THE TWO MAJOR PARTIES, Labour and National, are already flexing their political muscles in response to the minor parties’ policies. Chris Hipkins has made his “Captain’s Call”, nixing any possibility of a Wealth Tax or a Capital Gains Tax while he holds the top job. Christopher Luxon, meanwhile, is indicating that Act can go whistle for its “Referendum on the Treaty” policy. Supposedly wise old heads are backing these unilateral rejections with dire warnings of what would happen to any party which, rather than surrender what they flagged to their voters were matters of principle, dared to send the country back to the polling-booths.
Well, New Zealand may be heading into an election in which conventional wisdom gets stood on its head. It happens every now and again, usually in response to sudden and disturbing shifts in the way the world is seen to work.
Take the two great election landslides of the early 1970s: Labour’s crushing win in 1972; and National’s exact reversal of Labour’s 23-seat majority just three years later in 1975.
In 1972, Norman Kirk had made himself the avatar of the popular conviction, growing in strength since 1969, that it was “time for a change”. Somehow, Kirk was able to represent both the young voters’ impatience with the stifling post-war consensus, and the broader electorate’s expectation that life for ordinary New Zealanders could be improved without upsetting the mixed-economy apple-cart.
Just two years later, in the wake of the Oil Shock of 1973, Muldoon convinced those same ordinary New Zealanders that only he knew how to right the overturned apple-cart, gather-up the scattered apples, and restore something approximating the broad political consensus of the 1960s.
By 1984 it was clear to all but the most steadfast Muldoon loyalists that the rest of the world was now working in a very different way, and that New Zealand could no longer afford to pretend that it wasn’t. This time it was Labour’s David Lange who was offering “consensus”.
It was a promise with as little substance as Muldoon’s 1975 pledge of “New Zealand the way YOU want it.” Lange’s promise was, however, much more cynical that Muldoon’s, who actually believed it was possible to restore the status-quo-ante. Lange always knew that when he and Roger Douglas were through with it, the mixed-economy apple-cart would be a smoking ruin – along with the post-war consensus.
The neoliberal consensus which emerged from the reforms of 1984-1993 proved to be as durable as the Keynesian social-democratic consensus it replaced. Next year, 2024, will mark the fortieth anniversary of “Rogernomics”, a status-quo spanning two generations.
During that time, neoliberalism has shaped a society containing far fewer “winners” than Keynesianism. Unlike the “losers” of earlier periods, however, neoliberalism’s victims have failed to mount a successful fightback. Challenges to the neoliberal order, mounted by populist political parties of both the Right (NZ First) and the Left (Alliance, Greens) attracted insufficient electoral support to halt the steady decay of the country’s social, economic and physical infrastructure. A process which National and Labour, alike, did shamefully little to arrest.
Herein lies the problem. If not enough is done to halt its progress, infrastructural decay leads inexorably to infrastructural collapse. New Zealand is perilously close to passing the point beyond which collapse becomes an inevitability. The only solutions are political, but, being complicit in both the introduction and preservation of neoliberalism, Labour and National no longer appear equal to the task of responding decisively to its failures. What’s more, their easy dominance of the MMP political environment gives the two major parties very little incentive to try. The voices to their right and left, urging them to either advance neoliberalism even further (Act), or roll it back aggressively (Greens, Te Pāti Māori) can safely be ignored.
At the heart of the problem lies the seemingly inexhaustible loyalty of the major parties’ core supporters. Their willingness to go on bearing the burdens loaded upon them by their respective party’s egregious policy failures, no matter what, is reflected in the fact that upwards of half the New Zealand electorate votes exactly the same way election after election after election.
It is the confidence of the major parties in the “rusted-on” character of their core support that causes them to treat their “natural” coalition partners with such disdain. The leaders of National and Labour simply do not believe in the existence of any combination of political circumstances capable of inducing a fatal collapse in their electoral support, and/or its decisive migration to one or the other of the ideological offsiders. It is this confidence that allows them to veto policies deemed too “extreme” well in advance of any votes being cast.
Except that loyalty, like infrastructural decay, has its limits. There are elements in all the minor parties whose willingness to swallow the usual dead rats dumped upon their plates by National and Labour is at an end. These are the MPs and party activists who advocate moving to the cross benches if, as usual, the senior coalition partner insists upon their party abandoning both its policies and the principles informing them.
The rebels preferred strategy is as brutal as it is simple. If the senior coalition partner attempts to rule out a core policy objective – as Chris Hipkins is attempting to rule out the Greens’ Wealth Tax – then the junior coalition partner will publicly announce that, once again, policies desperately needed by the nation are being rejected. Rather than capitulate, however, the smaller party is willing to precipitate a new election. Let the people of New Zealand deliver their verdict on whether or not these policies should stand – by voting for the party promoting them.
The conventional wisdom holds that any minor party attempting such “blackmail” would be wiped-out by a furious electorate. In normal circumstances, the conventionally wise would likely be proved correct. The key question, therefore, is: “Are we living in normal circumstances?” Or, has a majority of the electorate tired of swapping executive power between Labour and National, only to see the resulting governments continue to talk big, and deliver sod all?
If one, or a combination, of the minor parties, puts it to the electorate: “If you want action on the cost-of-living, housing, health, education and climate-change; if you want to keep the hands of the neoliberal establishment off the handbrake; well then, give us the tools and we will finish the job.” How many voters would oblige?
Since 1996, New Zealanders have voted for change and received only more of the same. In 2020, and in spite of the conventionally wise declaring it impossible under MMP, New Zealanders gave Labour an absolute majority – to get the job done. Has any government ever promised so much and delivered so little?
More and more, conventional wisdom sounds like conventional folly. In the end, no political party is entitled to people’s votes. Loyalty should be earned and renewed, not given blindly and regardless of repeated failures and betrayals.
Labour was once a minor party, until it convinced the voters that it meant what it said and, by keeping its promises, proved itself worthy of their trust.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 17 July 2023.