All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
- William Butler Yeats, “Easter 1916”
MIKE WILLIAMS, searching for a political precedent, reached all the way back to the Snap Election of 1984. His fellow panellists on TVNZ’s Q+A couldn’t help but agree. Certainly, I remember the electrifying effect of Rob Muldoon’s surprise announcement. On the evening of the day after the night before, dozens of people turned up to the emergency campaign committee meeting called by Stan Roger, Labour’s candidate for Dunedin North. The meeting room was far too small to accommodate all of them comfortably. It was standing room only – with the doors flung wide.
I recall looking at the faces of the people present. Some were familiar, party stalwarts of forty years standing, but many were new. Looking at the younger, middle-class professionals lining up along the walls, the nascent political analyst in me could hardly miss the blindingly obvious conclusion: Labour was going to win.
Even in the 1980s, Labour needed more than the unionised working-class to seize the Treasury Benches. Thirty years ago – just like today – electoral victory could be secured only by drawing into Labour’s ranks a critical mass of young, well-educated, urban professionals: the confident offspring of Mickey Savage’s welfare state. (The very same demographic, it should be noted, who rescued Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party from oblivion back in June.)
It’s a notoriously difficult group to engage politically. If they cannot be convinced that something new and positive will be achieved by casting a vote, then they have no qualms at all about sitting an election out. In 1984 the opportunity to usher in something new and positive was unmistakeable and the yuppies seized it with both hands. Nine years of Rob Muldoon had been more than enough!
Jacinda Ardern’s dramatic ascension to the Labour leadership has captured the attention of Savage’s children and grandchildren alike. Her arrival has generated an overwhelming surge of money and people into Labour’s camp. More than that, however, her “unrelentingly positivie” and “sunny ways” are rapidly persuading tens-of-thousands of young New Zealanders that – this time – casting a vote just might make a difference.
If that process of persuasion and mobilisation is to continue, however, Ms Ardern must make very clear what she is running against. In 1984, David Lange was challenging Muldoon’s last-ditch defence of Keynesian economics. New Zealanders had had enough of wage and price freezes, massive agricultural subsidies and patently absurd bureaucratic regulations. “You can’t run a country like a Polish shipyard!”, Lange thundered, and the New Zealand electorate cheered him to the echo.
In 2017, Ms Ardern is running against a very different set of economic and social phenomena. Her targets are not massive and poorly directed state interventions, or heavy-handed government controls. On the contrary, her targets are the consequences of Keynesian economics wholesale rejection. When she says “Let’s do this!”, the “this” that her supporters anticipate is an unequivocal repudiation of the squalor and misery that Roger Douglas unleashed, Ruth Richardson intensified, and which even Helen Clark’s and Michael Cullen’s best efforts failed to eliminate. Jacinda’s “Muldoon” is Neoliberalism: the relentless extension of competitive markets into every corner of New Zealand society and into every facet of New Zealanders’ lives.
Nowhere are the consequences of this country’s thirty-year neoliberal experiment more obvious than in housing, health, education and the environment. The squalid spectacle of poverty amidst plenty. The entrenched inter-generational unfairness of the housing market. The deep cultural affront of undrinkable water and unswimmable rivers. The virtual debt peonage into which so many young New Zealanders seeking higher education have fallen. The appalling state of New Zealand’s mental health services. These are the targets upon which Ms Ardern must train her rhetorical guns. To prove that “New Zealand can be better than this” – they are the giants she must slay.
“All changed, changed utterly” was how the Irish poet William Butler Yeats described the Ireland that emerged from the tragedy of the 1916 Easter Rebellion. Before the rising, he had despaired of his society as a place where only fools prospered; a place of “polite meaningless words” and pointless pub conversations. And then, suddenly, it wasn’t. Where once there had been the despondent resignation that nothing could ever change, the uprising’s tragic heroism was transforming everything. Suddenly, a “terrible beauty” was born.
Yeats is right. The Goddess of History is a terrible deity to behold. Ruthless and utterly uncompromising in her expectations of those she thrusts forward onto the stage of human affairs. Yes, it is a good thing to be “unrelentingly positive”. And, yes, “sunny ways” are by far the best means of securing the electorate’s co-operation. But, if Ms Ardern intends to offer them as alternatives to a 1984-style electoral uprising, then she will fail.
“Sunny ways” are not enough.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 8 August 2017.