IT WAS SUCH a comforting dream. The idea that Jacinda Ardern had somehow inspired a new and vigorously hybrid political faith contained so much hope. That NZ First, a wholesome manifestation of New Zealand’s best conservative traditions, could reliably anchor a Labour-Green government determined to reanimate the reformist traditions of “King Dick” Seddon and Mickey Savage. As if, by some special historical dispensation, Jacinda and the rest of us – the “democratic public” of New Zealand – could enjoy the best of both worlds.
And then I woke up.
NZ First, as presented to the electorate by its redoubtable leader, Winston Peters, is, indeed, the embodiment of the best of this country’s conservative traditions. We are encouraged to believe that it will always be fiercely protective of New Zealand’s British inheritance: Representative Democracy and the Rule of Law. Equally, however, NZ First declares its unwavering allegiance to the achievements of New Zealanders themselves: the creation of a robust capitalist economy and, out of the wreckage of the Great Depression, a just and caring society.
Behind Peters’ masterfully patriotic sales-pitch, it would seem that there has always existed a hidden but unbreakable connection to a very different New Zealand. This New Zealand, the one in which NZ First conducts its practical political business, is the New Zealand of the quid pro quo. A nation of mutual back-scratchers. A country whose heraldic device depicts a golden coin encompassed by two open palms. A deeply corrupt New Zealand, which endures only because New Zealanders have trained themselves not to recognise corruption – even when it’s staring them in the face. (Which is, of course, why we’re known as the least corrupt nation on earth – because, so great is our discipline, that we report less corruption than any other nation on earth!)
That he has been able to operate so successfully and for so long in this other New Zealand strongly suggests that Peters is a politician without illusions. Over a parliamentary career spanning more than 40 years, he has come to see more clearly than most of his colleagues how the country really works. He understands that New Zealand capitalism has never been strong enough to function effectively without massive state support. That this dependence inevitably gave rise to a political culture of unabashed favour-seeking, cronyism and special pleading. That rampant corruption flourished in New Zealand because the country’s trade unions were willing to look the other way in return for state protection, and because its news media understood, without having to be told, what could be reported, and what could not. (Peters’ furious outbursts against the news media have generally been triggered by the latter’s refusal to stick to the agreed script in relation to himself and his party.)
Peters’ defection from National and his subsequent creation of NZ First was prompted by the massive disruption of “old” New Zealand’s deeply ingrained (if unacknowledged) culture of corruption by the neoliberal economic and social reforms of the 1980s and 90s. Peters was enraged by what he correctly perceived to be the cynical denunciation and deliberate destruction of the protected national economy by the local shills for global, free-market capitalism. He hated the way these “Quislings” sold their country off to the highest foreign bidder. His exposure of Neoliberalism’s new rules of engagement via the “Winebox Scandal” was motivated primarily by his determination to demonstrate the deeply compromised character of the new regime and its defenders – and they have never forgiven him for it.
The fatal flaw in Peters’ thinking – and therefore in the political conduct of NZ First – is that he has always sought to rescue his country’s fortunes by restoring the status quo ante. This meant re-creating a state-supported economy made up of importunate capitalist clients ready to offer Cabinet Ministers (and/or their parties) whatever it took to secure – and keep – their indispensable political patronage.
Peters and his colleagues perfected the art of appearing to be the foes of neoliberal capitalism while keeping hidden from the electorate their determination to restore the crony capitalism of the pre-Rogernomics era. His intention was always to attract the support of sufficient National Party and Labour Party politicians to secure his own, and his party’s, re-entry to the places where the deals – and the prices of the deals – were struck. He was convinced that New Zealand’s neoliberal revolution, like all revolutions, would ultimately prove unable to resist the tendency of fundamental economic and political realities to reassert themselves.
The fundamental fact remains: New Zealand capitalism cannot prosper without the active support of New Zealand’s politicians. Peters and NZ First have always been determined to prosper from that fact.
But, if NZ First sought to prosper from the re-establishment of crony capitalism, Labour and the Greens could hardly do so – not without fatally compromising their “transformative” ambitions. No matter how imminent a three-part rendition of the Hallelujah Song might appear, Jacinda’s broad new political faith has always been more apparent than real. The longer the present coalition government endures, the more opportunities for clientelism to become entrenched will present themselves. NZ First has never made a conspicuous display of resisting the temptation to exact a price for making things happen, or not happen. And with every stalled initiative and thwarted policy commitment, the Labour leader’s broad political faith takes on more and more of the appearance of a tawdry religious huckster’s travelling road-show.
Jacinda’s white vestments may look impressive on the cover of the international edition of Time magazine, but every day Labour’s relationship with Winston Peters and NZ First continues, her ability to go on wearing them back home in New Zealand – without exciting derision – diminishes.
It is time for the Prime Minister to wake up.