You might not have heard of the Heritage Foundation, an ultra-right US think tank that has evolved into a policy arm of the Republican Party, influencing its shift to more hardline conservative positions in recent decades. Its Index on Economic Freedom, an annual appraisal of 184 national economies, applauds those that are most friendly to business, especially concerning tax codes. In other words, the most right-wing economies. During the last six years of Labour government, New Zealand has consistently been in the top five, even level-pegging with Singapore in the number one slot. The Heritage Foundation praises New Zealand on a number of criteria, including its ‘fleible labour regulations’. On the economic scale, the mainstream media’s default description of Labour as ‘centre left’ contrasts with the Heritage Foundation’s global perspective.
At the end of two three-year terms of Labour government and certain additional welfare provisions, the country’s overall child poverty numbers have simply plateaued, with one in nine children still living in households below the poverty line. Public housing wait lists are spiralling, and a 2023 Inland Revenue report shows that the country’s 311 wealthiest families pay 8.9 percent of their income in tax, compared with 10.5 percent required of minimum wage workers.
Given her phenomenal popularity until relatively recently, international celebrity prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s resignation last January caught the country by surprise. Her lower-profile successor, Chris Hipkins, promises to concentrate on “bread and butter” issues. Even in a coalition with the further left Greens and the Māori Party, the polls still predict a win for Christopher Luxon’s conservative National Party, probably in coalition with the further right libertarian ACT party. Despite the likelihood of an ultra-neoliberal government, Hipkins scores higher than Luxon in personal popularity.
New Zealand’s under 30s have bucked the trend of young voters in other western democracies who favour solidly left figures like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. Kiwi youth voters are predominantly right-wing, preferring heightened business opportunities to lowered emissions. This is due in no small measure to ACT leader David Seymour, who has combined his commitment to unfettered market forces with some liberal social policies that may actually be more to the liking of Green voters than to National’s old guard. In such a pro-business environment the dilemma for the Greens is how much to address the uncomfortable reality that economic growth is incompatible with ecological urgency.
Labour, National, ACT and the Greens have more or less ruled out a coalition with the populist New Zealand First party. Its leader, veteran parliamentarian Winston Peters, failed to achieve the 5 percent threshold in 2020. The maverick phoenix has risen again, buoyed by the present polls. Who knows? He might yet be a kingmaker in an election that looks likely to see New Zealand nudging Singapore off that top slot in the Heritage Foundation’s chart.