A Shadow Across The Sun: A key factor driving the New Zealand electorate’s probable flight to the right in 2017 will be the profound and ideologically toxic influence of Donald Trump’s presidency.
THE POLITICAL CONSENSUS, at the beginning of 2017 – election year – is that the National-led Government will hold on to power. Not in its own right, as might have happened had John Key led them into battle, but with sufficient parliamentary support to govern comfortably. The identity and character of National’s support will likely prove the most intriguing electoral story of the year. The most significant political event of 2017, however, could well be the collapse of the Labour Party and the emergence of the Greens as New Zealand’s leading party of the centre-left.
A key factor driving the New Zealand electorate’s flight to the right will be the profound and ideologically toxic influence of Donald Trump’s presidency. Nobel economics laureate, Paul Krugman, predicts a global trade war, and the prestigious Foreign Policy magazine is filled with disquieting articles foreshadowing an ominous deterioration in the relationship between the USA and China.
If either of these predictions come to pass, then the consequences for the New Zealand economy will be extremely serious. Both the Chinese and the American governments will expect their “friends” to stand by them in any test of geopolitical strength. Initially, Foreign Minister Murray McCully will strive to retain the good will of both this country’s leading export market and its principal defence guarantor. But, if push comes to shove, he will come under enormous pressure from both Washington and Canberra to declare for the “auld alliance”. The Foreign Minister may conclude that he has no choice but to recommend to Prime Minister Bill English that we let go of China’s hand – with all that portends for New Zealand’s primary industries.
It’s a scenario which can only make the already strong electoral challenge of NZ First even stronger. The provinces will suffer most if the NZ-China economic connection falters and the voters most affected: farmers and the agricultural servicing sector; will be looking for someone to blame. Inevitably, the government will be criticised, but by far the largest share of the blame will be directed towards the government of the Chinese people. This rapidly-developing, racially-charged, crisis will be Winston Peters’ opportunity.
In a neat division of political labour, NZ First will lead the attack on China while, publicly, National condemns (but not too loudly) Peters’ racially-charged rhetoric. Meanwhile, privately, the conservative supporters of both parties will be encouraged to recognise the inherent electoral synergies of the unfolding crisis. As the countdown to the election shortens, the prospect of a National-NZ First coalition government will begin to acquire the aura of inevitability.
Amplifying the conservative message among the Maori electorate, the Maori Party will cast the Chinese as a second-wave of colonisers threatening not only tino rangatiratanga but also Pakeha sovereignty. Iwi corporations will be portrayed as the foundation stones of Aotearoa/New Zealand’s economic independence. The incipient government of the centre-right will thus be presented as a National-NZ First-Maori Party alliance.
The turmoil created by the Trump Administration will similarly throw into sharp relief the serious disjunction between the beliefs of the Labour Party and its electoral base. Even if Andrew Little and his advisors were of a mind to join with Peters in attacking China, the reflexive anti-Americanism of his caucus and Labour’s wider membership would drive the party inexorably towards their enemy’s enemy. Immediately, what was left of Labour’s support among “Waitakere Men” would decamp for the Sinophobic right.
The reverse manoeuvre: in which Little prevails upon caucus and party to follow National, NZ First and the Maori Party into Trumpism and Sinophobia; would only drive Labour’s younger, more progressive, voters towards the Greens. The classic Labour solution – trying to have a bob each way – risks losing both the conservative and the progressive components of its electoral base.
The extreme-nationalist complexion of the Trump Administration and its geopolitical focus on the burgeoning power of China can only hasten the disintegration of Labour’s electoral position. The party’s embrace of globalisation and free-market ideas in the 1980s, by hollowing-out the traditional working-class communities from which it drew its most consistent support, made Labour ever more dependent on the support of well-educated middle-class baby-boomers. But, as these voters have aged, their progressive instincts have shrivelled. Increasingly, the banners of the left are being carried by younger voters – the Chloe Swarbrick generation.
It is, however, highly doubtful that sufficient young people will participate in the 2017 general election to significantly offset the emotionally powerful appeal of an unabashedly nationalistic, Sinophobic and pro-American coalition of National, NZ First and the Maori Party. Neither conservative fish, nor progressive fowl, Labour is likely to see its party vote plummet into the teens – and with it any hope of reclaiming major party status. The baton of progressive politics will pass to the Greens. Real political power, however, will remain with the National Party and its allies.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 3 January 2017.