Tuesday 3 February 2015

The Electorate Strikes Back.

Not A Happy Chappy: Queensland's Premier no longer, the Liberal National Party leader, Campbell Newman, is forced to acknowledge that he has not only lost his Ashgrove parliamentary seat, but his entire political career. In the space of just three years, Newman's neoliberal extremism turned an unprecedented, 73-seat-majority victory, into one of the most stunning routs in Australian electoral history.
DO YOU FEEL that chill breeze on the back of your neck, Prime Minister? It’s blowing across the ditch, from Queensland. And the message it’s carrying across the Tasman – and even farther away, from the Greeks – is very clear. Electorates all over the world are flexing their muscles.
Voting last Saturday in a cold but fearsomely focused fury, the people of Queensland wiped out the 73-seat majority they had bestowed upon the Liberal National Party (LNP) just three years ago. Not even the leader of the LNP, Queensland’s erstwhile Premier, Campbell Newman, was spared. His Brisbane seat of Ashgrove was reclaimed by the opposition Labor Party as the electoral tsunami swept over the state.
No one could say that Mr Newman wasn’t warned. His predecessor in the Premier’s Office, Labor’s Anna Bligh, had been hurled from power with equal force for unleashing a privatisation programme she’d somehow neglected to present to Queensland voters in the run-up to the 2009 election. But, instead of drawing the obvious lesson from Labor’s 2012 debacle, Mr Newman proceeded as though Queenslanders had voted for his extreme brand of neoliberalism, rather than against Ms Bligh’s political duplicity.
For Queenslanders, the result was three long years of economic, environmental and legal “reform” that was as draconian as it was unheralded. Thousands of public servants lost their jobs, the privatisation programme (Bligh’s downfall) far from being halted, gathered pace. Legal changes struck down civil liberties considered basic to democratic governance. And Queensland’s thriving tourist industry, based upon the state’s exquisite natural treasures, found itself outmanoeuvred by rampant mining interests determined to rid themselves of all environmental restraints.
Saturday’s vote constituted Queenslanders’ emphatic response to Mr Newman’s scorched-earth tactics. With their political leaders clearly having failed to draw the correct message from Labor’s 2012 wipe-out, the people of Queensland felt obliged to repeat it. Mr Newman’s successor, whoever he or she turns out to be, would be very foolish to goad them into a third demonstration of their power. Indeed, anything other than a general healing of neoliberal harms will likely be interpreted by the Queensland electorate as yet another invitation to unleash electoral Armageddon.
For our own Prime Minister, the messages blowing-in from Greece and Queensland will not be received as harbingers of doom, but rather as welcome confirmations that his kind of politics is the kind that survives. To his hard-line critics in National’s caucus, and throughout the broader right-wing community, Mr Key can now say: “You see? This is what happens when you push people too hard, too fast and too far.” It’s difficult to conceive of a better argument in favour of Mr Key’s softly-softly, don’t-frighten-the-horses, populism than the Biblically unforgiving backlashes of the Greek and Queensland electorates.
At the heart of the Prime Minister’s political success, is his unwavering conviction that a government must always possess more friends than enemies. Mr Key will never allow a situation to develop in which a majority of the electorate feels harmed or threatened by his government’s policies.
Alienating the six percent of New Zealand families who live in State Houses will not threaten the National Government. Nor will policies disadvantaging the roughly 20 percent of New Zealanders who still belong to unions. After all, neither of these groups have ever been notable National supporters.
On the other hand, failing to come up with policies that make it easier for “Middle New Zealand’s” children to buy their first home. (Or even rent their first flat!) Doing nothing to assist the increasing number of young graduates who struggle to find a job remotely commensurate with their qualifications. Refusing to address the steadily worsening condition of the country’s rivers, streams and beaches. Or, downplaying the fact that more and more New Zealand farms, businesses and houses are being sold to foreigners. These are precisely the kinds of issues that could unite a majority of the electorate against the National Government.
And, there is one more issue that might yet jeopardise the remarkably consistent popularity of Mr Key’s government: civil liberties and the rights of the citizen. It’s a slow-burning issue, but no less dangerous for being so. And if it is allowed to grow in relevance (as it did in Queensland, where Mr Newman’s reckless blurring of the necessarily strict constitutional boundaries between politicians and the Judiciary made the ordinary voter feel distinctly uneasy) then the potential for a Queensland-style electoral backlash will increase.
In Greece, and again in Australia, two “we know best” political parties pushed their respective electorates too hard, too fast and too far. Both have paid the price. New Zealand’s right-wing government stands out from its Australian, Canadian and British counterparts for the sensitivity with which it handles the electorate that can make or break it.
Mr Key’s and National’s political longevity is no accident.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 3 February 2015.


Anonymous said...

I agree with the gist of your post Chris.

The question has to be asked then, if John Key sensed that the NZ electorate likes moderation at all costs (and has done for the past 6-7 years) what makes Labour and the left think that the
answer to electorate victory is to propose a wave of reforms which would upend society?

If you think back to 2011, Phil Goff's answer to Key was to go left. In 2014 Cunliffe's answer to Key was to go even more to the left.

At what point do the left suck up and realize that they won't regain power until they offer a moderate package of policies (with some - not lots - of charismatic leadership)

I suspect that Little senses this and that is why his speech aimed to present a moderate image to the electorate.

Little's challenge is this: Can he sustain this and satisfy the demands of his union backers, the hard left, and the Greens?

Lotsa juggling for the next 3 years


Anonymous said...

It's not a matter of John Key being moderate. He isn't, and repeating the mantra is only buying into a right-wing talking point.

Fact is, Queenslanders didn't like privatisation, so they voted the Government out. New Zealanders didn't like privatisation either, so they voted the Government back in. Because we have now reached the stage in New Zealand's political discourse where the alleged "niceness" of leaders somehow counts for more than policy. It's like the Americans who voted for George W. Bush because they thought he'd be good to have a beer with.

David said...

Australians are much more astute then New Zealanders. We rolled over when the Employment Contracts Act was introduced whereas the Australian unions put up a fight and won. John Key, like many a New Zealand business that has gone into Australia, would have much less success than he has had here.

pat said...


Olwyn said...

As you acknowledge, Key is an incrementalist, not a centrist. He differs from Abbott in method but not intention. Moreover, unlike Australia and Europe, New Zealand was already broken on the neo-liberal wheel in its early stages. There is nothing to be gained by reintroducing scorched earth policies where the required settings are already put in place.

This is how he has kept the middle class onside. He has borrowed up large for tax-cuts and allowed property prices to run rampant. This allows him to effectively say, if you vote me out the market has all the leverage it needs to punish you for it. In other words, the middle class's life-style looks to be conditional on him and his good stead with international lenders - not on a solid productive economy he has fostered, or anything like it.

This has allowed him great licence, which as we have seen he is not shy about using. Which means that when his debt-based deal with the middle class has run out of steam they will have accumulated as much if not more reason to be angry with him as Australians now have for being angry with Abbott - his method just takes longer to reach that point. It is to be hoped that he doesn't get the TPP thing signed before that happens.

Richard McGrath said...

One difference you neglected to mention is that Queensland and NZ have different voting systems. The electoral "tsunami" in Queensland resulted in the LNP winning more votes than Labor, yet winning fewer seats under the preferential voting system. This wouldn't happen in NZ under MMP.

Paulus said...


the difference between Australia and New Zealand is that New Zealand has only 371,613 registered Union members being 16.6% of the workforce.
Australia's Unions are huge and very powerful in all walks of life - and I would not expect that to change, whereas New Zealand's union membership will continue to slide.