Wednesday, 9 August 2017


It may seem strange to suggest it now, but the dust will soon settle on the political turmoil of the last ten days, and a form of normalcy will return, the imminent advent of the formal election campaign notwithstanding. And when that dust has settled, some basic realities will be clear.

 

The Labour Party has replaced a grim and dour leader New Zealanders would never have made their Prime Minister with someone more telegenic and permanently smiling who is likely to staunch the bleeding of Labour’s wounds. Whether she can, or will or be acceptable as a potential  Prime Minister remains to be seen, although the early signs are that style more than substance will be her hallmarks.

 

And, after a contorted public display of political hari kiri, the Green Party’s co-leader finally resigned. This seems due not so much to her truly bizarre admissions of welfare and electoral abuse a quarter of a century ago, as to the defiant and smug arrogance of her subsequent public comments, and the extraordinarily heavy-handed reactions of her colleagues to two Green MPs who dared criticise her. They were summarily dispatched with a brutality reminiscent of the best of totalitarian regimes, while at the same time the Party tried to stick to its long held mantra of being the one Party of principle. The picture that emerged instead – and which subsequent opinion polls confirm – is of a Party that condones welfare and electoral law abuse, particularly by one of its own, and is utterly intolerant of dissent or criticism. The collective moral failure of the Party’s MPs and leadership has been palpable and punished accordingly.

 

With these momentous events now behind the electorate, if not for the Parties themselves, voters’ focus will quickly return to more basis issues. They will be considering whether the reconfigured Labour and Green Parties, with their Memorandum of Understanding apparently still intact, are better placed to form a viable and coherent government than they were a couple of weeks ago. The chaos of the last few days, their apparent euphoria notwithstanding, makes that a much a more arguable proposition. Few would agree these recent events have demonstrated they are now more able to provide good and stable government than before.

 

And how does the current National-led Government, with support from ACT, the Maori Party and UnitedFuture, look by comparison? Has its position as a reliable and stable combination that has served New Zealand well over the last nine years been enhanced or weakened by recent events? On balance, the conclusion would have to be that the contrast between strong, reliable and focused government and unimaginable chaos has never been starker.

 

New Zealand First will be smarting that it has been largely sidelined by the recent shenanigans, despite its solid support in provincial New Zealand. However, its problem is more fundamental. Its current crop of MPs is the most singularly uninspiring and inept to have been in parliament for a while – and believe me, having seen many such groupings over the years, I do not say this lightly. The problem is that it therefore cannot risk exposing them to too much public scrutiny, lest they be found out. And that means having to maintain the focus on the Party leader and his idiosyncratically destructive style of politics.

 

All of which will make for a fascinating few weeks ahead. Expect National and its allies to continue to try sailing in the smooth waters of competence, reliability and experience. There will be a number of business as usual policy announcements to maintain both the image and the sense of a coherent strategy for the way ahead, with allowance for the diversity of views it support partners offer. For Labour and the Greens, excitement and vibrancy will be the dominant themes, but the challenge will be showing a sense of cohesion and consistency, unlike anything they have shown to date, and getting their leaders to answer the hard questions posed of them, rather than just make glib policy pronouncements. For New Zealand First, it will be politics as usual, picking the familiar social and political scabs in an effort to fuel distrust in the system and reinforce its self-sought image as the “you tell ‘em” Party.

 

As politics as usual returns, some voters may be forgiven for yearning for more of the drama of the last two weeks.      

 

 

  

   

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 2 August 2017


 Jacinda Ardern has my warmest congratulations, my best wishes, and my immense commiserations as she takes on the role of Leader of the Opposition, which she herself has described as “the worst job in politics.” She is right – it probably is just ahead of being Leader of the Labour Party today. Unfortunately for Jacinda, this week she inherited both.

 

She has done so at a time when Labour is probably at its lowest ebb since 1931, and unlike then, when the tide would rise, this time the ebb may be beyond recovery. Over the last 100 years or so there has been a natural life cycle for major parties of around 60 to 80 years. Labour today is just over 100 years old – our oldest and longest surviving party. Curiously, minor parties, possibly because of their definition, do not seem caught as rigidly. Their life cycles are far more erratic, perhaps because they are often more likely to be based around a dominant individual, and their destiny consequently linked to that person’s career, even if the philosophies they represent often emerge elsewhere subsequently. But, for major parties, the pattern seems far more pre-destined. Only a dullard, or a “my party, right or wrong” fanatic would deny that reality.

 

In the early 1900s, the Liberals post Seddon, and then in the 1920s conservative Reform post Massey went through this process, culminating in the rise of the Labour Party from 1916 and the advent of the National Party in 1936. Now, since the 1990s, the rise of left-wing alternatives to Labour – first, the Alliance, and now the Greens – are snapping at Labour’s heels. The inevitable outcome, maybe sooner rather than later, is that Labour and the Greens will stop cannibalising each other’s votes and refashion themselves into a modern social democratic party on the left of politics. It may well be that in bringing this together Jacinda Ardern will make her greatest contribution.

           

Labour’s traditional working class base has been shrinking since the advent of containerisation in the 1970s, and the social conservatism of many of those remaining voters today probably sits more comfortably with the populism of New Zealand First anyway. Certainly, the book of the moment, JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which offers a credible explanation of the rise of Trumpism in the United States and the rejection there by working class voters in the Rust Belt of traditional left-wing politics in last year’s Presidential election, supports that thesis. The chasm now emerging between the diminishing traditional working class that Labour has relied on, and the middle class progressives who over the past 50 years have moved from Holyoake’s property owning democracy, through Labour’s social liberalism on issues like racism and nuclear weapons, to now reside comfortably with the Greens, has left Labour increasingly bereft. Now the Greens are the coming force of the left of politics, and it is not inconceivable to imagine a Jacinda Ardern/James Shaw team emerging to lead a new single party in the future. At that point, Labour’s current trauma will end, and the new grouping will at last be able to present itself as the modern viable, left-wing alternative.

 

While National might be safe in the meantime, by virtue of being the very dominant major party in government, it cannot be complacent. Its day will come too, and it will face the same realignment issues that its old nemesis Labour does today. But, in National’s case, it is a little more difficult to see immediately how the realignment might occur. The erratic populism of New Zealand First means that, should it survive, it will probably not be part of this process, although its remnants will most likely remain the Social Credit equivalent that has been a near constant feature of our politics over the last 60 years. By themselves, ACT, UnitedFuture and the Maori Party are probably currently too small, but taken together their particular niches – libertarian laissez-faire; liberalism and aspirational Maori nationalism – could all be valuable additions to the post-National mix whenever it occurs.

 

And then, as these new parties form, so too will their respective challengers, setting off the process all over again. As Andrew Little found out this week, in New Zealand politics nothing is forever.