Glen Johnson

Timidity in New Zealand

November 16, 2020 Le Monde Diplomatique

On October 17, the night of New Zealand’s general election, I sat in the kitchen of an empty campground in the country’s Taranaki region, drinking a flagon of Scrumpy cider and flicking between television channels — with a smug sense of satisfaction.

It was clear, as the earliest results filtered in, that voters were rejecting the main opposition, centre-right National Party. Since the earliest stages of our new pandemic-normal, the party had attempted to undermine public faith in the government’s management of the viral menace.

The party had consistently demanded a lifting of lockdown restrictions, invented a homeless man in a managed isolation facility to illustrate government ‘incompetence’, leaked the private medical records of Covid-19 patients to the media, and attempted to stir-up racist sentiment towards returning New Zealanders.

It pumped out bald-faced misinformation, engaged in conspiracy-baiting, and was on to its third leader in six months. Even its own party members were on the receiving end of these tactics: long-time National Party board member, Roger Bridge, called a late-night talk-back show in August, posing as ‘Merv’ from ‘Manurewa’ and attempted to undermine a party member who wished to contest the Auckland Central seat.

After months of this reckless politicking, the party deserved a pummelling at the polls — and it got it.

By the end of the night, the centrist Labour Party, led by Jacinda Ardern, had secured a preliminary 49.1% of the party vote and a massive 43 electorate seats, flipping 15 electorates. Ardern’s party, if it chose, could govern alone; a first since the nation’s Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system was brought in 25 years ago.

The centre-left Green Party sat safely on 7.6%, well clear of the 5% threshold required for entering parliament. One promising candidate, Chloe Swarbrick, had additionally won Auckland Central, against massive odds.

A rejuvenated Māori Party — rejected by voters three years ago after supporting the previous three-term National Party government — had run candidates in the nation’s seven Māori seats and held a narrow lead in the Waiariki electorate.

Meanwhile, the National Party had crashed to 26.8%, bleeding ‘soft-right’ voters left to Labour and right to the free-market fetishists of the ACT Party. Even the staunchest National electorates were swinging hard to Labour’s candidates.

Yet, as Ardern took to the stage in the neo-baroque-styled Auckland Town Hall and began her victory speech, it became clear that the left was in for disappointment.

‘And to those amongst you who may not have supported Labour before — and the results tell me there were a few of you — to you, I say: thank you. We will not take your support for granted,’ said Ardern. ‘And I can promise you, we will be a party that governs for every New Zealander.’

And, just like that, my smug satisfaction evaporated.

Not even the spectacle of the veteran political reporter, Patrick Gower, prostrate on Newshub’s studio floor — a form of body-horror meant to illustrate National’s collapse — could lift my mood.

New converts

Ardern came to power in 2017, campaigning on Obama-esque rhetoric of ‘transformational politics’. Three decades into the country’s neo-liberal turn, the public was increasingly fed-up: homelessness and poverty were growing, wages were stagnant, and public services were run-down — eviscerated by the ideology of small government and accompanying soft-austerity.

Ardern tapped into the popular mood for change. But, to form a government, she needed the support of the centre-right New Zealand First (with confidence and supply coming from the Greens). In essence, that party had the ability to veto any Labour policies.

The Labour Party’s first term in power was marked by a series of traumatic incidents: the Christchurch terror attack, the Whakaari/White Island eruption, and the past year of life amid pandemic. In each instance, Ardern used her clear communication skills to reassure and unify an often-divided country.

But it was her response to the latter — a decisive elimination strategy that has undoubtedly saved lives and allowed Kiwis to continue life-as-mostly-normal for prolonged periods — that has won her party a slew of converts.

To date, the country has recorded just over 1,645 confirmed cases and 25 deaths from Covid-19.

After initially eliminating the virus for 100 days, the nation experienced a new community outbreak on August 11. That outbreak — known as the Auckland August Cluster — was rapidly traced, the infected isolated and cared for, the virus stamped out.

Ardern’s messaging and decisive action, moving the nation into lockdown within hours of being informed of the August Cluster, once-again proved invaluable.

‘Together we have got rid of Covid before. We have been world leading in our Covid response,’ she said, while announcing an extension to lockdown measures on August 14. ‘We can do all of that again.’

For months, Ardern withstood frenzied attacks from the media, political opposition, and business special interests, each attempting to hasten a move down the country’s four level alert system, to hell with the health advice.

At the extreme end, the argument was, essentially, that the government should ‘manage’ the spread of Covid-19 in communities: just isolate the elderly and the infirm and let the rest of us get on with it. The economy must reign supreme, after all.

But Kiwis could look abroad, to the gross mismanagement of the crisis in the UK and the US, to see just how fortunate they were to have Ardern leading the response.

Ardern and her cabinet mostly refused to cave to these attack lines. And New Zealanders rewarded her for it on election night. It turns out that the public values a leader who prioritizes public well-being.

Official results released early November showed Labour increasing its party vote to 50% and electorate seats to 46. With 65 seats in New Zealand’s 120-seat parliament, Ardern had an overwhelming majority. Regardless, she inked a cooperation agreement with the Greens, which increased its share of the vote to 7.9% and held 10 parliamentary seats.

The Māori Party’s co-leader, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, joined parliament off the list, giving the party two seats. All told, the centre and the left blocks of New Zealand politics commanded a massive majority; National fell even further, to 25.6% and 23 electorate seats.

And Ardern, free of her former coalition partner, New Zealand First — which did much to scuttle Ardern’s promised ‘transformational politics’ during her first term, collapsing to 2.6% on election night — now had a mandate to do, well, basically anything.

But Ardern’s messaging had by this stage shifted from ‘transformation’ to the anaemic, middle management speak of ‘change that sticks’. As she took the stage in Auckland on election night — deliberately signalling to her new converts — it looked very much like she was deliberately tying her own hands.

Generation of Liberal Democrats

Labour Party posturing immediately after the election did little to assuage such fears. In addition to electing a new parliament, New Zealanders also voted in two referenda, on legalising cannabis and euthanasia.

The legalization of euthanasia won handily. But Kiwis were split roughly down the middle on cannabis; preliminary results showed that 46.1% voted ‘yes’ and 53.1% voted ‘no’. With around half-a-million special votes to be counted, the final results were expected to be much closer.

Regardless, then-justice minister Andrew Little immediately came out and ruled out any changes at all to cannabis legislation — which activists point out disproportionally criminalises Māori communities.

‘The electorate has spoken, they are uncomfortable with greater legalisation, and I would interpret it as [also] decriminalisation of recreational cannabis,’ Little told reporters. ‘The New Zealand electorate is not ready for that, and I think we have to respect that.’

Even more galling, Ardern subsequently endorsed a plan to allow testing of drugs for harmful substances at music festivals, in itself a good thing.

But, the subtext is obvious: the white middle class can safely bug-out on Molly and acid throughout the summer, but Māori — who constitute 50% of the prison population, a significant proportion of that for low-level drug offences — will continue to be disproportionately punished for possession of weed.

Is that what being ‘a party that governs for every New Zealander’ looks like?

With the final results narrowing to 50.7% ‘no’ and 48.4% ‘yes’, the public mood for reform, particularly among Labour’s base, is clear. But Labour won’t budge and take this as an invitation to influence the public debate on cannabis — and the legalization of other substances, such as psilocybin — that are deliberately mischaracterized by vested interests intent on neutering drug reform. This is, of course, born of political cowardice: maintaining the support of her new converts.

In the meantime, the nation’s castigatory welfare system remains in need of major reform, yet Ardern’s government previously refused to act on the advice of its own Welfare Expert Advisory Group, which last year recommended immediately raising benefits by up to 47%.

Earlier this month, some 60 organisations penned an open letter to Ardern, pleading with her to raise benefits before Christmas. In New Zealand, after housing costs, around one in five, or 235,400, children live in relative poverty. Signatories included stretched food banks, eviscerated unions, church groups and shelters for the homeless and the destitute.

Ardern’s public response? ‘This is not going to be an issue that can be resolved in one week, or one month or, indeed, one term.’

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the country’s Reserve Bank has pursued so-called Quantitative Easing — agreeing to produce some NZ$100b of cash straight from the financial ether — which it uses to buy government bonds. It has additionally lowered the Official Cash Rate to 0.25%.

Undoubtedly, this has spared swathes of the economy from total collapse. Ardern and her finance minister, Grant Robertson, rolled out an initial wage subsidy worth $NZ9b in support of stricken businesses earlier this year, capped at NZ$585 per worker per week, to keep people linked to work.

Yet, with the influx of cash and bottoming-out interest rates, the housing market has gone nuclear, with house prices ballooning by 20%. The nation’s ceaselessly hungry rentier class has swooped down, buying-up big.

This is quite deliberate: the hope, economists say, is that by inflating house prices, the Reserve Bank is encouraging the wealthy to spend and invest: trickle-down economics. Of course, stimulus is needed to counteract the deflationary forces that inaction would cause. But, it also looks very much like a massive transfer of wealth to the nation’s rentiers and home-owners.

This makes Ardern’s dismissal of calls for raising benefits look even more like cynical politicking. In New Zealand, pouring scorn on beneficiaries, ‘dole-bludgers’ in the vernacular, is a powerful political weapon that appeals to currents of casual nastiness and brazen self-interest.

However, anti-poverty activists point out that increasing benefits guarantees immediate stimulus: it is the poor who will spend additional money at local businesses, not syphon it off it into housing portfolios.

Housing affordability in New Zealand has long been a driver of inequality, worsening significantly with the neo-liberal revolution of the mid-1980s and sharpening into a national crisis over the past decade or so as State housing stock was sold off and the mass-migration lever was pulled in response to 2008’s global financial meltdown. However, the root of the problem is conceptual: housing, like so much in the country, has been commodified; homes are not treated as a social good or fundamental right, but a tool to generate and entrench wealth.

Despite calls for the government to increase its debt load and invest in infrastructure that future generations would benefit from — tens of thousands of new State homes, as a start — so far Robertson and Ardern have only committed to building 8,000 homes, far below the numbers required.

Pre-occupied with ensuring that net core Crown debt does not exceed 55% of GDP and with preserving the country’s sovereign credit ratings, the administration appears on course to miss the opportunity to correct the country’s course and embrace the Big-State response the pandemic demands; the political opposition, anti-tax and rentier lobbies can be disarticulated, especially by a communicator as deft and popular as Ardern.

Such political timidity is hard to understand, especially as Covid-19 exposes the fragility of our hyper-globalised world and the fraud of the free-market as omnipotent.

In that regard, the Labour Party has form. During Ardern’s first term, she capitulated to New Zealand First’s opposition to a capital gains tax (CGT). That can perhaps be understood in the context of a coalition government.

However, in the lead-up to this year’s election, she categorically ruled out bringing in CGT at any time in her premiership, even absent NZF’s opposition. In fending off National Party attack lines, she additionally ruled out implementing the Green Party’s proposal for a small tax on net-wealth over a million dollars.

In other words, Labour strategists are committed to dominating the political centre and ensuring their new National supporters are not spooked.

If Ardern continues with this approach, her administration, which carefully leverages international recognition for domestic legitimacy, may come to represent yet another failure of the vaunted new global breed of liberal democrats.

Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron each, like Ardern, spoke the language of ‘hope’ and ‘change’. Yet, ultimately, all further entrenched a poisonous status quo.


And so, New Zealand’s left faces a dilemma, one shared in other Western countries: the centrists of Labour increasingly take left-wing voters for granted and can therefore throw them a few breadcrumbs and continue its exasperating outreach to the right.

Perhaps that is smart politics; perhaps it is a perversion of democratic principles, one where the political ‘game’ becomes an end in and of itself, and where public service and political values are relegated to the fringes.

Ardern often talks about the importance of kindness. She could show some to those on the margins who really need it. Her new ‘soft-right’ voters will, after all, eventually turn on her.

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