Eyes On The Prize: Success in the 2017 General Election will go to the politician best equipped to recognize - and exploit - the impending populist moment. There can be little doubt that the politician currently best placed to do both is the NZ First leader, Winston Peters.
THOSE SUFFICIENTLY CAPTIVATED by politics to spend their weekend mornings watching current affairs television were more than repaid for their dedication by Sunday’s Q+A. On display were the talents of Labour’s Andrew Little and NZ First’s Winston Peters. At the end of a week of unrelenting bad news for John Key’s National Government, both politicians were given an opportunity to shine. Only one of them took it.
Peters is on a roll that may yet see NZ First overtake the Greens as this country’s third-largest party. His performance on Q+A showed us how he might do it.
With New Zealand’s dairy farmers reeling from the grim news of “Black Friday” – when the numeral preceding Fonterra’s proposed pay-out per kilogram of milk solids changed from a 5 to a 3 – Peters presented himself as the agricultural sector’s saviour. Blessed with the perfect foil: Federated Farmers President, Dr William Rolleston; the NZ First leader did what he does best. He condemned Dr Rolleston as a Government apologist – hinting darkly that Kiwi farmers’ official representatives were failing in their duty.
For people under acute economic and social stress, the whiff of conspiracy is all-but-irresistible. It is much easier to believe that sudden and catastrophic events are the result of deliberate human agency than it is to accept them as the product of vast and impersonal forces, far beyond the conscious control of any single individual. But, on those not uncommon occasions when both explanations contain a portion of the truth, the scope for political mobilisation is huge. Watching Peters’ performance on Q+A there can be little doubt that New Zealand’s pre-eminent populist politician has seen it, understands it, and intends rousing rural and provincial New Zealand on the strength of it.
He saw it first in Northland: the loss of confidence in the future; the closing of the business person’s chequebook; the pervasive sense of drift – as if there’s no one on the bridge of New Zealand’s ship of state. As if this wasn’t alarming enough, he also picked up something else. It was just a feeling, but, for governments in their third terms, such feelings often prove fatal.
Across the whole of Northland, even among the well-heeled residents of Russell and Kerikeri, there was a feeling that the Government had lost interest in them; that the politicians who had ridden to power on their votes no longer cared about the fate of their farms, orchards or businesses. That, because they lacked the clout of Hollywood movie moguls, Aussie casino owners, huge transnational corporations, or the Prime Minister’s Hawaiian golfing-buddy, their voices were getting lost in the din.
NZ First’s campaign song for the Northland by-election was “Help Is On Its Way” by the Little River Band, and it struck precisely the right note. Chosen months before “Black Friday” dealt its body-blow to the nation’s dairy farmers, the prescient pertinence of the song’s refrain can only grow as the seasons pass and the quantum of farm debt becomes insupportable.
Rolleston accused Peters of panicking, but the tone of urgency in the NZ First leader’s voice was not only entirely appropriate, it was also, astonishingly, unmatched. Neither Rolleston, himself, nor the Prime Minister, nor the Labour leader, Andrew Little, sound even remotely like someone who grasps the seriousness of what is unfolding in rural and provincial New Zealand.
Under attack for being “Angry Andy”, Little has clearly been told to present as calm a façade as possible to the electorate. In a political environment less fraught with dangers, this would be good advice. Little’s problem, however, is that over the past month there has been a coming together of issues far too serious for the sort of phlegmatic responses he has been offering. With the economy teetering on the brink of recession, and the nation’s sovereignty under threat from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the return of “Angry Andy” would be welcomed.
A debut appearance by “Decisive Andy” wouldn’t hurt either. Why Labour is so unwilling to rule out support for the TPP – at least in its present leaked and hinted-at colours – is a tactical mystery. Certainly, Little’s reticence on the subject offers a poor contrast to Peters’ long-standing and unequivocal rejection of TPP’s alleged contents. It’s all of a piece with his party’s foundational promise to put New Zealand first.
At his party’s recent conference in Rotorua, Peters urged delegates to drive up the membership of NZ First with an additional 10,000 new recruits, and to give him a war-chest of at least a million dollars. As New Zealand succumbs to the same political paranoia that has overtaken the democracies of Europe and North America, Peters expects his party to be match fit.
Angry and unequivocal: revelling in the role of prophetic outsiders; Peters and NZ First will meet 2017’s electoral questions with provocatively populist answers.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 11 August 2015.