Will next year’s general election be shaken up by rising populism? In line with the uncertainty of our times, there’s no consensus about whether New Zealand will get its own version of Trump, Brexit, and the various other anti-Establishment political movements around the world.
“Establishment” and “political class” are quickly becoming the big terms of 2016. We are grappling to understand whether this new-found concentration on elites is going to translate into electoral surges for radicals in this country. There’s a clear division amongst political commentators and observers.
To put one side of the argument, last Friday my Political Roundup column provided “Ten reasons why a popular revolt could happen in New Zealand” – see: Could anti-Establishment politics hit New Zealand?
Newshub’s Lloyd Burr looked at this issue, and reported my belief that “New Zealand is ripe for some kind of revolt, some kind of populist politician coming in and invigorating people with a new message against elites” – see: Is the anti-establishment movement coming to NZ? This item also reports on whether Gareth Morgan or Winston Peters might well channel such political discontent.
But not everyone is convinced. So what are others saying about the impact of this global rise of populism on New Zealand politics?
No room for anti-Establishment politics in New Zealand
Possibly the strongest counter to the argument that an anti-Establishment politics could emerge, comes from RNZ News Director Brent Edwards in his column, Could New Zealand face its own Trumping? He says that we probably shouldn’t worry about or expect the emergence of an anti-Establishment politician here.
Part of his argument is that New Zealand already elects politicians with an element of anti-Establishment politics, so why would New Zealanders go any further an elect any sort of Trump-like figure? He says: “Aspects of Mr Trump's approach have been and are already here, although not in the blatantly misogynist and racist guise that has so upset so many in the US and around the world. But elements of his approach are not unusual in this country.”
Edwards draws parallels, not surprisingly, between Trump and Winston Peters, especially in terms of their commonality on immigration and globalisation, and suggests they share a similar voter base. But more interestingly, he draws parallels between Trump and other politicians such as Robert Muldoon, Don Brash, and John Key.
On Muldoon, Edwards says, he “promised to protect New Zealanders and leave the country no worse than he found it. Politically he was supported by Rob's mob, predominantly a group of mainly middle-aged white men worried about the impact of economic change on their livelihoods. They turned up in large numbers to his election meetings, which were often loud and troublesome. It was not unusual for members of Rob's mob to physically eject protesters – with his encouragement - from his meetings.”
On Key, Edwards says he bore a similarity with Trump in promising a "brighter future" on his election in 2008, and just like the American, he campaigned as an outsider and non-politician. Furthermore: “Key also promoted himself as a successful businessman – a multi-millionaire who would take a business approach to government and do deals. The news media and the public bought the spin. Again, sound familiar? More recently, Mr Key also described his repeated pulling of a waitress' ponytail as "a bit of fun", while Mr Trump described his crude remarks about women as "locker room talk".”
Part of Brent Edwards’ argument is that the MMP electoral system is designed and operates to moderately incorporate anti-Establishment rebellions into the party system: “MMP has allowed the opportunity to give voice to the disenchanted - those who President-elect Trump referred to as the "forgotten men and women" of the US.” Furthermore: “MMP has allowed political parties which represent and exploit fears about immigration, free trade and the like to have their voices heard. Even if an exact replica of Mr Trump did emerge here, he or she would not likely gain enough support to completely turn politics on its head. After all, MMP was introduced to Germany after World War II to prevent the rise of another Hitler. It should also prevent the rise of another Donald Trump.”
Similarly, writing a couple of weeks ago, Newstalk ZB’s Felix Marwick argued that our electoral system would be a buffer against radicalism: “Those of the more radical political views, which under FPP, would have lurked within the factional wings of the two main parties are now out in the open in their own political vehicles. While it’s not to say that radicals still don't exist within the two main parties, it's fair to surmise National and Labour radicals of the 2010s are but pale shadows of their predecessors three decades ago. MMP has been a safety valve. It's allowed for the fringe, the niche and the extremes of left and right to have a voice, and it's done so in a manner where the major political parties are no longer so vulnerable to capture by extremism. For that we should be truly thankful” – see: MMP is a paradise compared to the political duopoly in the US.
And see the Listener’s earlier editorial tribute to an electoral system that is a “precious safety valve” in not allowing public grievances “to fester and magnify to unhealthy dimensions” – see: Three cheers for MMP.
John Key’s ability to stave off the appeal of a Trump figure gaining ground in New Zealand is stressed by Fran O'Sullivan, who argued last month that: Key has medicine for the Trump malaise. She emphasises Key’s policy U-turns that are aimed at undermining growing electoral discontent: “John Key is out to inoculate National against any eruption of the ‘Trump factor’ at next year's election. That was the subtext behind his moves to finally tighten up on immigration and plough some more Government cash into building houses.”
But O’Sullivan does admit there is still evidence of “widespread discomfort over the plight of young Kiwis who cannot get onto the Auckland housing ladder without taking on massive debt. There is a growing sense that the system is unfairly rigged against the young and those without the means to get ahead in metropolitan areas like Auckland. As indeed it is.”
Law lecturer Mamari Stephens argues that there are “two main bulwarks, or defences” to the rise of a radical politician – see her blog post: Old King Log, New King Stork. Trump’s lesson for Aotearoa. Her first bulwark is that New Zealanders vote in greater proportion than those in the US: “Trump became possible because 10 million Obama supporters decided not to vote at all, compared to 2008. In fact, only 56.9% of eligible voters cast a ballot at all in this US election. This compares with 77.9% of NZ registered voters turning out in NZ’s last general election in 2014.”
Stephens’ second bulwark in New Zealand is her belief that, unlike in the US, there is no great disconnect between the public and elites here. She believes that there is a strong connection – at least at the moment – between “our educated, liberal, politically engaged, high-income urbanites and the rest of us.”
New Zealand’s out-of-touch political class
There is no doubt that the anti-Establishment victories around the world mean a greater scrutiny has been applied to New Zealand’s politicians and what is increasingly being labelled the “political class”. This term refers not only to the politicians themselves, but also the milieu surrounding them, enabling their rule – the spin-doctors and other professionals and public bureaucrats.
Opinion leaders are beginning to examine just who the Establishment is in New Zealand. For the very best such examination, see Heather du Plessis-Allan’s column, We created Donald Trump, which explains the relationship between the political class and wider revolt.
She explains the rise of the political class: “We were once were ruled by kings, tzars, emperors, feudal lords and communist cliques. We got rid of them because they told us what to do, failed to care for us adequately and kept the likes of us out of their exclusive clubs. We replaced them with democracy. But, over time, democracy has created its own kind of rulers: the political class. The politicians turned professional and learned how to answer our questions without telling us the truth. They started using taxpayer money to bail out reckless bankers and businessmen. But – however frustrating you might find that – the politicians could get away with it, because they played by the rules.”
Duncan Garner appears to agree: “there are massive warnings and lessons here for our ruling elite – both those in power and in the media. Get out more and get in touch with those who gave up on democracy a long time ago. Winston Peters did this brilliantly during the Northland by-election. He upstaged National because they'd had forgotten their voters and taken them for granted. They were arrogant” – see: A hitchhiker's guide to the year of the underdog.
Garner also says that “Next year's election is all set up for Peters to be a real winner. He will be 72. That won't matter – that will help him. Economist Gareth Morgan will also likely contest for the grumpy disenfranchised vote too – don't rule him out either. And National, Labour and the Greens' dismissive reaction to Morgan shows how little they have learned out of this Trump victory. One person, one vote. It's still powerful when it's exercised. Especially when voters are tired of the same old bullshit and their lives stay the same or get worse.”
According to Massey University political scientist Grant Duncan, the New Zealand political class needs to make sure it is listening to the masses: “We too have a large – and so far silent – working class that's been disadvantaged by neoliberal reforms. Winston Peters is poised to make political capital from anti-Auckland resentment and a distrust of government around the regions. As a nation, we have some rebuilding to do in communities around the country. We need to listen carefully to voices that have been ignored by the champions of globalisation. If our political class fails to do that, they too will see a spanner chucked into the works” – see: Trump election confirms neoliberalism on the way out.
But it would be a mistake to think that the political class can easily stave off the arrival of “crisis of authority” by mere tinkering, according to Morgan Godfrey: “No one should think New Zealand is immune to this kind of turn and responding to these dramatic upheavals with the centrepieces of late twentieth-century governance – a tax credit here, a royal commission there, a bold statement to the Press Gallery – is inadequate. Those left still using them might as well try to find their balance in an storm-whipped sea” – see: Our dangerous Donald Trump interregnum.
Auckland University’s Jennifer Lees-Marshment also asks if we’re looking at a case of rising “dissatisfaction amongst voters” – see: Winston Is Coming. She concludes: “If so, NZ has to watch out. Right now the Labour opposition is failing to convince voters it is responsive enough and can offer a credible alternative government. And the National government, whilst seen as capable of governing, is increasingly out of touch on important issues like buying and renting a place to live and travelling to work. Key doesn’t accept there is an issue, saying traffic in Auckland has got a bit slower. So the seeds of discontent have been sown. And Winston is ready to harvest them (see his Facebook post)… So this is a warning to John Key: get your act together and start acknowledging the problems or not only will you risk losing, but New Zealand society as a whole.”
Earlier this week, Newshub political editor Patrick Gower was asked by University of Auckland student radio station bFM: “Do you think a similar anti-Establishment bloc exists in NZ?” – you can listen to his interview here: Gower on Trump and New Zealand.
Here’s Gower’s main answer: “Yes, I do… Does a similar bloc exist that, you know, could get rid of the Key Government or something along those lines? Maybe. Or could Winston get to something like 20 per cent?... Could people be annoyed enough at what’s happening in New Zealand that they fall away from one flank of National, fall away from, and maybe even from the Greens, and come behind Winston and say ‘hey we just want you to give Key a kick up the bum – send him a message’. I think that would be the likely scenario, rather than a total boilover – you know, throwing out the Government…. He wants it to be: Trump, Brexit, New Zealand”.
Part of the possible revolt will be based on economic dispossession in New Zealand, as it is globally, says economist Shamubeel Eaqub in his column, Economic dark ages threaten.
Eaqub says: “Economic progress is not widely shared. This is affecting politics. We are witnessing the end of neoliberalism. Those looking for an alternative to the liberal consensus – which has taken hold in Western democracies since the 1970s and 1980s – are likely to be older, living in the provinces, and with less education. But it's a mistake to think they are stupid or just gun toting yokels riding in their pickup trucks. They are angry at being left behind. At being dispossessed of a way to live their life with dignity. The arrogant and mistaken views of pollsters and the mainstream media in their coverage of Brexit and Trump show that the breadth of anger and political consequences are misunderstood. The economic, social and political reality for those who have been left behind is in stark contrast to the urban, elitist and successful narrative spun on the average and the aggregate.”
So, should the Prime Minister be worried?, asked Tracy Watkins in her very strong column, A country divided: Donald Trump's America and the rest. She says that Key is no longer easily able to position himself as an anti-politician: “after eight years in power (nine by the time of next year's election) Key would have lost his appeal as the anti-politician, which is what helped deliver National to power in a landslide in 2008. Like Key when he first entered politics, the allure of Trump for many was his wealth; they saw a man who did not need the job for the money so it was easier to believe of him that he was motivated to do what he said, which was fix a broken system. The risk for Key in going for a fourth term is that the appeal of his back story diminishes with every year; the longer he stays on the more he looks like any other politician, clinging onto power for the sake of power.”
Watkins also deals with the question of which political figure might channel discontent, suggesting that it’s not clear that any of the current parliamentarians could do so credibly: “For Andrew Little's Labour then there is no obvious salvation in the lesson from America. We had our own anti PC eruption in 2008 when voters rejected the Clark government's so called ‘social engineering’ - a label which has stuck, even if we have moved on since then. Of all our politicians, Winston Peters is closest to articulating the mood that gave rise to Trump/Brexit. But it's hard to claim a mantle as the anti-establishment candidate as a former foreign minister, Treasurer and deputy prime minister. That's why Peters' decision to accept the ‘baubles of office’ as Foreign Minister in the Clark government caused such a deep rift within the party. So if not Peters who? Gareth Morgan? If he stops talking about cats, maybe. But the lesson from Trump is that we may not even know their name yet.”
This will not stop the ongoing search for an existing anti-Establishment figure in the current Parliament – see, for example, Jenna Lynch’s Is Andrew Little New Zealand's Trump? And others will look to the reality TV and celebrity media sphere as a breeding ground for a local Trump – see Bryan Gould’s recent column: Could reality television put a Donald Trump into New Zealand politics?
Finally, the last words should go to the two wannabe NZ Trumps – see Newshub’s Winston Peters on US election: 'You had a revolution today' and Gareth Morgan’s What can we learn from Trump’s victory?
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