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Auckland Club Black Tie Dinner

Issue date: 
Tuesday, 7 September 1999
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Thank you for the honour you have done me this evening. My wife and I are both very sorry indeed that she cannot be here too, but her doctor - not Ansett - has grounded her in Wellington. I very much appreciate too the honorary membership you have conferred on me, and I can only regret that the life I live has not made it possible for me to make use of it. That's the case even with my own club in Wellington.

And so I look forward to occasions such as this - a friendly atmosphere, extremely comfortable surroundings, one is well fed and wined, hopefully not too well, there's interesting conversation, new people to meet, old friends to see again. That's not to say that I don't find some of these things everywhere I go; but it's the combination of all of them that makes an evening like this so enjoyable.

Of course it was only after accepting the invitation to join you that I found that I was expected to sing for my supper. But I can't really complain about that because one of the things that has to be said time and time again in this lovely land of ours is that there are no free lunches - or dinners. But what to speak about? I was open to suggestions. And I got several. The role of the media was one; but might there be a spy here? Our aging society was another. But that's a bit close to the bone. Should New Zealand become a republic was a third. But that's not one on which I should express a view. And anyway I could be accused of bias. At least three times in my life I have taken the oath of allegiance. And I have no ambition to become a president.

But a variation on that topic did appeal to me. One of the things that should be of great concern to all New Zealanders is that we are losing ground. In educational attainment, in productivity, in inventiveness and innovation, in all the indicators of economic competitiveness, we are falling behind. We were once at the forefront, but no longer. We must somehow reverse that, or we shall become an international nonentity, and the quality of our life will slip away. And so the suggested topic that appealed to me was whether New Zealand should be a dictatorship. For democracy is in truth inefficient. And this worries many people. They want to see more positive results than the system seems to be delivering. They write to me frequently, demanding that I sack the government, and appoint one that will get results the way they want them.

There's an on-going study conducted through Massey University, the New Zealand Study of Values, and it has found that just under 40 percent of New Zealanders would prefer that "experts", not governments, make the decisions about how the country is to be run. And 17 percent think that we should have strong leaders who didn't have to bother with Parliament and elections.

This isn't just the result of MMP. A 1990 University of Otago survey of New Zealanders' "opinions and lifestyles" found that 20 percent of us felt that the country needed stricter authority. Another 20 percent believed that "the system" was so stacked against them that they would have accepted an "authority" who operated "the system" on their behalf.

Going even further back still, twenty-five years ago, according to Michael Bassett, the historian, Prime Minister Norman Kirk's immense appeal was that he answered a public yearning for a "nanny-state government".

I don't think I need to keep secret the fact that my reaction to the proposition that we should have a dictator is always that I think it's a splendid idea, so long as it's me. Because although I would be a despot, I would be a benevolent one. But has there ever been such a thing? Absolute power is no doubt absolutely delicious, but as Lord Acton memorably pointed out, it corrupts absolutely. We have seen so many examples of that. The cost of their corruption, even in this century, has been lives counted in the tens of millions.

Of course you can have a strong leader who is not a dictator in the usual sense, because he heads an elected government. Adolf Hitler led an elected government at first, and so did so many of the world's current disasters. Lord Acton's first proposition was that all power corrupts, a truth born out infamously by the number of strong leaders who have been unable to relinquish power and who have slid into totalitarianism. That's corruption by power on the grand scale, but more frequently it works more insidiously, persuading us that people can't manage without us, that we are indispensable, or, that we have the answers and we will brook no opposition from anyone who can't see it. We have seen that happen in this country in living memory with very unfortunate consequences. And so I am wary about the idea of a strong leader, even an elected one. A strong leader of a strong team is a different matter, and that is the ultimate ideal of democracy.

But what about the idea of a committee of experts, favoured, we are told, by 40% of us. I am not sure who would appoint them. To suggest they should be elected would hardly be a step forward. Is that not what we are supposed to be doing now? Perhaps they should be appointed by bodies of experts. A scientist say by the Royal Society, a jurist by the Law Society, a doctor by the Medical Council, a conservationist by the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society, an economist by ... no, you'd have to have one from each school of economics, a whole sub-committee of economists perhaps. The mind boggles. They say a camel was designed by a committee of experts. Is a legislative equivalent really what people want? Lord Randolph Churchill, Winston's father, used to say that he would take the best advice money could buy and then make up his own mind. Provided we don't get too conceited in our own opinions, that surely is the best way to use experts.

Someone wrote to me the other day and said that the party system is the problem, for, he said, it is a denial of democracy for our elected representatives to have to vote along party lines, or indeed for legislation effectively to be initiated and then passed by a single party or combination of parties. That was an interesting comment. Certainly in ancient Greece, where democracy can be said to have been invented, there were no political parties. Everyone, except women and slaves (two distinct classes) made up the legislative assembly, and they voted for some officials and others were chosen by lot. But they were only small city states, and because they had slaves, citizens had time on their hands. They didn't have to mow the lawns.

The great Edmund Burke made an interesting statement on this general topic back in 1774. "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving, you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion." This observation came to mind when Alamein Koopu, a list member, left the Alliance to form a party of one, and I received many indignant letters demanding that I disqualify her, on the basis that she was in Parliament only because of her place on the Alliance list. But there is nothing in the Electoral Act to prevent someone doing what she did. And so when the matter came before the Privileges Committee, the only issue was whether the pledge she had given to the Alliance should be treated as a letter of resignation addressed to the Speaker, which the Committee decided it was not.

I don't know how the Greeks managed, but I have no doubt they got along without much legislation. We seem unable to do the same, and I had to tell my correspondent that I could not see how a modern parliamentary democracy could work without the party system, which of course is a feature of every democracy, because it is the only way of ensuring order in the legislative programme. That does not mean that there may not be more scope for free or conscience votes, but that is a matter for others to decide.

A great many people are I know disenchanted with MMP, with the number of Members it has given us, with what is seen as the disproportionate power it gives to minor parties, with the compromises and sometimes inaction that results. Some of this is the normal consequence of a coalition, and let's not forget that we have had coalition governments long before we had MMP. But of course they are more likely under MMP than under FPP. Maybe we should wait a little longer before judging the desirability of MMP. We are still in what may be called a shaking-down period. And MMP has its advantages, in giving us a more representative parliament. We have more women, more Maori and more members of other ethnic groups than ever before, and that must be a good thing, considering the bi-cultural and multi-ethnic society that we have become. As for the number of MPs, while the role of list members in relation to the electorate still needs to be fully worked through, the increased number of members has given greater force to the select committee process, where much of the really important work of parliament is done. More matters are referred to committees, and they are able to give fuller consideration to them that was previously the case. No doubt we can do better, but there have still been considerable improvements in this important aspect of representative democracy.

And as for our democratic process itself, I rather like what Winston Churchill said: "Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms of government that have been tried from time to time."

But let's come back to these surveys, for they raise other, and quite serious questions. For one thing, many New Zealanders have long held the view that we're 'Men Alone,' and more latterly, women alone too; that we're individuals and rugged with it; that we're a no-nonsense people, prepared to improvise to get a job done, and capable of using anything that comes to hand to do so, up to and including number eight fencing wire. Yet if nearly one in five of us now would prefer to hand over responsibility for many of life's most important choices, then that image of ourselves might need examination.

It may be that the surveys illustrate a lack of confidence in our politicians rather than in the political system. Certainly in many sectors of the community they are not held in the regard in which they ought to be held, both for their own merits and for the well-being of our democratic process. In my experience, they deserve better. There is really a very high level of commitment to what they perceive to be the public good. But this is not always recognised, especially by people of other political persuasions. The remedy is partly in the parliamentarians' own hands. The frequent efforts of Mr Speaker to improve the level of debate in the House, which is where most of us judge their performance, seem to have little effect. But we, the electorate, have a part to play too. We can all join a party and seek a part in the selection process. We can all exercise our two votes. And I sometimes wonder whether we expect too much of our politicians, and especially our Cabinet Ministers. Should they really be blamed, sometimes voted out, for spending too little time in their constituencies when their Ministerial responsibilities demand so much of them? There may be something to be said for those systems where the two roles are separated, either by Cabinet being appointed from outside Parliament, or by Ministers on appointment giving up their electorate responsibilities in favour of a deputy or a delegate. Food for thought, perhaps.

To move on though, I have an uneasy feeling that the surveys are an indication of an unwillingness to accept responsibility for ourselves and for our communities. Certainly we want the right decisions to be made for our own welfare, but so often the attitude is that it is someone else's responsibility to make them. To illustrate, just last year there was another study released that found that around 30 percent of New Zealand parents thought it was the role of teachers, or the clergy, someone other than themselves, to teach children values, to differentiate between right and wrong. In other words, that distinction, so crucial for a civilised society, was something that did not have to be taught and modelled in the home. It was someone else's responsibility.

In recent years, there has been a strong emphasis on individual rights, and that of course has been good. But has the emphasis been lopsided, encouraging us to forget that rights, whether as citizens, or parents, or consumers, are balanced by reciprocal responsibilities? Responsibilities for ourselves, for making our own choices, for working out our own destinies, and at the same time responsibilities for the well being of others not so fortunate, and for the well being of our communities and our nation.

Mine is an intensely interesting and rewarding job, for it gives me the opportunity to see far more of our country and its people than I could ever have seen otherwise. In contrast with life on the bench, this life enables me to see how much is good and positive, how much enterprise and how much talent there is, how much to be excited and enthusiastic and positive about. Yet I see, too, great contrasts as well, between those who have and those who have not; between those who are doing well and those who are not; between potential nurtured and potential unrealised; between talents utilised and talents thrown away; between the many needs and the seemingly limited resources available to meet them.

The downside of these contrasts is, I am sure, to a large degree a result of the loss of the sense of responsibility I have been speaking about: a loss of individual initiative, of our number eight wire heritage, a loss of our obligation to care for each other, of our sense of community, of belonging to each other. As a result, most of our community organisations are struggling; many of them for voluntary workers, almost all of them financially. Sponsorships are drying up, the loyal support of their donors is not enough to enable them to do the work that is so urgently needed. And this loss of a sense of community responsibility, I suggest, is one of the reasons that we are, as a nation, losing ground in terms of economic competitiveness in the modern world. We are carrying too much deadweight. We simply cannot afford that kind of loss.

But how do we revive our once strong tradition of community involvement, that used to co-exist so easily with our other tradition of taking responsibility for our personal welfare.

These are big questions; like all big questions much easier to ask than to answer. A major shift in thinking is needed, and this probably has to begin at the grass roots level of home and school. But there is also an important role for institutions like the Auckland Club, and all our other institutions which connect people the old-fashioned way, one to one, or table by table, people who might not belong to the same small circle of business acquaintances; people who are younger and older than ourselves; people to whom we can listen, people who might look at New Zealand society from a different angle and from whom, therefore, we might learn something. The places and occasions where this re-connection takes place, and where it can take place are rarer than they used to be. It's our faster pace of life that accounts for much of that, that and the way once-social time is these days consumed in such anti-social ways as, for instance, most television and all traffic jams. But it's also because we've lost sight of the great benefits of simply spending time with other New Zealanders. When people have, or make, no time for learning about their fellow citizens, they do become disconnected. Eventually, some lose faith in their ability to 'make a difference', cease to hold a positive outlook on life, and either wish to be looked after, or if they still retain some initiative, feel that their prospects might be better across the Tasman, say.

But a club must surely be more than a place where we can feel comfortable about each other. It can also be a place that makes a difference beyond its walls. I have been told about your mentoring programme, an excellent way of building a sense of community within your own numbers. It reminded me that there are some mentoring programmes operating between businesses and schools, where people on the staff of the business undertake the commitment of taking some troubled youngster under their wing, being a sort of father figure, over a period of time, and resulting in some interesting and rewarding encounters on both sides. And there are many schools that are struggling under the Tomorrow's Schools system, whereby they are administered by their own local board of trustees. It works well when there is plenty of local talent to draw upon. But where there isn't, it is a struggle indeed, and help from outside can be a godsend.

And just the other day the wonderful Christine Fernyhough was telling me about the huge success of individuals or groups or clubs adopting a school under the Alan Duff Books in Homes project, a project which is putting books into thousands of homes where there have never been any before, and literally turning round the social as well as the learning attitudes of children and parents.

I could go on for a long time talking about other community- building initiatives around the country, but I mustn't and I shan't. I am sure you all have your own favourite. If not, there is huge scope for men and women to share their experience and their skills with others, establishing connections between the generations and the races, between the haves and the have-nots.

The point is that in the end, our nation will become stronger and more successful not by changing the nature of leadership at the top, but only when we all stop leaving the exercise of responsibility to someone else, and instead pitch in and become deeply involved in the life of our nation, and in our local communities ourselves.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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