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.
NEW ZEALAND FIRST
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
JACINDA ARDERN Labour Party
NICK SMITH National Party
METIRIA TUREI Green Party
WINSTON PETERS New Zealand First
HONE HARAWIRA Mana Movement
JAMES SHAW Green Party
PETER DUNNE United Future
CHLÖE SWARBRICK Green Party