LOOKING BACK over the five years this government has been in office, it’s hard not to feel depressed. Given the mess the Baby Boomers made of New Zealand between 1984 and 1990, it was assumed that the first Generation X government would, at least, know what not to do. Having learned their trade at the feet of Helen Clark and Michael Cullen, Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson and Chris Hipkins should have been immune to the allure of grand ideological schemes; and known better than to make promises they couldn’t keep.
“Under-promise, and over-deliver.” That was Helen Clark’s mantra for the 15 years she led (that is to say utterly dominated) the Labour Party. In a nation still enthralled to neoliberalism, the formula made perfect sense. Full-on social-democracy, as the Third Labour Government discovered, was verboten – even in the hey-day of Keynesianism. Thatcher and Reagan made social-democracy even harder.
In its essence, Rogernomics represented Labour’s complete capitulation to the new economic and political order. Henceforth, the best social-democrats would be able to offer were limited programmes which, while mostly making life easier for capitalists, occasionally scattered a few crumbs in the direction of the poor.
By under-promising and over-delivering, a Labour government could present itself as both sensible and competent. Not much might be on offer, but if you said you were going to deliver – and you did – then your voters weren’t just grateful, they were impressed. The days of big dreams might be over, but Clark’s clear-headed grasp of her own and her party’s limitations, made it possible for some of the people’s smaller dreams to come true.
What was it that persuaded Jacinda Ardern to exactly reverse Helen Clark’s formula? Even with the winds of history at your back, over-promising the electorate is a silly thing to do. No government should ever attempt to defy Murphy’s Law, especially in circumstances where its supposed servants feel morally obliged to wreck any attempt to change the status-quo. If anything can go wrong with an unorthodox left-wing government’s policy, its neoliberal public servants are bound to make damn sure it will.
It is astonishing that Ardern, Robertson and Hipkins never appreciated how many of the Fifth Labour Government’s achievements required only a modest reconfiguration of already existing administrative machinery. Clark and Cullen avoided, wherever possible, projects that required a major reshaping of the physical world. They would never have been so foolhardy as to promise the construction of 100,000 “affordable” houses. Who was going to build them? More to the point, who was going to pay for them? Neoliberalism had shut down the active state, it wasn’t about to start it up again.
And yet, Ardern and Robertson did nothing but raise expectations. New Zealand was going to be “transformed”. Kindness and wellbeing were going to replace neoliberalism’s watchwords of “effectiveness” and “efficiency”. Poverty, itself, was in the Prime Minister’s cross-hairs. After 30 years of the dismal science’s overcast skies, the sun was poised to break through. It was going to be a beautiful day! Labour’s whole front-bench seemed to be on Ecstasy.
But just as Labour’s big promises were on the point of being revealed as hollow, effectively scuppering the Government’s chances of re-election, big events intervened to restore its fortunes. It is hard to come up with a better example of ill winds blowing a floundering government so much good. Certainly, Ardern’s response to the Christchurch Terror Attacks, and then to the Covid-19 Pandemic, drove Labour’s failures from the public mind.
The Government’s performance was aided immeasurably by the neoliberal playbook being uncharacteristically thin on how to deal with terrorist horrors and killer viruses. In extremis, Ardern and her advisers fell back on ideas and responses inimical to the radical individualism of the neoliberal ideology. People were suddenly introduced to the spiritual and material benefits of collectivism and solidarity. “They are Us” proved mightier than the Aussie gunman’s semi-automatic. It felt good to be part of a “team of five million”.
Ardern, Robertson and Hipkins, with their colleagues holding on for dear life behind them, rode these mighty exogenous tidal-waves all the way to an absolute parliamentary majority – which turned out to be just about the worst thing that could have happened to them. Absent Winston Peters and his white-knuckle grip on the political hand-brake, Labour lost little time in showing the country just how important NZ First’s restraining influence had been. Over the next two years, convinced they were ten-feet-tall and bulletproof, Ardern’s government proved itself unsafe at any speed.
At the heart of Labour’s political delinquency was its conviction that the events of 2019 and 2020 had conferred upon the party’s leadership an unchallengeable moral authority. That the groups it was marginalising and (in their own eyes) persecuting: conservative Pakeha males; the militantly unvaccinated; traditional feminists; fundamentalist Christians; believers in freedom of expression; supporters of the National and Act parties; homeowning Baby Boomers; just might, together, add up to a majority of the electorate, did not slow them down.
Indeed, the refusal of these deplorables to acknowledge the Government’s moral superiority made its members very angry. Labour found the anti-vaxxer occupation of Parliament Grounds in February-March 2022 especially confronting. The naked hatred and contempt directed at them by some of the protesters left many parliamentarians convinced that such people needed to be silenced. The defenders of free speech were allowing crazed conspiracy theorists and the spreaders of misinformation and disinformation to poison the public wells. A line needed to be drawn.
More rational, but equally problematic, was Labour’s Māori Caucus’ determination to take advantage of the party’s parliamentary majority to quicken the pace of decolonisation and indigenisation. This was necessary, they told their Pakeha colleagues, if the party was serious about forging a credible partnership between Māori and the Crown. Unwilling to risk accusations of racism, most of Labour’s caucus acquiesced. Any misgivings they may have harboured about co-governance, Three Waters, He Puapua and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, remained unacknowledged and unvoiced.
Only Labour’s steady decline in the opinion polls offers the slightest hope that the almost manic quality of its parliamentarians’ behaviour might be recognised for what it so clearly is: electorally suicidal. If not, then Roger Hall’s description of the Labour Party in his 1977 stage play, Middle Age Spread, may yet be applied to the bizarre mixture of febrility and fortitude that characterised Jacinda Ardern’s manic ministry:
Honestly the Labour Party remind me of a documentary I saw on television about sleeping sickness. All these people who’d been half asleep for twenty years were given this new wonder drug and they all came alive and sang and danced around for a bit … and then the drug wore off and Zap! Back to sleep for another twenty years.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 8 December 2022.