Market mantra takes a beating
No doubt, Jacinda Ardern’s stated intention of governing for the benefit of all New Zealanders – the ones who voted for her and those who didn’t – seems genuine enough. To do so, however, the new coalition government will have to deal with the generational divide that’s now become a major feature of our political discourse.
Currently, most of the vocal minority who are finding it really, really hard to embrace the change of government belong to a generation that became politically aware during the 1980s and 1990s – when the wisdom of the market was embraced by many with the force of a religious belief.
As the Australian economist John Quiggin recently described it: ‘‘For most of the current political class whose ideas were formed in the last decades of the 20th century, the superiority of markets over governments is an assumption so deeply ingrained that it is not even recognised as an assumption. Rather, it is part of the ‘common sense’ that ‘everyone knows’. Whatever the problem,’’ Quiggin concluded, ‘‘their answer [has been] the same: lower taxes, privatisation and market-oriented ‘reform’.’’
Yet for those born outside that generational bubble, the world looks quite different. People under 30 who have been battered by the Global Financial Crisis, the low wage economy and income inequality have no romantic attachment to market solutions.
In fact, young voters have embraced politicians – Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Bernie Sanders in the US – who have explicitly rejected the politics of small government. Well before Winston Peters said that capitalism had lost its human face, young voters had begun voting against its harsher outcomes. In this year’s British election for instance, the generational divide was striking: 60 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s party, while 61 per cent of over-64s voted Conservative.
Peters, at 72, is arguably more in touch with this zeitgeist than many of his middle-aged critics. This would not be a unique situation. In the US last year Bernie Sanders, aged 75, won more support from voters under 30 than the two major party candidates – Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – combined.
Politically, this also suggests that the Ardern government has some breathing space to politely ignore the angrier, mediaamplified complaints of the ‘‘more market’’ true believers, provided it can deliver on other fronts.
On the forecourt of Parliament last week, Ardern promised to lead an ‘‘empathetic’’ government – and the pointed contrast was with the previous administration, which tended to live in denial about social problems until it became absolutely necessary to acknowledge their existence. This week, Arden and her colleagues have begun the difficult task of meeting the sky-high expectations they have raised. To meet the aspirations of its young supporters in particular, the new government will need to address social needs and deliver on education – by say, offering genuine relief on student debt, accommodation costs, tenancy rights, jobs and wages.
No easy tasks, but the political rewards will seem tantalising. As the centre-right did 30 years ago, the centre-left now has a golden opportunity to cement in its support and thus shape the attitudes of a new generation of voters, for decades to come.