THANK GOD FOR WINSTON PETERS! The decision of the NZ First Party to torpedo the Labour Party justice minister’s proposal to scrap the “Three Strikes” legislation came in the very nick of time. Andrew Little may be a good man, and Sir Peter Gluckman a powerful advocate for evidence-based decision-making, but neither of them would appear to possess Peters’ gut instinct for what is – and is not – politically possible.
The leader of NZ First is looking at the dark and rock-solid mass of National Party support ranged against the Labour-NZF-Green government, and he is drawing some pretty gloomy conclusions.
The first and most obvious of these is that the Nats smell blood. At both the parliamentary and grass-roots level of the National “movement” (for want of a better description) the opinion that, whatever this government may do it is most unlikely to win a second term, is rapidly solidifying into a right-wing conviction.
The second is that Jacinda’s “stardust” only works on the “woke”. If you’re young and following the right people on Twitter and Instagram; if you’re middle-class and well-credentialed; if you’re a working couple living in your own home and raising a young family; well then, Jacinda’s bloody marvellous. In the grim ghettoes of deprivation and despair, however, Labour’s promises of kindness and transformation have yet to evoke a measurable political response.
Peters knows exactly what that means in electoral terms. Labour is failing to grow its vote out of anything other than the support bases of its own partners. The non-voting poor and marginalised – who should be their target – have yet to hear anything from Jacinda and her team compelling enough to distract them from the grim business of day-to-day survival.
For a few magical moments in 2017, Metiria Turei caused a number of them to lift up their heads – just long enough to witness her brutal political destruction. But who’s giving hope to beneficiaries and the working-poor in 2018? Certainly not Carmel Sepuloni!
The third – and the gloomiest – conclusion Peters is likely to have drawn is that this is not an era of political sunshine. He is old enough to remember the early 1960s when, for a few brief years, both here in New Zealand and around the Western World, there was a public willingness to embrace social solutions founded in compassion, bolstered by science and delivered by political parties temporarily freed from the encumbering baggage of traditional conservatism.
Full-employment and steadily rising living-standards had emptied communities of the fears and anxieties to which, throughout history, they had been prey. The sunshine of empathy shone into places usually cast in the shade of envy and prejudice. To an electorally significant number of citizens the world seemed to be getting better and better and they were willing to vote for politicians who promised to make it better still. Social-democracy and progressive liberalism made common cause against all manner of social evils: prisons built to punish not rehabilitate; birching and flogging; the death penalty.
Peters is also old enough to remember the Third Labour Government and how its sunniest ministers – the most outstanding of which was the Justice Minister, Dr Martyn Findlay – attempted to press ahead with ever more liberal and progressive reforms. He’d remember, too, the souring of the New Zealand electorate in the wake of the hugely inflationary oil-shocks and Kirk’s tragic death.
Peters will recall how fear and anxiety returned to the nation’s communities as unemployment rose and living-standards began to fall. Watching all this, that much younger Winston Peters observed how easily National’s leader, Rob Muldoon, turned it all to his advantage. How traditional conservatism – momentarily outshone – once again cast its pall over the electorate. How Dr Martyn Findlay and his liberal reforms were unceremoniously cast aside – along with the rest of the Labour Government.
Peters knows exactly what is going on in the minds of that dark, rock-solid mass of National Party voters – there was a time when he stood in the shadows among them. Labour, he knows, must be saved from itself. Andrew Little will have to wait.