30 December 2023

New Zealand politics in 2024

2023 was a year when New Zealand voters most adamantly said they wanted change. The near personality-cult around Jacinda Ardern had well and truly eroded, as the rhetoric around the government of “kindness” (implemented using the monopoly of legitimised violence of the state) and the budget of “wellbeing” (implemented by taking money from current and future generations) seemed increasingly empty. The government so committed to ending poverty had presided over the fastest increase in personal wealth by homeowners in modern history and its primary response was to tax landlords who didn’t want to rent out their properties for fewer than ten years without selling them.  It presented itself as a victim of external forces, whether it be Covid or inflation which NZ was constantly told was due to the war in Ukraine, even though many of NZ’s trading partners had lower inflation.

Although there was a brief flurry of excitement about Chris Hipkins, appearing to recalibrate Labour on “what matters”, voters were largely unconvinced. Hipkins follows Mike Moore and Bill Rowling in leading Labour to landslide defeats, albeit for different reasons. Jacinda Ardern is nearly invisible in the country that was hailed internationally for keeping Covid out, and she is now hailed internationally by those who never visited NZ, and she is now at Harvard, whose President Claudine Gay is surrounded by scandal around claiming that if a student of Harvard advocated for genocide against Jews, it would “depend on the context” as to whether it breached its policy on harassment and bullying. Claudine Gay is also now facing accusations of plagiarism in her earlier work.

The former Prime Minister of kindness hasn’t been approached for comment on what she thinks about the head of her new gig’s ambivalence about anti-semitism, but then again why would she abandon her career of highly-paid talkfests?

Meanwhile the 2023 election saw a threeway split in positions. While 27% were willing to give Chippy a go, 15% thought Labour had been far too timid and voted for the Greens and Te Pati Maori to advance a much more radical socialist, intersectionist, ethno-nationalist set of reforms including more tax, more spending, much more transfer of power from the state and Parliament to Iwi, and radical central planning around provision of health, education and the economy, let alone expansion of the welfare state to a universal benefit. 

The Greens and Te Pati Maori saw the changes as being that Labour didn’t do enough to address what it said it was doing about key issues such as climate change, poverty and Tino Rangitiratanga.  He Puapua was seen as a step along a journey of major constitutional change that would see Iwi standing side-by-side with Parliament and the “colonising” Government sharing power. Te Pati Maori successfully sold this vision to voters in almost all of the Maori seats, but Labour couldn’t sell the path of radical change to the general population, especially when questioning or criticising the path of more co-governance was simply labelled as racist and ignored.  

Fortunately around 55% (including some of the minor parties) voted in the other direction, with a mix of centre-right incrementalism (National), classical liberalism (ACT) and a touch of conservatism and nationalism (NZ First), with a couple of bones thrown at traditionalists.  It’s a historic switch in electoral support for Labour to lose 46% of the votes it gained in 2020 as a proportion of votes cast.  

The 2020 election was extraordinary, Labour got an unprecedented majority based almost entirely on having kept Covid 19 out of the country and life being relatively normal (albeit with foreign travel restricted for all but select politicians, officials and others chosen by the Government) compared to countries enduring extended lockdowns. Labour took that as a chance to embark on a series of radical reforms that ultimately saw its undoing. As it borrowed and spent to at first save businesses from collapse during the pandemic and then stimulate the economy, it went on to literally pay people money for nothing, and then blame inflation entirely on outside factors. As it increased benefits in order to address poverty (due in no small part due to a persistent housing shortage that can be blamed on governments of all stripes over the previous 25 years). it was no surprise that as baby boomers reached retirement age, a shortage of staff would emerge, as a generation withdrew from the labour force (bolstered by National Superannuation and inflated housing prices) and a growing number simply opted out of paid work altogether. Since 2017 the statutory minimum wage had been increased by just over 44%, even though prices in that same time had increased 25%. 

Reports of increasingly aggressive crime including ramraids were far too often dismissed or minimised, at least for those who were the victims of it, as it appeared that crime increasingly did pay.  Meanwhile, much needed reforms to the water sector had layered over them a complex governance structure that was to see Iwi, in four groups, deciding half of the members of boards, who would determine the members of another set of board, that would govern fresh, waste and stormwater infrastructure across the country.  This was all apparently because Te Tiriti now meant Iwi would have governance rights over whatever sectors the Government said it should – and infrastructure was now part of that.  It wasn’t enough for territorial authorities that own the infrastructure to consult with Iwi, not enough for there to be Iwi representatives on councils through exclusively Maori wards (which are democratically elected), but that Iwi would have equivalent powers to local government. Although some of the backlash against Three Waters was ill-directed mindless racism, the core issue – why should the future management of ratepayer owned assets be half governed by Iwi (who were already at the table of local government)?

Other completely unnecessary measures also gave the impression of a government less concerned about inflation and crime, than it was on social engineering and seeking to look as if it was addressing what it thought was important, when much of the public were concerned about the cost of living and threats to their families.

The aftermath of the Christchurch Mosque attack generated calls, particularly from parts of the Muslim community, to toughen laws on hate speech, primarily around religion. This raised concern that proposals advanced by the Ardern Government would constrain speech around ridiculing religions as “hate speech”.  Ultimately this was suspended, but it helped fuel a mix of genuine concerns around freedom of speech and conspiratorial concerns about a much more sinister intent.  Jacinda Ardern’s tone-deaf but well-meaning claim during the pandemic that if information “doesn’t come from us, then you can’t believe it” sounded straight out of the playbook of a dictatorship. No liberal democracy can or should claim it has the monopoly of truth, because it simply does not and cannot. 

The Public Interest Journalism Fund came from criticism that it was funding journalism that supported the Government’s policies, which although in some ways unfair, did include funding that specifically indicated a philosophical approach to some issues that was controversial, particularly around Te Tiriti. The lines between government and activism became blurred, including by the “Disinformation Project” which was clearly endorsed by the government, but which itself had its own ideological line.

The Disinformation Project of course has its own blind spots. It’s regular reporting of research by Byron Clark, former supporter of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (a breakaway communist led terrorist faction of the PLO) and the communist Workers Party of New Zealand, who was particularly focused on what he called the “far-right” didn’t ever reflect on the perspective someone clearly from the far-left would have on what is “extremist”. 

The 2021 controversy over the so-called “Listener 7” who claimed Matauranga isn’t science, and the long list of academics who sought to humiliate and denigrate them was also part of this dominant discourse in academia, media and politics. It was seen as an attempt to “cancel” and “close” debate on the topic, which extended to Dr Richard Dawkins in the UK, and responses claiming racism and colonialism emerged.  The debate around transgender rights, and the visit by “Posie Parker” supported by a coalition of womens’ rights activists and social conservatives saw similar discourse emerge, with a vehemence of anger and hatred.  All of this rubbed of on Labour, with a strong indication that there were opinions that brought “consequences” around employment and being accepted by academia, media and even business as having “correct” views on controversial topics. 

It's a side point that many of the same people who wanted “consequences” for challenging trans and Te Tiriti discourse run frightened when supporters of the Jewish community and opponents of Hamas condemn their Hamas-inspired rhetoric and slogans.

The majority of the voting public took in a mix of the narrative around the government, the cost of living crisis and concern about a lack of delivery (and performance personally about a growing list of Ministers who simply failed to meet standards of behaviour that should be expected of them).  ACT voters were dominated by those who had had enough of the growth in spending and taxation, and the politics of intersectionality and identity. National voters were primarily concerned about performance and lack of delivery, including the money wasted on expensive schemes seen as “out of touch” with what voters cared about. NZ First happily hoovered up the Covid 19 vaccine sceptics and opponents, but also returned to opposition to Maori nationalism and separatism and hitching onto other culture wars for convenience (see trans-rights).

There is now a National-led government that appears to clearly want to stem the growth in the state and, at the very least, return its size to that seen in 2017. It has clearly reversed some policies and is winding back reforms such as the centralisation of tertiary vocational training, the separate Maori health authority and Three Waters. Although some of the discourse around the government is catastrophism and projection of deranged phobia around its objectives (claims it wants to “erase” Maori or trans-people are unhinged nonsense), it is promising as a National-led government that actually is changing direction, which seems in part driven by ACT and NZ First both wanting to make their mark on the government. This should not be a surprise, as National did not win 40% of the vote, and is more dependent on both minor parties than it had been in the Key/English era.  There is also a generation of younger National, ACT and NZ First politicians who are fed up with a centre-right government simply pausing the advance towards more government and more compulsory collectivism.  

So far so good with most measures taken. It is obvious that Fair Pay Agreements had to go, along with the labyrinthine replacement to the RMA.  It’s particularly encouraging from an individual freedom perspective to see the removal of the tobacco prohibition measures, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth of neo-puritans on the left some who rightfully campaign to legalise cannabis but can’t see the inconsistency of prohibiting sales of tobacco to a growing number of adults.  We will wait to see what will come to replace the RMA.  

What I really want to see is for charter schools to flourish, to expand in number and for the thumping fist of the bureaucratic and professional union monopolies weakened in the control of the education system. I want the RMA replaced with private property rights. Nicola Willis has promisingly indicated willingness to cut core spending of many departments to 2017 levels, and for tax cuts.  

Of course, it wont be a libertarian government, but it looks like being a government that will turn back at least some of the spending and some of the regulation, and even some of the philosophical culture of the previous government. A government that is more interested in productivity and growth of private enterprise, rather than confiscation and distribution of the proceeds of production, and regulation and control of private individuals and their property. 

I can only hope that the calibre of Ministers will be on a significantly higher level than that of the Ardern/Hipkins era, and to be honest it wont be that hard. Nobody should pretend that it is easy to address crime or healthcare, because the fundamental reasons for both of this are long-standing and difficult to confront, but this government ought to focus on some key issues that it can start to turn around.  Educational choice and performance, and the barriers to enabling more housing.  If only it can adeptly take on the inevitable barrage of criticism from academia, media and the Opposition, who are eager to call it out as racist, misogynist, transphobic, white supremacist, neo-colonialist, neo-imperialist and every other blanket collectivist pejorative that can be lazily thrown around. Hopefully the front bench will have the testicular fortitude to respond intelligently and confidently to critiques, but more importantly give minimal reasons for criticism based on performance.

So in 2024 the National Party appears revitalised, and despite the critics, Christopher Luxon has emerged as Prime Minister, it is too early to tell whether the man as PM can prove to be greater than as Opposition Leader.  However, National might actually look like a government that isn’t conservative (in the sense of not changing) about Labour policies.

Labour is scarred, having few seats outside the main centres (Palmerston North and Nelson hanging on), and about to embark on a battle between the hardliners who think it lost for not being socialist enough (although if that were true, then those voters would have gone to the Greens and Te Pati Maori in sufficient numbers to give Labour a chance at government), and those who wonder how it could moderate its image and gain the confidence of voters again. For now, it looks like Labour will spend some time in the wilderness.

The Greens are buoyant because they have done very well indeed, winning two more electorates in Wellington, demonstrating very clearly the yawning gap between many Wellingtonians (including public servants, students and those working for industries supporting government) and the rest of the country, but maybe also the arrogance of Labour which thought it could parachute whoever it chose into two relatively safe seats, and win.  

ACT has a right to be pleased, because it will now have a more influential role in government than ever before. Hopefully it will be a greater success than Rodney Hide implementing Helen Clark’s vision for a greater Auckland Council, and it should enable ACT to stamp its mark on key issues such as education, gun regulation and freedom of speech.

Nobody rules out Winston anymore, as he pivoted and succeeded in being the voice for those who felt like their views, whether on Covid or Te Tiriti or on trans-issues, NZ First became the new conservatives, and a voice for those who felt unheard. The test for Winston Peters is whether he is seen as putting enough of a mark on this government to keep support for the following election. 

Finally Te Pati Maori will feel vindicated in reviving radical nationalist socialism with its support for the destruction of Israel and indifference to Russian irredentism. At best it showed Labour’s arrogance in assuming it still could own Maori voters, but at worst in indicates the outcome of many years of the promotion of intersectionality and structuralist theories in parts of Maoridom and by the state more directly. Labour funded and supported this philosophy while in government, and those who support it have found an authentic voice in favour of it – but it is not a position a majority of Maori, let alone voters in NZ, share.

Have a Happy 2024.