Political will

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    Party political manifestos are a mixed bag. Some parties have them.  Some make it up as they go along. These days they’re likely to be little more than grim fixes for New Zealand’s self-imposed austerities. 

    But some serve to unclutter our complicated minds.

    “New Zealand will mysteriously disappear from all maps shortly after we come to power,” according to the defence policy in the McGillicuddy Serious Party’s satirical manifesto for 1993. Spawned on a university campus, the party’s energetic, anarchic and theatrical approach to political debate had spread to like-minded affiliates around the country and, as McGillicuddy ‘laird’ Graeme Cairns noted, had pushed a quirky political raft “from the shores of obscurity out into the mainstream”, complete with manifesto, policies, allies and a campaign launch.

    “Some of the ideas have resurfaced. Our defence policy was actually to wipe New Zealand off all maps and you know that’s actually come to the surface recently as something that’s actually going on, we’ve been advocating it for years,” former McGillicuddy Serious Party president Mark Servian said later.

    “If you go to Wikipedia for instance, there’s a whole lot of policies I remember some of our candidates made up on the fly, there’s other stuff I’m sure people made up since.

    “It’s kind of a pastoral dream about what we could achieve if we just relaxed and took things less seriously.”

    Having added its dash of levity to the political process during the Muldoon and Rogernomics years between 1984 and 1999, the McGillicuddy Serious Party disbanded after the 1999 elections, mainly because of the cost of fielding political candidates in a general election.

    On Waiheke, as so often, we had been ahead of the game. In the same period and spirit, we had our own piss-taking, homebrewing Blokes Liberation Front throughout the eighties and nineties, founded by Lead Bloke Chris Brady, an often achingly funny Gulf News columnist, dedicated social sciences teacher and unabashed Beatles aficionado. Also a master of the satirical viewpoint of a one-time theology student turned rebel – a common trait of island life at that time.

    Waiheke’s Blokes Liberation Front, though billing itself as “a spectacularly unsuccessful political party”, fielded its lesser but equally gleeful manifesto that proposed disestablishing a whole financial year from the calendar, thereby saving an enormous amount of debt.

    The island spent an entire electoral cycle debating the merits of the Blokes’ proposition, which went through many iterations, made sense at the time and was probably more prescient than what was actually happening to the country over those Thatcherite Rogernomics years when our national quality of life and inequality ratings went through the roof. Assets like railways and power companies truly disappeared from public life. Followed by the near extinction of our defence forces (the Mcgillicuddies were on the right track there) and eventually, the country’s housing.

    Gradually, the grinches won.  We lost our satirical edge, then our entire sense of humour. A nation that had enjoyed  nearly universal home ownership  – by design – found that a fundamental necessity for everyone had been turned into a commodity to speculate on.

    What happened to the simple equation: You pay your taxes and you get a home and education and time to glue yourself and your community together with silly games. Medievalism had a lot going for it, festivals and equal-before-God equality for both men and women among them.

    Approaching last year’s election, the ongoing ideological clench on opportunity ought to have been troubling for every candidate and party.

    In a book published this month, Our Housing Disaster And What We Can Do About It, retail tycoon Julian Richer aims to push housing to the top of the agenda, which, he says, will need much tougher action from governments to fix and cannot be left to the market alone.

    “The politicians are frightened of the subject, it’s become toxic for them because it has such a failure rate,” he says. He was talking about Britain but the problem is stitched into capitalism everywhere. 

    “We see this merry-go-round of ministers, looking over their shoulder for the next job. So this is a really long-term problem.

    “Millions of people here are being shafted and screwed and having miserable lives because of it. Why can’t we fix it? Why don’t our MPs have a bit more compassion and have a bit more common sense? This is affecting millions.”

    Transforming the housing situation can be done, Richer says, because it has been done before. 

    “By the mid-1960s, huge numbers of people were living in clean, modern homes, a world away from the slums they had grown up in. But it happened because the political will was there to do it.”

    Devonport borough, where I walked to school as a child, retained a visible proportion of small turn-of-the century villas for social housing right up until the early 1980s.

    The grinches arbitrating our corridors of power should be severely lampooned. We need to bring serious lightness and generosity back into political discourse. • Liz Waters

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