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I N S I G H T S T O R Y
The great morality debate
31 July 2005 - stuff.co.nz
Has Labour lost touch with the values of middle New Zealand? And if so, will voters punish them for it? Ruth Laugesen reports.
Among the fast crowd in our own Sin City, Auckland, being unmasked as a prostitute no longer spells the end to a social life.
In fact, it will probably enhance it, says Sunday Star-Times social columnist Bridget Saunders. "Sadly, it's kind of got this radical chic. It's not this shameful thing it once was.
"I think we are going downhill with sexual morality," says Saunders, "at least in the short term. But down the track, I think there will be a reaction."
Sexual displays that were once beyond the pale are considered fun and raunchy. Transsexual MP Georgina Beyer, who once worked the streets, has not only won election to parliament, but was snapped up for TVNZ's Dancing with the Stars.
But is famously liberal and tolerant New Zealand getting fed up with its own broadmindedness? And, with an election looming, does it feel that the Labour-led government has got too PC to be tolerated?
In these times, says emeritus professor of religious studies Lloyd Geering, there are no widely agreed-upon moral absolutes any more. Our moral codes are shifting and it isn't always clear what is right and what is wrong.
At one end are liberals, who say anything goes as long as you don't hurt anyone else. And at the other are religious conservatives, such as Destiny's Brian Tamaki, who point to moral laws laid down by the Old Testament. In between is the all-important middle ground that wins elections.
Opposition politicians believe that by leading the charge on new laws legalising prostitution and allowing civil union for gay couples, Labour may have overreached its liberal agenda of minority rights and alienated key voters. And it isn't just the votes of conservative Christians at stake.
There are signs of irritation even among middle-of-the-road suburban voters at Labour's agenda of social change. Some of that resentment finds its form in a "what about me" feeling that Labour has put too much energy into the rights of marginalised groups, such as gays, and not enough into the concerns of mum, dad and the kids. Others are reacting to Labour's own version of moralising - finger-wagging moves such as banning smoking in bars or the discussion of a ban on smacking.
"I think there will be quite a few voters who think that Labour's social agenda has gone too far and is out of kilter with what the mainstream thinks," says Auckland University professor of politics Barry Gustafson. "There are some who are quite genuine in their concern that the agenda has been taken over by people whose values and priorities are different, and they're going to fight back."
So when bad boy Labour MP John Tamihere pilloried Labour for being too PC, many of the public whooped in agreement. Six out of 10 of those polled in a 3 News/NS poll in April agreed with Tamihere that Labour was "too politically correct".
In America, moral issues stomp all over the political arena. In last year's election the Christian right was crucial in delivering George W Bush a second term, with gay marriage and abortion important election issues. In Australia, politicians are increasingly aware of a well-organised Christian vote.
But in secular, liberal New Zealand, moral issues come with a small "m". Few voters cast their ballot solely on moral issues. Instead, the moral dimension is important in helping shape the way parties and leaders are seen.
Victoria University political scientist Nigel Roberts who, with colleagues, has polled voters all the way back to 1972, says voters have consistently failed to put moral issues on their list of election issues, even in the years when abortion and the Springbok tour dominated debate.
"It's always been a case of the dog that didn't bark in the night," says Roberts.
But, in this year's election, "I do think it's one of the bundle of straws that's been loaded on to voters".
He sees the Budget as having been the final straw in turning the mood against Labour, a Budget that was seen as parsimonious to the point of almost being insulting. "But add to that banning smokers from bars, added to gay rights and things like that, the cumulative effect of those issues is likely to leave people disillusioned with Labour," says Roberts.
This election, a whole variety of parties will make moral appeals, either directly or in a coded form.
The most noticeable shift has been that of National leader Don Brash, an instinctive liberal who in 2003 was one of only six National MPs who voted in favour of legalising prostitution. By last year, Brash had moved to a more conservative position, withdrawing his support for civil union legislation when it came to its final reading.
That repositioning has allowed Brash to pitch himself as a leader for the "mainstream". He accuses Prime Minister Helen Clark of running a government that is not of, or for, the mainstream. Pressed in a radio interview on just what he meant, Brash said he did not believe gays, Maori, or prostitutes or their clients were part of the mainstream. He later tried to backtrack on the comments.
Brian Tamaki's Destiny Church, with its strong pro-family, anti-homosexual message, will also make a political showing this election in the form of Destiny New Zealand.
Winston Peters' New Zealand First also has a moral dimension, with a core message that rejects political correctness and the parliamentary time and effort put into legislation such as the Civil Union bill.
United Future and its leader Peter Dunne aim to embody the appeal of the conventional suburban family. The Greens set out their moral agenda, which is one of tolerance and protection of the environment. Act's moral stance emphasises the uprightness of hard work and self-reliance, and decries bludgers.
Tariana Turia's Maori Party has a moral framework that emphasises Maori's moral right to sovereignty and self-determination, within a setting of traditional tribal values.
Labour's moral appeal has been one of tolerance and inclusiveness. But over the past year it made its own play for the family values vote with its big Working for Families package and with its flying babies billboard. But these appeals to home and hearth have been undercut by other messages, such as Clark's urging earlier in the year for mothers to go out to work.
Striking the right note on these values issues has its perils in the New Zealand electorate. It is an electorate which is broadly liberal, yet one which now seems to feel that liberalism has been pushed too far.
At the same time, any politician pushing for the extreme conservative vote has to be careful not to alienate the broad public. And, as always with moral issues, those who judge come in for harsher judgements themselves.
Brash last year pulled the conservative moral card on Clark, accusing her of atheism, commenting on her abandonment of grace at state functions and "her indifference to the institution of marriage". The attack rebounded on him when Clark observed that her 26-year marriage perhaps set a better example than Brash's divorce and remarriage. As a result, Brash was forced to admit he had had an affair with the woman who is now his second wife, Je Lan.
In New Zealand the hard religious right vote appears to be small - only 10% of New Zealanders believe every word of the Bible is literally true, according to a 1998 polling by Massey University. But to say moral issues are the preserve of extremists, such as those in the Destiny Church, says Victoria University professor of religious affairs Paul Morris, is to "miss the force and real purchase these morally conservative ideas do have, in the broader electorate".
Already, says Morris, Destiny has made it more acceptable to debate the rightness of homosexuality, an issue which many thought was off the agenda for good. What we are seeing, he says, may be an echo of the strengthening of moral conservatism seen in the recent Australian and US elections.
Australian Clive Hamilton, head of the Australia Institute and author of the book Affluenza, says there is a broad disquiet over moral issues in Western society that is waiting to be unlocked by politicians who can find the right language.
He says the liberal movements of the 1960s and 70s have left us with a baby boomer generation that is reluctant to take a moral stance on a range of issues, for fear of being seen as judgemental.
Hamilton, who supports civil unions for gays and legalisation of prostitution, says there are other important moral issues that progressive thinkers should pick up. One is to acknowledge the importance of the family and the raising of children, and not just in a narrow traditional setting.
He thinks the left should also be concerned by the rise by the commodification of sex and sexuality by advertisers, in such a way that it permeates our lives and is difficult for children and young people to avoid. And he is worried by the easy availability of extreme pornography on the internet to teenagers.
"I think there's a deep disquiet out there in the community about a lot of this stuff. But it's uncool to object, it means you've got a hang-up or you're just an old prude," says Hamilton.
Geering says what we are seeing now is a vacuum where once there were moral certainties.
"In the past, moral issues were thought to be determined by reference to absolute standards, many of them thought to be in the Bible. It was an open and shut case.
"In the 20th century we came to see there are no absolutes, only guidelines, and it's left up to society in general and to individuals in particular to work out their answers or solutions to all moral problems. That, of course, is difficult because it makes much more demands than the old traditional system did.
"I think society is slowly waking up to the fact that we're in that situation."