Foreign visitors frequently report their surprise at one of the earliest questions most New Zealanders ask: “How do you like our country?” This particularly strong national need for admiration on the world stage has been brilliantly fulfilled by Labour Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. Her warm and internationally-praised handling of the Christchurch mosque massacre aftermath, the extraordinary success of the pandemic containment and much else — including a continuing string of international acclaim and that Vogue cover story — have all bolstered the Kiwis’ self-image of punching above their weight. The world-wide applause has largely contributed to Ardern’s massive approval rating at home. She may well form the next government without either of her uneasy coalition partners, the Greens and New Zealand First.
Even in the traditionally anti-Labour rural constituencies, there’s praise for the sure-footed young prime minister who seems to have somehow transcended the political fray and become most peoples’ leader. For one thing, she doesn’t frighten the horses by sounding very ‘Labour’. Indeed, on the fiscal front, her policies have kept more faith with the neoliberal programme that, paradoxically, a Labour government steered through the 1980s than with the social democratic traditions of Keynesian wealth redistribution. New Zealand’s wealthiest people — predominantly in the fields of insurance, finance and landholdings — have almost seventy times more assets than the average citizen. The poorer half of the country possesses just two percent of all the nation’s assets. Yet in the campaign so far, poverty and inequality have been given relatively scant attention. While Ardern proposed a capital gains tax, she backed down in the face of strong objections from a number of quarters, including New Zealand First, the National opposition and property developers. The real estate sector was probably also influential in Ardern reneging on the promise of massive state house building. Since the pandemic began, housing values have actually risen by NZ$45 billion, putting purchase out of the range of needier people, including many in essential services. The Prime Minister also showed little enthusiasm for a Green Party proposal for a tax on wealth that exceeded a million dollars. While there have been some wage subsidies and benefit increases as a response to the pandemic, quantitative easing has, as always, been more beneficial to the shares and property markets than to those households on middle and low incomes.
The other main party, National (conservative), must be one of the world’s most democratic. Everyone has a go at being leader. Since Jacinda Ardern became Prime Minister merely three years ago, she has seen four Leaders of the Opposition. National, more pro-business, is in a difficult campaign situation. With the majority of the country in favour of putting health before the economy, strong criticism of the Labour government’s tough lockdowns looks cynical and uncaring to most New Zealanders. National’s new leader, Judith Collins, has had little time to connect with the public, and her party is left to criticise certain aspects of the lockdown and promise a stronger approach for rebuilding the economy. The remarkable social cohesion that Ardern has achieved is a major obstacle for National.
While the last National government shunned pressure to purchase four Boeing Poseidon military aircraft, this Labour administration has forked out NZ$2.3 billion for them, thanks to the influence of its New Zealand First defence minister. The new aircraft are far more militaristic and high tech than coastal surveillance requires, and will almost inevitably eventually be called to participate in a war zone with Australia and the US, given their torpedo capability. It will be interesting to see whether National exploits this during the campaign, given New Zealand’s peace-loving image (and self-image), and the unpopularity of President Trump with most Kiwis. Extraordinarily, the usually vociferous NZ peace movement has not been moved to demonstrate.
A minority of National politicians are social liberals, but true believers in social liberalism in tandem with right wing economics may find a more agreeable home in the ACT Party. Under the lively leadership of David Seymour, ACT now looks a lot more like a classic libertarian party with a commitment to laissez-faire on both fronts. While the gospels of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman can appeal particularly to younger businesspeople, these troubled times may have convinced many waverers of the necessity of government intervention. ACT may struggle to get above the threshold this time round.
By contrast, New Zealand First is a party of social — and economic — conservatives, with a provincial social base. In a Curia poll for TV3 in 2013, a whopping 84 percent of New Zealand First voters wanted to reinstate capital punishment — a key indicator of a more authoritarian mindset, though not remotely, of course, to the degree of the quasi fascist England First Party, or America First, which has links to the Ku Klux Klan. As coalition partners in both National and Labour administrations, the party is more difficult to define in terms of fixed values, although its nationalist/populist core has been consistent. Its leader, Winston Peters, brings to mind a Marxist aphorism — Groucho, not Karl: These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.
Most ideologically pragmatic of all is the Māori Party, which contains both left and right factions, neither of which may save it from the political wilderness.
The Green Party, to the left of Labour, may also lose ground to the charismatic Prime Minister. The party has sometimes seemed more bogged down with identity politics than big picture stuff like climate change. A radical faction is hopeful of unseating leader James Shaw, whose orientation has been more towards environmental issues than ideological politics.