What odds a policy debate this election? And how do we elevate it above more sensationalism and dirty politics? Here are some dos and don'ts

The news cycle sure is quick these days – and getting quicker. We've long known that today's news is tomorrow's fish n' chips wrapping, but these days articles last mere hours, even minutes, on websites before analytics tell the editors what's being read and what needs to disappear. This hardly encourages deep consideration of public policy options as we head into the general election.

In fact, it's the reverse; this diet of superficiality and sensationalism eats away at real debate. That is not just unfortunate from the perspective of those of us interested in public policy; it's seriously sapping of the true lifeblood of democracy.

It is no wonder interest in politics and voting, especially amongst milliennials, wanes. It is no wonder surveys show the general public’s increasingly low respect for politicians, the media and the system.

I think we all would like to see this dis-interest reversed; I sure hope so. The question is how to do it. Listening to The 9th Floor interviews with ex-PMs currently running on Radio New Zealand, two were advocating compulsory voting [Ed: What discerning taste you have. You can listen to that series here].

Yet when it comes to compulsory voting, I couldn't agree less. In a free country, deciding not to vote is as valid a choice as deciding to support one party or another. Forcing people to vote by making non-voting illegal will not solve the problem.
One of the reasons why I personally support and read Pundit is because others who do take a real interest are sharing their thoughts. I sure don't agree with all the views expressed but I think there is a significantly better chance the debate will be elevated in the blogger world relative to the daily press, which to me gets yellower in story selection all the time.

The election debate can swiftly be diverted from philosophical options. The question we should be asking is this: “what policy approach do we collectively want our country to follow?” Last election we spent a couple of weeks intensely following arguments about claimed – but highly disputed – “dirty politics” and “influence peddling”.

I was pleased to see Steve Maharey’s post on tertiary education policy; there is an area of public policy that needs debate. He was prompted by the Productivity Commission report on the subject. Productivity Commission reports are always well thought through, but, let's face it, are a long and a boring read.

Usually they contain some good ideas as to how we should move forward, but because of their heaviness of style their public penetration is low, except – and this is what happens – you can bet the media will highlight a politically charged idea no matter it's importance in the overall scheme of things.

This happened with the tertiary education report; among a raft of proposals the Commission recommended reimposing interest on student loans. This idea has about as much chance politically as a snowball in the very middle of hell, and was scotched brutally and without delay by relevant party spokespersons. But apart from that and Steve’s blog, I saw nothing reported on the rest of the detailed report.

It does not bode well for those interested in the substance of policy rather than the shenanigans and antics of the day-to-day political game. It does not bode well for building interest in politics amongst the increasingly turned-off general public, young and old.

I dread we will get back to slogans like “it's time for a change” and lines of that ilk. The mood of the country matters, and for some citizens a single issue may drive their voting behaviour. But as a general proposition, saying it's time for a change is about as unintelligent a reason as can be offered for changing a government.

This year, it would be great to see a debate about issues.

Comments (10)

by mudfish on April 25, 2017

Hello Wyatt,

To what extent might your concerns about compulsory voting be allayed if there was a "none of the above" box? What problems might that cause?

by Viv Kerr on April 25, 2017
Viv Kerr

It would be great to see a debate about what we actually DO about reducing New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions.

by Chuck Bird on April 26, 2017
Chuck Bird

Waytt, mudfish posed a very good question albeit not unique.  I am sure that must get a few more to the polling both.  Another thing that would help would be to allow referenda on moral issues where MPs have a conscience vote as Winston proposes.  I would like to see some evidence that on average MPs have more of a conscience that the average voter.

by Tim Watkin on April 28, 2017
Tim Watkin

mudfish, even with compulsory voting, there's a de facto 'none of the above' option. It's called spoiling the ballot. Draw a flower on the page and walk out, if you want to. Your right to not select a party or candidate remains, but you have to have engaged at some level.

I don't know what the trouble with that is. Equally, if you rule out that as a way of getting our voting numbers back up, so do you do instead?


by Chuck Bird on April 28, 2017
Chuck Bird

Tim, as I stated mudfish's suggestion is not unique.  I think it most likely that mudfish and the others who make the suggestion are not as stupid as you imply.  They would all know how to invalidate a ballot. 

by Wyatt Creech on April 29, 2017
Wyatt Creech

Hi Mudfish, unfortunately "None of the Above" will not work - I understand where you are coming from but what would you do if it won! We can do a lot better than we currently do by elevating the debate and laying off on the personal abuse.

And Chuck - I agree with you and Winston Peters on this one. People usually vote for parties offering a 'catch-all' of basically centre-right or centre-left policies. Two candidates in the same party can disagree markedly on specific moral issues. Voters get no opportunity for say on conscience issues -  referenda would be much better way to reflect public opinion. 


by Chuck Bird on April 29, 2017
Chuck Bird


Wyatt, the idea of an option of "None of the Above" or something similar could attract some voters is that their intent would be very clear.  No one knows how many invalid votes are accidently and how many are accidental.

In regard referenda would you support them being binding after the bill is in its final form?

I would bet we would have a turn out or over 80% if there was a binding referendum on the continuation or the racist Maori seats.

by Joseph Cook on April 29, 2017
Joseph Cook

The only way I can imagine having a debate on policy is to create a platform for that specific purpose.  Mainstream internet news outlets do not allow for debate, even something like talk radio is highly limited.  The fact is, the interests that are represented do not want a debate to spoil their hegemony.  

Here is another idea, create a direct democracy party, and create a platform for debate, that could then gain enough sway to get into the arena of election coverage and directly represent the public majority opinions identified through the deliberation on said platform.  

The internet party had a platform set up for members to do such a thing, powered by Loomio.  However, the inept executive of the party ignored the most common and interesting policies to solely mention their policy on cannabis in the media.  It was all a scam, sadly.  But a party set up with the right intentions that can organize such a thing effectively has the potential of being highly succesful.

by Charlie on April 30, 2017

Wyatt, I think (or maybe I hope) a majority of the voting public is generally smarter than you give them credit for.

During the last election, the far left strenuously tried to muddy the waters with claims of dirty politics and various sinister but silly plots involving the security services. They had more than a few embedded 'comrades' in the mainstream media to spin this nonesense, but in the end it all came to naught. The voters solidly backed the incumbents for very good and sensible reasons. Voters weren't swayed and one could witness the exasperation on the faces of the left wing media players (Katie Bradbury, John Campbell et al).

In fact I'm rather pleased with the pushback against the MSM. It's about time their wings were clipped. 

As for millenials not voting, I'm not concerned. At that age they mostly have only a shallow understanding of the issues and would vote on an emotional basis rather than an intellectual one.


by Penny Leach on April 30, 2017
Penny Leach
I really like the idea of a None of the Above/No Confidence option as more explicit than just ballot spoiling. Interestingly a few jurisdictions do have it. The Wikipedia article is quite good: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/None_of_the_above including some attempts to hack the system in the UK to make it an option, including a candidate who changed his name to None of the Above Zero.

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