The election race is incredibly close. The ability to form a government is in Labour’s grasp. So it’s easy to forget that not six weeks ago it looked like Labour were a spent force. The fact that Labour and National are now neck and neck shows that in many ways, Jacinda, as much as the Labour Party, has already won. She’s breathed fresh life into the Labour body and soul. She’s reached new audiences. She’s charmed the media (Jacindamedia). She’s led the release of Labour Party policy so it has publicly claimed, in moderate fashion, ground previously staked out by the Greens. She’s celebrated an empathetic and positive style of campaigning with her relentless smile. But she’s been ruthless in her pursuit of every vote, she cut Meteria Turei loose, has been resistant to strategic deals. She’s running a ‘First Past the Post’ campaign, seeking victory for Labour, not for the broader Left. She’s been audacious. It’s been phenomenal to see how a new, confident, sassy woman leader has been able to reignite the Labour Party and the left-leaning voting public.
You could say Jacinda Ardern is evidence of what one woman can do to a political party’s fortunes. And on the other hand, so is Metiria Turei. Their voting rankings have been inverse. There are dramatic graphs that show the plummeting of Green votes in clear opposite direction to the ascent of Labour. Though in both cases, neither woman stands alone, and both their parties, the public and the press have also shaped the current state of play.
What a fascinating chain of events it has been that saw Green support growing while Labour declined, then Andrew Little’s resignation and Jacinda’s election to leader, to the Green’s near collapse, through to Labour and National being nearly equal contenders now. And United Future have no future, and Winston is struggling for air. We’ve had election hyperdrive.
The changing role of the media, the ‘celebrity’ angle of much of the coverage (even of Bill English!) and social media platforms allowing instantaneous access to information, speeches, events and engagements, may have added to voter volatility. Voters can consider and compare policies and performances in real time, across a range of media, and review voting preferences accordingly. Even now there’s evidence of more voter swings, with a bounce back to the Greens, perhaps lest they be lost from Parliament altogether, and in response to a warming to James Shaw? And even Winston has not been immune to the wild political winds; despite an initial artful dodge from the scrutiny he deserved over his pension overpayment, his party has still been damaged, and in light of his response to Guyon Espiner’s fair, paced and reasonable interview this week, he should be damaged more.
What looked like it was going to be a sleep walk for voters and for National, has become an even contest where Labour are once again serious contenders to government, and for the first time maybe even with the Greens as a coalition partner. Imagine a future where Winston Peters is not the kingmaker, but the Greens are! Queenmakers! For those of us who want a change of government, there is indeed hope.
But for those of us who also want a more fundamental change than just rearranging the parliamentary seating order, and minor changes by degrees, in some ways, hope competes with despair. I’d like to take a vote on neo-liberalism itself but it’s not even on the agenda.
I despair because, based on current polls, around 40% of voters support the National Party. I know these people, some of them are ‘good’ people, but they really believe that things are ok, because they’re ok. I despair because maybe more than half New Zealanders conflate self-interest with the public interest. Around 40%, and maybe a majority, of New Zealanders are happy to accept the increase in inequality, poverty and misery that the current government, and past neo-liberal governments, have inflicted upon society creating a growing workers’ precariat, inequality and an ‘under’ class. An underclass, for whom “it’s their fault”, “they’re no-hopers”, they should “save more”, “work harder”, “not have children…”. I despair that anyone thinks it’s ok to be paid the minimum wage, to have insecure hours, when it’s not even enough to live on. I despair because some voters are so scared of having their holiday home or investment properties taxed they’re prepared to just step over the homeless, poor, or socially dysfunctional. They’re prepared to sacrifice good public health services for lower taxes. I despair because around 40% of New Zealanders think that polluted rivers and dead oceans are fair costs of doing business, and all of this is the result of good economic management.
And although it’s now politically acceptable for both former and aspiring Prime Ministers, such as Jim Bolger and Jacinda Ardern, to acknowledge the failure of neo-liberalism, it’s still not politically acceptable to do anything much about it. There are differences in the methods of ameliorating capitalism’s injustices, but beyond the oppositional rhetorical positioning, most of the parties are on the same side.
There’s nothing unreasonable in wanting a good society where people have dignity and are paid well for working in safe conditions. It’s not radical to want to protect the natural values of our beautiful country, species, our planet. It’s not radical to want fairer distribution of wealth and power. But the fear of taxes, the constraints of Reserve Bank settings, and Fiscal Responsibility rules, and existing international trade agreements, the demands of the market, all limit the scope of the possible.
The paradigm that sets the parameters for debate ensures the parties’ policies just differ by degrees, and Labour are closer to National than they are apart. National are still very much the party of privatisation, but after all, there’s not that much left to sell (hence state-owned farms are now on the block). Support for the TPP remains a main-party consensus. And despite the fear-mongering from National, Labour’s policy to prevent overseas ownership of NZ houses which might require amendment to free trade deals, is unlikely to unravel the free trade world order. Sure, in contrast with National, Labour offers a more humane, interventionist-state model. In the club of Trudeau and Macron, it’s a new popular version of third way capitalism (‘fourth way’?), neo-liberalism in lipstick.
In some ways, National’s last year in office could be defined as one of inhumanity. Their refusal to hold an inquiry into the treatment of children in state care, their resistance to Cave Creek justice, and their untenable defence of hospital underfunding, have all been National own-goals.
But no matter who is elected they’ll continue to serve the interests of capital – parties of different colours, playing and managing responses to broader macroeconomic conditions, sometimes through deregulation, sometimes through intervention, but ultimately serving the market. If they didn’t offer that they’d have no chance of getting elected at all. And you’d never get elected to govern if you threatened the comfortable middle-class status quo too much either. But can you address poverty and homelessness if you can’t even change tax settings? Can you affect the radical change needed to ‘fix’ New Zealand, and discard neo-liberalism, through incrementalism?
Martin Van Beyen says in a Stuff article ‘A Changing of the Guard is Underway’, that as part of the ‘generational change’ represented by Jacinda Ardern, we’re moving more towards a Scandinavian model of capitalism, away from the American/Australian style (?). I’m not sure, but that would be a step in the right direction, and you sure won’t get elected if you’re too radical anyway.
Just as acknowledging neo-liberalism as a failure logically requires a change to the model, you can’t note that climate change is the nuclear issue of our generation, but still condone new oil and extraction in NZ. But then Michael Cullen used that line too, and greenhouse gas emissions are worse now than they were even then. So never mind a climate revolution, despite admitting to the problem, we haven’t even started on transition yet. A Labour-Green coalition might improve the chances of Labour’s good words becoming reality. (Especially compared with the ‘direction of travel’ of a New Zealand First – Labour coalition instead).
I really hope we get a change in government and I believe Jacinda Ardern will make a very good Prime Minister, one we can be proud of as a nation. A strong Green Party in coalition, would add a sound environmental conscience. Structural problems like indebtedness, homelessness, biodiversity loss, a growth model based on finite resources, will be harder, and take longer to resolve.
And though I despair that the prospects of system change are low, and of climate change, are high, a change in government, is a good place to start.