NEW ZEALAND GOT POPULISM early. If you count Rob Muldoon as this country’s first no-holds-barred populist, then the start-date is 1974. If, as most people do, you date the rise of populism in New Zealand from the advent of the NZ First Party in 1993, then our populist-in-chief is Winston Peters – and he’s been kicking around for a quarter-century.
Compared to some of the nastier populist beasts prowling around western democracies these days, Winston scrubs-up pretty well. Oh sure, he’s been known to play the race card from time-to-time, and we wince at his “Two Wongs don’t make a white” “jokes”. But NZ First and its leader have given us no Charlottesvilles; his followers don’t wear uniforms or carry Tiki-Torches. Rob Muldoon was by far the more terrifying populist of the two. When Winston flashes us that 1,000 Watt grin of his, pretty much all is forgiven.
At heart, Winston is a National Party politician of the old school. He was raised under the gentle rule of Keith Holyoake, when the “historic compromise” between capital and labour: born of the Great Depression and World War II; was in full swing. Like Muldoon, Winston was fervent believer in the “property-owning democracy” that New Zealand had grown into as a result of that compromise.
No more than his pugnacious mentor, was Winston willing to surrender the New Zealand that Labour built, and National managed, to the tender mercies of the ideologues in Treasury and the Business Round Table. NZ First’s posture of resistance towards the policies of the so-called “free market” (policies to which both Labour and National insisted there was no alternative) proved to be a particularly durable political stance. Winston’s vision of what their country once was – and could be again – is shared by many thousands of New Zealanders.
Why then did Jim Anderton’s Alliance fail? It’s a question often asked by those who place themselves on the left of the political spectrum. After all, Anderton had also believed in the social-democratic New Zealand laid low by Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. What’s more, he and the Alliance had a much more fully-developed programme to restore it than NZ First had ever bothered to offer the electorate.
The Alliance’s problem – and, therefore, Jim’s problem – was that its most effective constituent parties, the NewLabour Party and the Greens, saw themselves as radically progressive political and social movements, and the Alliance itself as a vehicle for carrying New Zealand well beyond the timid compromises of the immediate post-war era. This was not what Jim wanted, but having placed himself at the head of the Labour Left, he had no choice but to follow along, muttering, behind his younger, much more radical, comrades.
The terrorist attack of 9/11 and the subsequent US assault on Al Qaida’s Afghan hosts – which Jim Anderton instinctively supported and which his anti-war baby-boom comrades just as instinctively opposed – was what brought the Alliance down. Jim and his Progressive Party limped along for another six years – and then it was over.
But, what if, instead of Jim Anderton; instead of the Alliance; someone and something very different had emerged from the wreckage of the New Zealand labour movement at the end of the 1980s? A left-wing populist leader: whose trade union background positioned him as the natural foe of the Business Roundtable and all its political hangers-on; but whose staunchly-held and deeply conservative views on social and environmental issues made him persona non grata on the progressive left. Someone with Mike Moore’s impeccable working-class credentials but lacking the enormous chip that Mike always carried on his shoulder. Someone who, unlike Moore, had refused to drink the neoliberal Kool-Aid, but who possessed every bit of Mike’s cut-through political wit – and then some.
Had a leader like that emerged to break the working-class out of the economically and socially liberal corral into which its largely middle-class parliamentary leadership had penned it, then the shape of twenty-first century politics in New Zealand could have been very different.
Under MMP, an economically radical but socially conservative “Justice Party”, led by the sort of leader described above, would have been able to clear the 5 percent threshold without difficulty. An advocate of state ownership and intervention; a supporter of both trade unionism and trade protectionism; strong on law and order; sceptical of welfare’s enduring utility; unconvinced by feminism, biculturalism and environmentalism; scornful of gay rights; and openly hostile towards multiculturalism and the multi-ethnic immigration it sanctioned; such a party would have separated Labour from a strategically significant chunk of its electoral base and turned NZ First into a National-supporting country party. Among white, working-class males it would have been huge.
Could such a party still emerge to challenge the socially-liberal Left? Not while the economy keeps ticking away. Not while Jacinda’s stardust continues to dazzle the voters. But, if History teaches us anything, it’s that the ingredients for disaster are never far from the reach of those who believe that crisis and opportunity go together like gasoline and open flames.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man with the comb-over.