Magnificent Loser: Boudica may have raised the Ancient British tribes against their Roman rulers, but she proved to be no match for the discipline and experience of Suetonius's XIV Legion. If Jacinda Ardern is to successfully overthrow the Neoliberal political and economic consensus and establish a genuinely "transformational" government, then she will have to weld her disputatious political tribes into a fighting machine every bit as formidable as Bill English's disciplined and experienced National Opposition.
ANYONE WHO VISITS the British Houses of Parliament cannot fail to notice her. Upright in her war-chariot, the Ancient Britons’ warrior queen, Boadicea, and her daughters, burst out of history like a trio of avenging angels. The bronze statuary does not, however, celebrate a victory. In the bloody revolt against Roman rule of 60AD, Boadicea (or Boudica, as she is properly called) was the loser. It was Suetonius, commander of Rome’s XIV Legion, who won.
Jacinda Ardern’s sudden emergence as New Zealand’s warrior queen, though nowhere near as bloody as Boudica’s, certainly bears comparison in terms of its sheer drama. Like Boudica, Jacinda was able to draw together all the political tribes determined to end the incumbent government’s rule. Also like Boudica, she has enjoyed considerable initial success.
What lies ahead of Jacinda, however, is an enemy who, though outmanoeuvred, has yet to be decisively defeated. Like Suetonius’s XIV legion, the National Party is well-equipped, highly-experienced, and, most importantly, formidably-disciplined. Jacinda’s ragged tribes may outnumber them – but can they outfight them?
The Colmar-Brunton opinion poll, released by TVNZ’s Q+A show on Sunday, brings that latter question into sharp focus. National’s level of support, measured at 46 percent, has not only held up, it has actually improved slightly over the 44.4 percent it won at the General Election.
For the governing parties, the news is not so good. When translated into seats in the House, the Government’s numbers (Labour: 39 percent; Greens: 7 percent; NZ First: 5 percent) deliver no advance on its current tally of sixty-three. If Jacinda was anticipating a “post-election bounce” in the polls, then she and her colleagues will find it hard to avoid feeling ever-so-slightly jumpy.
It’s not only the fact that National continues to enjoy a substantial lead over Labour that must be vexing the Government, but also the sheer size of its opponent’s electoral base. Unlike the Centre-Left, the Centre-Right in New Zealand is not required to continually marshal political parties as diverse as they are disputatious. Instead, they can range themselves against the Left’s warrior queen as a formidable unitary force commanded by a single leader. If Jacinda is Boudica, then Bill English is Suetonius. And if the Government represents the fractious war-horde of the revolting British tribes, then the National Opposition represents the XIV Legion.
Historical metaphors aside, the disposition of political forces revealed in the latest Colmar-Brunton Poll reflects a dangerously divided society. National’s voters clearly remain unconvinced by the new government’s arguments for change. Certainly, this poll has registered nothing like the decisive 10 percentage-point shift in voter allegiance that followed the election of Helen Clark in 1999, and John Key in 2008. Branded by its enemies as a “coalition of the losers”, the Labour-NZ First-Green Government is beset by legitimacy issues entirely absent from previous MMP configurations.
These legitimacy issues are unlikely to be ameliorated by the Government’s apparent determination to keep its spending within the narrow bounds of its “Budget Responsibility Rules”.
The strategic thinking behind this self-imposed restraint is unclear – to say the least! For parties and candidates pitching themselves against the status-quo, boosting electoral turnout is everything. Donald Trump and the Brexiteers did not win by offering their angry constituencies careful and measured policies! For Labour’s share of the popular vote to overtake National’s, its leaders need to roll-out policies of sufficient boldness to mobilise the tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders who have, hitherto, seen little or no point in voting. Proud reiterations of your government’s “fiscal and economic responsibility” will likely strike many of these potential voters as a pretty odd way to bid for their support. Very much a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
National’s strategy, by contrast, is clear and simple: take confidence in our strength; remain united and disciplined; and seize every opportunity to inflict maximum damage upon the Government. The Centre-Right seldom requires special policy carrots to lure its voters to the polling-booths. Conservatives know who their friends are.
When Suetonius set the XIV Legion across Watling Street and waited for Boudica to come at him, he was supremely confident that, providing his men remembered their training and followed their orders, the Britons would be unable to translate their numerical advantage into victory. On the contrary, he anticipated that the massive casualties inflicted by his legionaries would soon break the British tribesmen’s fighting spirit and send them into headlong retreat.
If Bill English and his National Opposition are similarly able to hold the line, and drive back every government advance, then he, too, will be rewarded with a loss of confidence in his enemies’ ranks. Moreover, if he takes advantage of Labour’s ridiculous determination to limit the Coalition Government’s room for fiscal and economic manoeuvre, then Bill English, like Suetonius, will bring down his warrior queen.
This essay was originally published in The Press and The Dominion Post of Tuesday, 12 December 2017.