for considering what political choices will be “better for me”, but what choices will be “better for us”.
Chances are that many voters will have little or no idea what life is like for many others in wider society. Given the plethora of media choices available, it is easy to tune out from any articles that disturb personal satisfaction. There are always the great distractions of sport and study at this time of year.
Maybe one thing Catholic voters can do is to take a drive to one of the less well-off suburbs or towns near them and ask themselves: “Is this New Zealand the way we want it?”
They might be surprised by what they find.
— Editorial