THE NEWSHUB/REID RESEARCH POLL is much worse than it looks. Twelve months from now, when the actual voting papers, as opposed to responses to pollsters’ questions, are counted, Labour’s tally is likely to be much lower than 32 percent. Why? Because the level of voter abstention will be higher than it has been for many elections. Higher than the pollsters at Reid Research and other agencies are willing to assume, which means that the pre-election polls will flatter the Left by a significant margin. When the true level of abstention is revealed on Election Night – especially in relation to Māori, Pasifika and Pakeha voters under 30 – the vicious destruction of the Labour Party by older, whiter and righter voters will be explained.
The flight to abstention in 2023 will reflect a turning away from politics that is likely to gather strength as Labour’s contentious legislation on Hate Speech, Three Waters and Co-Governance contributes to a political climate of unprecedented bitterness and strife. While the determination of right-wing New Zealanders to defeat the Labour Government will only be strengthened by Labour’s intransigence, the voters of the centre-left will feel increasingly uneasy about defending Jacinda Ardern’s government. As the political rancour grows, the inclination of “mainstream” voters to “sit this one out” will grow along with it.
Certainly, the overseas experience – especially in the United States – confirms that the nastier politics gets, the stronger the temptation felt by moderate voters to simply walk away from the whole business. The Right’s supporters, by contrast, are energised by their political opponents’ escalations, and typically respond with even more outrageous escalations of their own. The fear inspired by these tactics is even less conducive to normal political engagement. Voters shut their doors against the unpleasantness and determine to have nothing to do with the extremists on both sides.
The dynamic was memorably captured by W.B. Yeats in his poem “The Second Coming”:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
While Labour’s refusal to back away from its most controversial policies is mobilising right-wing voters against them, its all-too-evident failure to address the worsening problems associated with the cost of living, health, education, housing and criminal offending will be having the opposite effect on the voters in its heartland.
Among Labour’s “base”, expectations have been high that the changes promised by the party since 2017 will make their lives easier. That these changes – at least on the “transformational” scale suggested by the Prime Minister – have not eventuated, cannot help but contribute to a mood of disillusionment among “Jacinda’s” most loyal supporters. Indeed, according to the results of a survey commissioned by Stuff Media, fully 35 percent of those asked how the Prime Minister made them feel, responded by saying she made them feel “disappointed”. A third replied, “concerned”. More than a quarter said, “angry”.
To make matters even more confusing, Labour has not spent the last five years attempting to re-define itself in the manner of the Fourth Labour Government. In fact, it has done the opposite, taking every opportunity to distance itself from “Rogernomics” and reaffirm its admiration for the heroes of the Labour Movement, Michael Joseph Savage and Norman Kirk.
To older Labour supporters, this is quite simply baffling, and not a little irritating. Many of them lived through the government of Norman Kirk, and are well aware that Jacinda Ardern’s period in office – putting to one side the exogenous shocks of the Christchurch Mosque Massacre and the Covid-19 Pandemic – has been nothing like “Big Norm’s”.
Undeterred, the PM continues to insist that hers is a government in the finest Labour tradition. In her speech to the party conference on Sunday, 6 November 2022, she reiterated her government’s claim to the historical mantle of its predecessors:
On the 9th floor of the Beehive building in Wellington, sitting directly behind my desk, is a picture of Michael Joseph Savage. You could say he’s on my shoulder but also ever so slightly in my ear.
Of course it was Savage and the first Labour Government that lifted New Zealand out of the depths of the Great Depression. Not by cutting taxes and services, but by investing in jobs, and building a social welfare safety net. They built the country’s first state home. And not long after these social reforms - New Zealand’s living standards were among some of the highest in the world. Not for the few, but for the many.
The Finance Minister who supported Savage, Walter Nash, then led Labour’s second government as it continued to build our nation’s social welfare system, while advocating on the world stage for peace over war after World War 2.
It was Norman Kirk and a Labour government who tilted the country towards a modern future with reforms of trade, health, the arts, and education. They worked hard to foster a renewed national identity and partnership with Maōri - all the while challenging global evil such as apartheid and nuclear testing.
It was a fight David Lange continued, making New Zealand nuclear free, while also righting the wrongs of the past by legalising homosexuality, and fully abolishing the death penalty.
Virtually every claim made by the Prime Minister in the passage quoted above is either historically contestable, or just plain, flat-out, wrong. For that very reason, it is a powerful illustration of the deeply flawed thinking that has led the Ardern Government to the brink of electoral ruin.
At its heart is a cynical contempt for the truth, and a smug conviction that the falsehoods scattered through it will not be noticed by anybody whose opinion matters. Labour’s leaders have been able to get away with this sort of rhetorical flim-flam since 2017 because the intervention of the unpredictable – Christchurch, Covid – helpfully distracted the country from its government’s moral vacuity. The longer the electorate has had to take stock of its government’s ethics, however, the less it has found to like.
It is certainly no accident, that on the issues that have so divided the nation – Hate Speech, Three Waters, Co-Governance – Jacinda Ardern and her ministers have been uncharacteristically tongue-tied. The redefinition of democracy which lies at the heart of all three proposals requires attributes this government simply does not possess. The intellectual ability to frame and present an argument. The straightforwardness needed to persuade even one’s own voters to accept it.
Small wonder New Zealanders feel disappointed, concerned, and angered by their Prime Minister. And, no wonder at all that, come Election Day, a very much larger number of them than usual will steadfastly decline to make their way to the nearest polling booth and cast a vote.
Yes, as they watch their older, whiter, and righter neighbours set off to destroy the Sixth Labour Government, they will experience a pang of guilt.
But, it will pass.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 8 November 2022.