BY THE END of this week, or the next, New Zealand will have a government. It is unlikely to be a pleasant one. The three political leaders, and the three political parties they lead, comprise the most unlikely trinity. Whether they are able to work together constructively for more than a few months is a dubious proposition – at best. Such overarching visions of New Zealand’s future as exist among them are more likely to divide than unite the members of the coalition government. In a nation already polarised politically – and growing more so by the day – the new regime’s prospectus will struggle to find long-term investors.
National, the new coalition’s dominant partner, has become a party of echoes. Most obviously of the highly successful government of John Key. But, Christopher Luxon has very little in common with Key. Where his political mentor had a keen strategic sense and an instinctive feel for where the majority of his compatriots wanted to go, Luxon is utterly lost without his talking-points. In their absence he reaches for the most banal tropes of the suburban Tory. His ad-lib political observations are peppered with the commonplace insults of his class: “whiney” and “bottom-feeders” being the most memorable examples.
Ask this man for his vision of New Zealand and he will blather-on about building a future where hard-working New Zealanders can “get ahead”. While that is indisputably the baseline ambition of every sensible citizen – who would want themselves and their family to go backwards?! “Getting ahead” is not, however, a vision.
Indeed, the whole structure of the National Party’s desideratum resonates with prejudice and resentment. Identifying only the “hard-working” for advancement presupposes a society containing more than its fair share of shirkers, grifters and malingerers. Luxon and his party see no reason why these sorts – these “bottom-feeders” – should get anywhere at all. Most certainly, they should not be allowed to get “ahead” of all those hard working Kiwis.
Mind you, those “hard workers” may not be the individuals ordinary working-class people think of when they hear the words tripping off Luxon’s tongue. When they hear someone described as a hard worker they may think of their neighbour who gets up when it’s still dark to clean offices in the central city, puts in a shift at the local supermarket, and then prepares the evening meal for her family. That’s a lot of work, and all of it is hard. She’s putting in 14-hour days, six days a week, for just enough to pay the bills. She’s a hard worker, but she’s not “getting ahead”.
In the mind of the National Party’s ideologues, however, “hard work” means something quite different. It refers to the mental agility and stamina required to manage people and resources. Only in the rarest of cases will those resources have been amassed by personal effort. In most cases they’ll belong to the shareholders of the corporation that hired its CEO. Making those resources grow is his job. It means reading reports, attending meetings, making decisions. Often in entails travelling to other cities, staying in hotels, eating out at restaurants. Putting in 14-16 hour days is not uncommon. Where the CEO’s job and the job of the working-class cleaner differ, however, is in how much they get paid for doing it.
For the CEO, earning well into six – sometimes seven – figures, “getting ahead” does not mean being able to put aside a few hundred dollars for family emergencies. No, the “getting ahead” he has in mind means arranging for his income tax to be slashed by tens-of-thousands of dollars. He resents his hard-earned money going to all those “whiney” “bottom-feeders” who haven’t so much lost their “mojo” as never possessed the faintest idea as to what it even means. All those shirkers, grifters and malingerers who have never done an honest day’s work in their lives. All those people without a clue about what people with “mojo” (which some of us refer to as ‘luck’) can do – or what they deserve for doing it.
For the most part, National’s politicians are too clever to say too much of this where anybody unsympathetic to the trials and tribulations of being “well off” might be listening. They expect their supporters (and in most cases these expectations are well-founded) to be able to read the sub-text of their otherwise anodyne political pronouncements. To be a National party member, a National Party voter, means not having, or even wanting, to have things spelt out too clearly. National’s politics is a bit like the hedges, fences and walls they erect around their properties. They are there to conceal what lies behind – lest the little people start getting big ideas about how much wealth is too much wealth.
The difference between National and Act is that the latter is seized by a curious determination to be honest about power and wealth. Raising hedges, fences and walls suggests an unwholesome pusillanimity when it comes to individual prowess. Let the little people see what “mojo” can achieve. Wealth and power is nothing to be ashamed of, indeed, the lack of it can be read as a confirmation of individual deficiency. Act members, Act voters, are comfortable with the idea that all human-beings are not born equal. Nor would they want them to be. Yes, they believe in democracy – but only because it is the best protection against aristocracy and oligarchy: the best political system for allowing the superior individual (rather than the “hard worker”) to “get ahead” without being held back by the leg-irons of class, race and/or gender privilege.
Which leaves us with the classic conservatives of NZ First. Winston Peters and his followers aren’t so much interested in changing the world – or even themselves – as they are in protecting the things they believe should not be changed. They are the sort of people who believe there is a place for everything, and everyone; and that everything, and everyone, should be made as comfortable and secure as possible in that place.
Peters and NZ First despise Act for many reasons, but primarily because, like Mark Zuckerberg, Act believes in moving fast and breaking things. As far as NZ First is concerned, societies cannot be made, societies can only be allowed to grow. And things that grow are not assisted by being hacked at, pruned or cut down. That’s why they’re suspicious of Labour and its recklessly ambitious plans to “build” a better world. But, it is also why they’re reluctant to trust National. Because all-too-often National smiles and smiles at the New Zealand people – and yet proves to be nothing but a villainous pander to the appetites of the ruling-class. The only justification for change, in the eyes of Peters and his people, is to make sure that everything remains the same.
Three politicians, one from National, one from Act, one from NZ First, walk into a bar. Sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn’t it? The punchline, however, is that all three politicians walk out of that bar as the leaders of New Zealand’s next government.
This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project on Monday, 13 November 2023.