The revo­lu­tion is post­poned

Look­ing to­wards the Septem­ber elec­tion, can An­drew Lit­tle or Win­ston Peters do in New Zealand what Don­ald Trump and Jeremy Cor­byn have done in the United States and United King­dom? The an­swer is prob­a­bly “no” – though in­sta­bil­ity lies ahead.


Look­ing to the elec­tion, could Lit­tle or Peters do a Trump or Cor­byn?

It’s pos­si­ble a sea-change is un­der way in world af­fairs. One way to see pol­i­tics in the English-speak­ing world is that it moves in 20- or 30-year cy­cles. Broadly, the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s were times of enor­mous tur­moil and ide­o­log­i­cal con­flict. Vot­ers turned to change agents, whether Franklin Roo­sevelt in the US, Michael Joseph Sav­age in New Zealand or Cle­ment At­tlee in the UK. The great in­sti­tu­tions of glob­al­i­sa­tion were es­tab­lished, in­clud­ing the UN, the Gen­eral Agree­ment on Tar­iffs and Trade, the IMF, the World Bank, the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion, NATO and the fore­run­ners to the EU.

When the war gen­er­a­tion took over in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a time of greater sta­bil­ity, at least in terms of eco­nomic pol­icy, to the ex­tent of fu­elling a youth re­bel­lion. The 1980s and 1990s saw the tri­umph of the free mar­ket, as per­son­i­fied by Mar­garet Thatcher, Ron­ald Rea­gan and David Lange, and the end of the dis­as­trous so­cial­ist ex­per­i­ment in the Soviet Union and east­ern Europe.

The past 20 years have been a re­turn to grey. The me­dian voter model has been in as­cen­dency, telling politi­cians to pick the pol­icy pref­er­ences of the per­son smack bang in the mid­dle of how vot­ers are dis­trib­uted along the spec­trum, which tends to favour the sta­tus quo. Pu­ta­tively Labour lead­ers like Tony Blair and He­len Clark opted for Third Way regimes, lock­ing in the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion’s eco­nomic re­forms. Wishy-washy Tories like David Cameron and John Key went Labour Lite, with our lo­cal Na­tional Party even fad­ing its colour from royal blue to some­thing more in­sipid. Af­ter the ex­cesses of the 1980s and 1990s, the em­pha­sis for the past 20 years has been on pre­dictabil­ity.

For any­one over 40, much of this seems like cur­rent events. But for most un­der 40s, it’s largely an­cient history. The fall of the Ber­lin Wall was not a ma­jor sig­na­ture event in their lives. The lo­cal ver­sion of a state-run econ­omy — im­port li­cences, for­eign-ex­change con­trols, farm sub­si­dies, the 66 per cent top tax rate and dawn raids on il­le­gal im­mi­grants — is in­com­pre­hen­si­ble to peo­ple who shop on Ama­zon, Alibaba, ASOS, Book De­pos­i­tory or iTunes or who just rip con­tent from YouTube or Spo­tify.

Per­haps most im­por­tant for po­lit­i­cal strate­gists to re­mem­ber is that those turn­ing 18 this year and el­i­gi­ble to vote for the first time were born the year Clark took of­fice and were nine when Key re­placed her. It means gov­ern­ment through their en­tire lives has been blah.

Even 9/11 oc­curred when they were just learn­ing to talk and the mad in­va­sion of Iraq be­fore they started pri­mary school. To them, in­ter­est-free stu­dent loans aren’t some des­per­ate Clark bribe to stave off Don Brash but just the way things are. They don’t know what an

ide­o­log­i­cal de­bate looks like be­cause no se­nior politi­cian in their life­time has given them the cour­tesy of lead­ing one. In 2017, it’s back to the 1960s when the rul­ing gen­er­a­tion is say­ing things are as good as they get and to leave well enough alone, while the emerg­ing gen­er­a­tion is de­mand­ing more. Em­bar­rass­ingly for mil­len­nial thought lead­ers, of course, both times the 20-some­thing slo­ga­neer­ing has been about the power of love, as if they have dis­cov­ered it for the first time. But at least some of them are try­ing. It’s a pleasant change from their el­ders in power who no longer even make the ide­o­log­i­cal case for what they are do­ing, blandly stat­ing they are just do­ing “what works”. It’s not a slo­gan with any power to in­spire.

Glob­al­i­sa­tion com­bined with free mar­kets has been the most suc­cess­ful eco­nomic and so­cial sys­tem in the history of the world. Those who have em­braced their neigh­bours, in­te­grated their economies and sur­ren­dered some sovereignty have ex­pe­ri­enced the long­est pe­riod of peace in world history, as seen most starkly on the con­ti­nent of Europe. Since 1980, more peo­ple have moved out of poverty than at any time since hu­man be­ings first evolved. In­equal­ity has fallen sig­nif­i­cantly when viewed glob­ally, while widen­ing within First World coun­tries — in­clud­ing New Zealand — in the 1980s and 1990s. Glob­al­i­sa­tion means that be­ing born white in an English-speak­ing coun­try no longer brings the priv­i­lege it once did.

None of this hap­pened be­cause politi­cians fo­cused on “what works”. On the con­trary, that was what Rob Mul­doon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezh­nev were try­ing to do. The great leap for­ward since 1980 was the con­se­quence of po­lit­i­cal lead­ers through­out the world mak­ing the ide­o­log­i­cal case that open bor­ders are bet­ter than closed ones, and that the pri­vate sec­tor bum­bling along on its own still does a far bet­ter job for the com­mu­nity as a whole than bu­reau­crats try­ing to al­lo­cate re­sources from their white­boards in Welling­ton.

Shocks still oc­cur. The global fi­nan­cial cri­sis a decade ago, like the Asian eco­nomic cri­sis of 1997, cre­ated a crack in con­fi­dence that thrilled those des­per­ate to claim the free mar­ket had failed. More re­mark­able is how quickly things re­turned to nor­mal.

Thus, New Zealand heads into its Septem­ber elec­tion with the best set of eco­nomic num­bers in most vot­ers’ life­times. Eco­nomic growth is fore­cast to sus­tain­ably av­er­age above 3 per cent. Un­em­ploy­ment will fall be­low 5 per cent, wages will rise faster than prices, in­ter­est rates will stay low, and house-price in­fla­tion will ease. The coun­try’s terms of trade are the best they have been since 1973. As Bill English kept putting it clum­sily and ar­ro­gantly be­fore be­ing pulled into line, the prob­lems New Zealand has are good ones to have: too many peo­ple want­ing to live here, in­clud­ing re­turn­ing Ki­wis, and the nump­ties at the Auck­land Coun­cil and New Zealand Trans­port Agency be­ing un­able to re­spond fast enough to growth.

De­spite all this, grow­ing dis­con­tent, es­pe­cially among young peo­ple, is real. Pri­vate polling data on whether New Zealand is head­ing in the right di­rec­tion is far more wob­bly than the ac­tual eco­nomic con­di­tions would nor­mally jus­tify. For those who have strug­gled over the past decade, some­thing, any­thing, risks seem­ing more at­trac­tive than the sta­tus quo. In Wis­con­sin, Michi­gan, Ohio, Penn­syl­va­nia, Iowa and Florida, Don­ald Trump rode this sen­ti­ment to the White House. Jeremy Cor­byn hu­mil­i­ated Theresa May in the UK. The ques­tions for New Zealand’s elec­tion start with whether or not An­drew Lit­tle or Win­ston Peters can do the same on Septem­ber 23, and whether English and his min­is­ters can avoid the smug­ness, ar­ro­gance and com­pla­cency that did in Hil­lary Clin­ton and May. Are we on the cusp of rad­i­cal change? Or will English be able to make a com­pelling case for what he of­fers over the next three years, rather than the past nine. He bet­ter be wary that the revo­lu­tion usu­ally comes af­ter con­di­tions im­prove.


In mod­ern polling history, New Zealand has never had a gov­ern­ment in its ninth year as pop­u­lar as this one. If the post­bud­get TVNZ poll can be be­lieved, English’s Na­tional Gov­ern­ment is just two points less pop­u­lar than Key’s Na­tional Op­po­si­tion at the same point be­fore the 2008 elec­tion. The gov­ern­ment’s eco­nomic suc­cesses speak for them­selves. So, too, do its fail­ures in in­fra­struc­ture, trans­port, hous­ing and re­form of re­source man­age­ment, in­clud­ing wa­ter and de­vel­op­ment con­sent­ing.

In ed­u­ca­tion, its na­tional stan­dards, school clus­ters, achieve­ment tar­gets and other mod­est re­forms seem to be, at worst, neu­tral for most, while im­prov­ing Maori and Pa­cific out­comes. Na­tional has held the line in health mainly by do­ing noth­ing and softly squeez­ing ef­fi­ciency gains. Wel­fare re­forms and job growth mean ben­e­fi­ciary num­bers are gently fall­ing with­out so­cial un­rest. With the ex­cep­tion of the di­vided north­ern iwi, Chris Fin­layson is on the cusp of com­plet­ing Sir Dou­glas Gra­ham’s his­toric Treaty of Wai­tangi rec­on­cil­i­a­tion project. A cy­cle­way has been built. No one can re­mem­ber the sale of 49 per cent of the shares in en­ergy com­pa­nies, or why they cared about it one way or an­other. The gov­ern­ment’s most shame­ful fail­ure has been its un­will­ing­ness to con­front the baby boomers over su­per­an­nu­a­tion.

In terms of per­son­nel, the Cab­i­net has been al­most com­pletely changed and a new gen­er­a­tion put in place. Si­mon Power, Tony Ryall, David Carter, Mur­ray McCully, Tim Groser, Wayne Mapp, Ge­orgina te Heuheu, Phil Heat­ley, Pansy Wong, Kate Wilkin­son, Mau­rice Wil­liamson, Richard Worth and John Carter have all re­tired, vol­un­tar­ily or oth­er­wise. Paula Ben­nett and Steven Joyce were ranked just 14 and 16 in Cab­i­net back in 2008 but now pre­side as deputy prime min­is­ter and fi­nance min­is­ter re­spec­tively. Si­mon Bridges, Amy Adams, Nikki Kaye and Paul Gold­smith were no­bod­ies when Key was first elected but are now clearly set to be the new face of the gov­ern­ment in any fourth or fifth term.

Most ex­traor­di­nar­ily, Na­tional has man­aged the tran­si­tion from Key to English more smoothly than any­one imag­ined and bet­ter than any pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment. English has dropped the break­fast FM id­iocy of his pre­de­ces­sor that vot­ers were tir­ing of and del­e­gated many of the clown­ing-around parts of the job to Ben­nett and Joyce. He has been will­ing to pro­pose mod­est changes to su­per­an­nu­a­tion in the fu­ture with­out the polls crash­ing the way Key feared. His so­cial in­vest­ment strat­egy might even end up as a legacy in the league of Sav­age’s wel­fare state or Lange’s eco­nomic re­forms. It prom­ises to change the way we talk about car­ing — or even love — in the con­text of gov­ern­ment from be­ing about which so­cial-pol­icy min­is­ter can screw the most new cash out of the fi­nance min­is­ter to which has most pos­i­tively changed lives. The op­po­si­tion par­ties haven’t yet caught up with the new lan­guage, and they know so­cial in­vest­ment risks soil­ing their at­tack lines, but none of them plans to scrap it.

And yet …

There re­mains some­thing pedes­trian about the gov­ern­ment. Its main mes­sage is still that peo­ple should vote for it by de­fault, be­cause it’s do­ing okay and is bet­ter than the al­ter­na­tive. Its at­tempts at sound­ing vi­sion­ary by an­nounc­ing farin-the-fu­ture com­mit­ments to im­prove wa­ter qual­ity, kill pests and build air­port trans­port links have rightly earned de­ri­sion, and that ap­proach seems mer­ci­fully to have been dropped. There are still clearly too many min­is­ters who are mere pup­pets of the Welling­ton bu­reau­cracy. The on­go­ing pres­ence of Nick Smith in the gov­ern­ment mys­ti­fies Auck­lan­ders, if not his friends in the environmental and con­ser­va­tion sec­tors.

If English is to sur­vive and re­move the per­sonal stain of his 2002 de­ba­cle, he will need to tell a story not of 2008-2017, nor of 2020 and be­yond, but what he plans to do over the next three years. It had bet­ter be more than $20 a week in the pocket. Nor is it any good him just list­ing all the in­fra­struc­ture projects that have been be­lat­edly funded over the past decade, in­clud­ing the Waikato Ex­press­way, the South­ern Mo­tor­way widen­ing, the City Rail Link, the Water­view tun­nel and the new road to the air­port. Po­lit­i­cally, all the con­struc­tion just makes the grid­lock worse in the short run. What Auck­lan­ders want is a sense he un­der­stands that were this city in the US, it would be that coun­try’s sev­enth largest, be­hind Philadel­phia and ahead of San An­to­nio and San Diego; that we’re still dys­func­tional de­spite all the new projects that are un­der way; and that we’re an­gry at decades of be­ing treated by Welling­ton as just a big­ger ver­sion of Palmer­ston North.


Oh dear. In mod­ern polling history, New Zealand has never had a ma­jor party, in its ninth year in op­po­si­tion, as un­pop­u­lar as this one. Its leader en­joys no wide­spread sup­port and was im­posed on the party by the unions against the will of its MPs and or­di­nary mem­bers. His me­dia per­for­mances are worse even than English’s and the daily me­dia strug­gles to take him se­ri­ously. He tends to ap­pear in pub­lic only with the se­cu­rity blan­ket of a warm-up act by his new deputy, Jacinda Ardern. He locked him­self into a “no new taxes” pledge ahead of the Bud­get on the as­sump­tion there would be mas­sive for­ward op­er­at­ing sur­pluses — but Na­tional has al­lo­cated them all to in­fra­struc­ture to deny Labour the op­tion of promis­ing them for so­cial spend­ing. In des­per­a­tion, he has turned to bizarre claims about “cuts” to health and ed­u­ca­tion that sim­ply don’t ex­ist. With the baby boomers set to blow out the health bud­get even more dan­ger­ously than su­per­an­nu­a­tion, his ap­par­ent com­mit­ment that health spend­ing must only ever in­crease on a per capita ba­sis is even more ir­re­spon­si­ble than Key’s cow­ardice over su­per­an­nu­a­tion, which English has proven was po­lit­i­cally un­nec­es­sary any­way. With his attacks on peo­ple with Chi­nese-sound­ing names, eth­nic chefs and for­eign stu­dents, he has cho­sen to dab­ble in the pol­i­tics of race to pro­tect his re­main­ing work­ing-class vote from Win­ston Peters. His sig­na­ture pol­icy re­mains Ki­wiBuild, which was an­nounced by his pre­de­ces­sor-plus-one David Shearer five years ago in 2012, and

Na­tional’s main mes­sage is that peo­ple should vote for it by de­fault.

he has dropped plans for a cap­i­tal gains tax. Even his prom­ise 18 months ago of free ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion did noth­ing for Labour in the polls, be­cause it would be im­ple­mented only in the fan­tas­ti­cal event he won a third term.

And yet …

Much of this could have been said about Cor­byn or Trump two months out from their dates with their vot­ers. As­sum­ing Lit­tle does not fall on his sword ahead of Septem­ber 23, ex­pec­ta­tions among the me­dia and pub­lic are so low he can surely only ex­ceed them on the cam­paign trail. The fis­cal out­look is good enough for him to get young peo­ple to the polls by bring­ing for­ward his prom­ise of free ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion to his first term. If Na­tional ar­ro­gantly tries to play safe with talk of “strong and sta­ble lead­er­ship”, as the Con­ser­va­tives did in the UK, Lit­tle’s anger might just res­onate the way Trump’s and Bernie San­ders’ did in the US. If he can get Labour just marginally above 30 per cent on elec­tion day, he has friends to help get him over the line. Those friends count: there’s even an out­side chance Lit­tle could be­come prime min­is­ter as long as Labour stays above 23 per cent, the point at which he per­son­ally would lose his list-only seat.


Al­ways the brides­maid, never the bride. Forty-five years since the Val­ues Party was formed in 1972, 27 years since be­ing re-formed as the Greens and 21 years since the leg­endary Jeanette Fitzsi­mons and Rod Don­ald were elected to Par­lia­ment, the Greens have not spent a sin­gle day in gov­ern­ment.

Nev­er­the­less, they are a per­ma­nent fea­ture of the po­lit­i­cal land­scape.

They have man­aged sev­eral lead­er­ship changes, in­di­cat­ing their brand is stronger than any in­di­vid­ual. They have a suc­ces­sion plan all worked out from Me­tiria Turei and James Shaw to a new gen­er­a­tion of Gareth Hughes, Ch­löe Swar­brick, Gol­riz Ghahra­man and Jack McDon­ald. The party can be con­fi­dent of al­ways re­main­ing above MMP’s 5 per cent thresh­old to win seats in Par­lia­ment with­out an elec­torate MP.

Still, apart from the sat­is­fac­tion of see­ing both ma­jor par­ties adopt poli­cies like the emis­sions trad­ing scheme, it has all been point­less. The Greens re­main caught by a dilemma of MMP: when­ever the party in­di­cates it could un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances work with Na­tional, its polling falls, but if it will only ever work with one of the ma­jor par­ties, it has no lever­age over ei­ther.

For a quar­ter cen­tury, then, the

Greens and Labour have been locked in an oh-so-pas­sive-ag­gres­sive strug­gle to take each other out. It has ended in a draw, with the Greens still be­ing far away from sup­plant­ing Labour as the main party on the left but Labour suf­fi­ciently dam­aged that it has no chance of gov­ern­ing alone ever again. It’s a stand-off that drove last year’s sym­bolic but ul­ti­mately mean­ing­less Mem­o­ran­dum of Un­der­stand­ing (MoU) be­tween the two.

Labour in­sid­ers say the MoU was es­sen­tial to send a mes­sage to vot­ers the op­po­si­tion is able to cred­i­bly chal­lenge Na­tional. Green strate­gists saw it as a way of lock­ing in their re­la­tion­ship with Labour so that the par­ties would go to­gether to ne­go­ti­ate with Win­ston Peters, and so avoid be­ing locked out of the Cab­i­net room again. The deal, though, has done noth­ing to im­prove their com­bined

polling. More­over, it ex­pires on elec­tion day and Peters has no in­ten­tion of deal­ing with any­one on the left other than Labour. Un­less Labour and the Greens have the num­bers to form a gov­ern­ment with­out him, Peters will de­mand the poor old Greens are again left scrap­ping fu­tilely for the bride’s bou­quet. Get­ting all dol­lied up for North & South mag­a­zine won’t have got them any­where.


Af­ter 42 years in pol­i­tics, Peters is gear­ing up for his last hur­rah. A quar­ter cen­tury of some­times vile rhetoric on im­mi­gra­tion has been vin­di­cated, with even Labour and the Greens calling for a pause. Now polling just over 10 per cent, Peters’ chal­lenge is to get closer to 20 per cent, mainly at the ex­pense of Labour. If he can do it, the for­mer deputy prime min­is­ter, trea­surer and for­eign min­is­ter has a chance of end­ing his ca­reer with the very top job. Even if that re­mains out of his reach, now is his last chance to make his ca­reer count.

Peters’ iwi is Ngati Wai, on the east coast from roughly Omaha to the Bay of Is­lands. He first stood for Na­tional in North­ern Maori in 1975 and he com­pletes his ca­reer as MP for North­land. If he can­not be prime min­is­ter, he will at least go into re­tire­ment know­ing he has de­liv­ered for the peo­ple of the north. Ex­pect the pro­gres­sive clo­sure of Auck­land’s con­tainer and used-car port, the ex­pan­sion of rail and road links to Mars­den Point and be­yond, and the ag­gres­sive de­vel­op­ment of North­port to be bot­tom lines. It’s also his way of win­ning party votes in Auck­land Cen­tral, where he ac­tu­ally lives (in St Marys Bay). Peters has the anti-im­mi­gra­tion vote sewn up. He knows ef­forts by oth­ers to match him will fail. He’s off hunt­ing in new mar­kets.


Don’t want Peters in charge? There’s a good chance Hone Harawira will win Te Tai Tok­erau. The Maori Party might end up with four seats. It’s pos­si­ble the num­bers will ex­ist for a Labour-Green-Harawira-Maori Party gov­ern­ment, and the Maori Party would surely have to back Labour if it ever had a gen­uine choice.

On the right, Peter Dunne may squeak in ahead of Labour’s new star can­di­date, for­mer po­lice union boss Greg O’Con­nor, and win him­self a 12th term. David Sey­mour will hang on in Ep­som, and maybe bring in one more MP on the list. Gareth Mor­gan’s TOP might take a few votes off the Greens and might be able to pull some­thing off dur­ing the cam­paign. On a good day, English might just be able to hang on with his cur­rent crew.

De­pressed yet? Ex­cept for the near-im­pos­si­ble sce­nario of Na­tional do­ing as well as the pre-elec­tion polls sug­gest, there’s only in­sta­bil­ity ahead. If there is to be a sea-change in New Zealand pol­i­tics, it’s un­likely in 2017. Those want­ing change are best to look ahead to 2020. If ex­pe­ri­ence from 1996-99 and 2005-08 is any guide, by then the English-Peters gov­ern­ment will have un­rav­elled, Na­tional back­benchers will be openly de­rid­ing the party lead­er­ship and seek­ing change, the op­po­si­tion will fi­nally have ex­e­cuted a gen­er­a­tional change, and we’ll be await­ing the new era of prime min­is­ter Ardern.

RIGHT— Bill English: Can he avoid the smug­ness, ar­ro­gance and com­pla­cency that proved dis­as­trous for some for­eign lead­ers in the past year?

ABOVE— An­drew Lit­tle could be­come prime min­is­ter even with just above 23 per cent of the vote.

PAULA BEN­NETT Na­tional Party

SI­MON BRIDGES Na­tional Party

STEVEN JOYCE Na­tional Party

NIKKI KAYE Na­tional Party


NICK SMITH Na­tional Party


WIN­STON PETERS New Zealand First

HONE HARAWIRA Mana Move­ment

JAMES SHAW Green Party

PETER DUNNE United Fu­ture


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