HOW WILL THE GENERAL ELECTION of 14 October 2023 be remembered? Will it be included among the great “Change Elections” of New Zealand political history? As a “Status Quo Election” that leaves the incumbent government and its policies in place? Or, is 2023 destined to be a “Restoration Election”? One that returns the country to the status quo ante – how things were before.
More often than not, New Zealanders deliver “Status Quo” election results: opting to keep incumbent governments and their policy agendas where they are. Having elected a political party to power, most New Zealanders are reluctant to acknowledge their poor judgement by throwing it out again just three years later.
Nowhere was this Kiwi preference for maintaining the status quo more in evidence than during the extraordinary 12-year stint of the National Government led by Keith Holyoake and (briefly) Jack Marshall from November 1960 until November 1972. Nine year terms are not, however, uncommon. Generally-speaking, a New Zealand government has to work pretty hard to secure its own defeat.
At this point, students of New Zealand’s political history will raise the examples of the two short-lived Labour Governments of 1957-60 and 1972-75. Both of these examples require explanation – not least because the first is an example of a “Restoration Election”, and the second of a “Change Election”.
The First National Government was in power from 1949 until 1957. Its leader, Sid Holland, was a hard-bitten and ruthless right-wing politician who had once been a member of the quasi-fascist New Zealand Legion. The Labour Government he defeated in 1949 had been in power for 14 years (including the six years of World War II) and Holland was obliged to pledge allegiance to Labour’s Welfare State before the New Zealand electorate would countenance his party’s victory.
By far the most significant episode of the First National Government was the divisive Waterfront Lock-out of 1951. Had the Social Credit Political league not entered the electoral fray in 1954 (claiming 11 percent of the popular vote!) it is probable that Holland’s government would not have lasted more than 5 years. Certainly, by 1957 New Zealanders were ready for a “Restoration Election” – voting (albeit narrowly) to return the Labour Party, of happy memory, to office.
Though led by Walter Nash, one of the leading lights of the First Labour Government, the Second Labour Government proved to be an austere, sharp-elbowed administration, quite willing to implement the unpopular measures needed to steady New Zealand’s wobbly economy. Finance Minister Arnold Nordmeyer’s infamous “Black Budget” of 1958 was not what Labour voters were expecting from their old “friends”, and two years later they took their revenge by restoring Holyoake’s National Party to power.
By 1972, however, Labour voters and a large chunk of the electorate (especially those under 30) believed the country was long overdue for change. Norman Kirk, a curious blend of social conservatism and economic radicalism, and a bona fide visionary when it came to charting a new course for New Zealand in the wider world, was ready and able to lead Labour to a crushing election victory.
Tragically for Labour (and some would say the nation) the “Oil Shocks” of 1973, compounded by Kirk’s sudden death in 1974, caused the electorate to veer wildly away from Labour to embrace the fierce populism of the new National leader, Rob Muldoon, who promised to give them “New Zealand the way YOU want it”.
The fate of the Second and Third Labour Government’s drove home the message that when New Zealand voters say they want change, what they really mean is: change that doesn’t cost too much; change that leaves them better-off. When they vote to restore the status quo ante, however, they show very few signs of knowing what they want. No single voter’s nostalgia is ever quite the same as another’s, and no government can ever honestly promise, or successfully deliver, the past.
Never was this proposition more rigorously tested than by Muldoon, who ended up twisting New Zealand into all kinds of economic and social knots in a doomed attempt to leave the country in no worse condition than he found it. By 1984, after nearly nine years of “Muldoonism”, the desire for change extended right across the ideological spectrum. Partly, on the strength of David Lange’s rhetoric, but mostly on account of it not being National, Labour was swept into power. With a turnout of 93.7 percent, 1984 was indisputably the biggest Change Election of the post-war period.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins spoke no more than the truth this past week when he warned those berating Labour for failing to deliver the “transformation” promised by his predecessor, Jacinda Ardern, to be careful what they wished for. As he rightly pointed out, the government of David Lange and Roger Douglas really did transform New Zealand – and it’s the consequences of that transformation (inequality, poverty, homelessness) that are driving the present demands for a new transformation.
The Neoliberal Revolution of 1984-1993, and its constitutional offspring, MMP, complicated but did not obliterate the basic typology of New Zealand elections. For a fair proportion of the past 40 years, a not inconsiderable number of New Zealanders have been searching for a combination of political parties capable of restoring the New Zealand that neoliberalism destroyed. How else could the redoubtable Winston Peters and his NZ First party have arrived, departed, and returned so often, were it not for the enduring nostalgia for pre-1984 New Zealand? In its earliest incarnations, even Act was a restorationist party: hungering for a return to the days of Sir Roger and his all-conquering policy blitzkriegs.
The problem, of course, was that the revolution of 1984-1993 had well-and-truly put the New Zealand electorate off the whole idea of mandating “Big Change”. No matter how earnestly Jim Anderton’s Alliance and the Greens may have hoped that 1999 would signal major economic and social change, Helen Clark’s and Michael Cullen’s Labour Party understood that its job was simply to deliver a more respectable status quo.
After nine years of Labour rule, National’s John Key was similarly convinced. “More of the same – but without Jim’s, Winston’s and Don Brash’s antics!” That was the message Key received and understood. Between 1999 and 2017, a period spanning 18 years, there was only one change of government – from Labour to National in 2008.
What’s more, and in spite of its eventual outcome, the election of 2017 was also a Status Quo Election. Had Peters followed the precedents of MMP, he would have thrown in his lot with the National Party’s 44 percent, not with Labour’s 37 percent.
Those who lament “Jacinda’s” failed promises should be more forgiving. The momentum for change: that sense of pent-up energy just waiting to be unleashed which was there in spades in 1972 and 1984; was nowhere to be found in 2017. On Election Night 2017, Ardern comported herself like a woman who had saved her party from humiliation, but lost the electoral contest fair and square. Winston’s decision may have been a triumph for electoral arithmetic, but it was also a sad defeat for political common-sense.
And then came Covid-19, and common sense – along with just about everything else – went out the window.
With the 2023 election just six weeks away, what is it that most New Zealand voters are seeking? Change, Restoration, or the Status Quo? From this distance, it is very difficult to identify anything more dramatic than a desire for stability – and normalcy. Act, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori may be seeking “real” change, but the rest of the country appears to be asking itself the same question as Winston Peters: “Is Christopher Luxon likely to make a better fist of sailing this battered old ship-of-state than Captain Chris “Chippy” Hipkins?”
Here’s hoping that all of us get it right.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 4 September 2023.