[Author’s Note: I started penning this piece in early August. Events on the ground have, as they say, shifted quite considerably since then – we’ve had a Second Lockdown, and some of the lustre on Labour may have worn off ever so slightly as exhibited via their collapse down to only just being able to govern alone on most polling. Yet I still think that the core sentiments are applicable. So I’ve picked it back up again, where I left off … ]
I’ll always remember my first Law test at University. Largely because I failed it (before, to be sure, then going and arguing my way to a pass … literally lawyering my way into law-school). What it was on, was a pretty well-known New Zealand constitutional case – Fitzgerald vs Muldoon. If you weren’t around in 1975, the facts of the matter were thus: The Rowling Labour government had instituted a compulsory national savings scheme, National had campaigned on rolling it back in favour of a universal superannuation (the famed ‘Dancing Cossacks’ ad) … and when the latter won, they did exactly that. Via Rob Muldoon issuing a press statement and declaring that was what was happening – rather than, say, the more usual process of putting a bill through Parliament first.
One plucky teacher, however (for some reason, it’s often teachers who do this kind of thing), refused to recognize this – and kept sending his Compulsory National Savings deductions into the IRD anyway, who kept dutifully returning them. Fitzgerald, for that was the teacher’s name, then proceeded to sue the Prime Minister over the matter. And, to the surprise of many … he won. It was held that Muldoon was in violation of the 1688 Bill of Rights – specifically, section 1: “That the pretended power of suspending of laws, or the execution of laws, by regal authority, without consent of Parliament, is illegal:”
Now, I won’t bore you with how my 17 year old self endeavoured to argue that Muldoon was *not* in fact in the wrong upon this matter; nor the economic argument for why a pension scheme rather than a saving scheme was actually pretty socially just in 1975. And will instead skip ahead to what one of my American colleagues recently said upon the matter when I explained the case to him – namely, that Muldoon was demonstrably not acting with the “pretend power […] of regal authority”, because quite clearly if the nation re-aligns itself like that following your issuing a statement, the power being exercised is obviously not “pretend”. It is genuine. It’s a little more complex than that in actual constitutional legal terms, but never mind that for now.
Why am I mentioning all of this? Because sometimes, it seems, there are few things new under the Sun. A few days ago, it was announced that somebody was once again suing the Government alleging of executive overreach. In this case, the claim is that our Covid-19 Lockdown protocol was legally invalid. That Ashley Bloomfield overstepped his authority by enacting the Lockdown, and that the Prime Minister made declarations with presumed legal force via press-conference.
Except that’s not really what’s interesting about this.
What is – to me, anyway – is the reaction that the suit’s been getting, as expressed both through our media and in the voices of ordinary New Zealanders.
There’s been some dissenting from this, to be sure, usually from people who’re lawyers or constitution-enthusiasts, or avowed opponents of the Government … yet in the main, Kiwis have not so much shrugged their shoulders at the suit as they have overtly sneered at it.
And that’s understandable. The Lockdown worked. It’s proven significantly popular, even (perhaps especially) with the benefit of hindsight. Many of us actually wanted it to go much further while it was on. So when somebody sues the Government over it, explicitly claiming that they don’t care “how necessary” the Lockdown turned out to be – we, collectively, raise an eyebrow and wonder if the bloke’s got his appropriate priorities in order.
It probably helps, too, that one of the major implicit defendants in all of this, is one of the more well-regarded political figures in living memory – with a pretty incredible 82% of Kiwis feeling they can trust Jacinda per this week’s Colmar Brunton poll. There’s no similar polling effort that I’m aware of to assess Dr Bloomfield on a comparable basis, but if there were, I feel pretty confident in asserting that he’d be doing well, too.
And the current crisis in Victoria as well as the ongoing shambles in America mean that all we have to do is look at the World section of the paper to see why the Lockdown being “necessary” is not an irrelevant consideration.
Yet while it is inarguable that the circumstances around the Covid-19 Crisis have built the pyre … the flames which have risen thereupon have seemingly taken on a life of their own. The Crisis may still be raging elsewhere, and is thankfully at bay here – but the popularity of Labour, which is in large measure more truly designated the positive reputation of Ardern, continues to surge. It’s possible to read this, to be sure, as people concerned and anxious about their future choosing to place their trust in a figure who’s managed a decent job of steering us through the calamitous crises of the recent past. It’s also probable that the utter implosion of the National Party through their own invidious internal democracy has left Labour as the major force for stability in our politics (something unthinkable a mere three years ago when Jacinda ascended to the leadership, for a few reasons).
Whatever it’s based on, the net impact is that our upcoming Election has been transformed from a potentially fraught democratic contest between two major blocs … into an effective coronation. Well, a post-facto formalization of the coronation that has implicitly already occurred. The salient ‘democratic’ element to it is basically us collectively deciding whether we can really be bothered with Winston for another three years, and perhaps The Greens – acting as ‘handbreak’ and ‘biofuel’ [or, if you prefer, NOS] respectively. This, in spite of the fact that a little less than three decades ago we demanded the comprehensive reform of our electoral system so that never again would we have the one-party rule of majority-government.
But if there’s an election involved, no matter how symbolic it may be – why do I then call it a ‘coronation’ ?
Because judging by the significantly unfavourable reactions to the Lockdown lawsuit, we’ve collectively and in the main come to the conclusion that we actually don’t mind the idea of a single figure, perhaps two, exercising that kind of power (provided that it works). It verges on ‘regal authority’, some might say.
And you know what? I’m actually pretty OK with this. We have found ourselves the proverbial ‘good dictator’ or ‘good monarch’ which [Author’s note – that’s as far as I got back in August. Everything which follows is more recent re-view.]
I call it a ‘Coronation’ – because this ‘Good Monarch’ is the one that we have chosen. The one that we have decided, most of us anyway, we would really quite like to continue to be … well, just what a monarch is. Something like the Queen in Chess (although in Jacinda’s case, she has the weakness of the Labour Party of being their King upon the board also). Wherein the reason that the Queen piece is the most powerful – is because the Queen represents the Nation, the Spirit of the People. It would be entirely inappropriate to term this the ‘Figurehead’ – as it is a piece with quite considerable and capacious *actual power*. Also why a certain associate of mine has argued that Muldoon was not in violation of the 1688 Bill of Rights Act – for Muldoon’s power was most definitely not “pretend” ! He held a press conference, and the law de facto changed around his words.
However, I also term this a ‘Coronation’ in a far more archaic sense than we would often think of such a thing today. In the old days – indeed, it is right there in the earlier Germanic conceptions of the ceremony – the King was an elective position. Under ‘Democracy’ – Your Vote Counts. Under Feudalism – Your Count Votes. And it was a matter of a personal loyalty, a personal engagement between the electors and the figure vying for the position. Who could say, looking at the crowds of people who have flocked into the streets and the town-hall meetings’ aftermath to snap their personal selfie with our near-sainted Prime Minister – that there is not at the very least the simulacra of such a personal relationship, personal engagement. We feel, especially in New Zealand, as if we know many of our representatives directly – that clip from The Simpsons wherein an outraged Australian man goes to his local MP … and then both go to the Prime Minister … and everybody is on a first-name basis, literally talking in-person? That is also the Kiwi way. And it is one of the things which renders our form of democracy something more sacred, more pure than the American loosely fitting equivalent.
And yet – what this picture is ‘missing’ is a pseudo-aristocratic ‘middle class’. And by that I do not mean “middle class” in the economic sense – I mean what it used to mean, some two to three hundred years ago, if not more. The layer in the cake between the Monarch and the People. The Middle-Management of Empire. With all the unresponsivenesss and obstructionism that this ‘middle-management’ term would more modernly, customarily imply.
This is not to say that they do not exist, of course – only that the last six months have rendered them increasingly irrelevant in practice. Who are they? Well, they are the people who seem to believe that they are ‘born to rule’. The National Party, for example, the self-declared ‘natural party of government’. The Media, too, contains more than a few self-appointed scions and arbiters of what is ‘proper’ , the gate-keepers, the key-shelvers who must be appeased if not downright assuaged upon the pursuing pathways of the road-network to power.
That is partially, I presume, why for some months mid-way through this year there was both such frank incomprehension and active tearing down of the Prime Minister’s putative popularity by these sorts. Because they at first subconsciously and thence self-consciously came to realize that they had been .. marginalized. There was now a direct line between the Prime Minister (and never mind even most of her party) and the People. Both in terms of the appeal, the emotional resonancy – but also in terms of speaking directly to the nation during the 1 pm press conferences. As somebody put it , we all collectively felt reassured by Jacinda and Dr Bloomfield as a sort of ersatz ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ of the Nation. [In essence, I would actually say that it is the Dumezilian 2nd and 1st functions respectively – the Warrior-Aristocracy / Monarch , and the Priestly / Academic castes, to speak a little figuratively; rather than what would otherwise be connoted by a Mother and Father of the Nation – a Queen and King … but I digress]
So, for weeks it seemed, we had a situation of the poll results being frankly disbelieved. An almost embarrassed tone by media reporting upon them. The succession of “Rogue Polls”, as National put it. Because this was Not How Things Were Supposed To Go. It turned out that the Nats were not, in fact, the true ‘natural aristocracy’ after all. And nor were the Media the genuine ‘Anointers’. It was as if Napoleon had taken the Crown from the hands of the Pope and placed it upon His own head. And therefore, the constant attempt on the part of both some Media and the other, official Opposition – to force their way back into proceedings, barge their way back into not merely relevancy, but actual, active saliency into the bargain.
At the time, I speculated that this would have the opposite-to-intended impact, the converse effect to that which was looked for. Recalling the 2014 Campaign, when Dirty Politics came out and was all the Media could talk of in their harrying of the Key-led administration then in power … it was precisely this which helped to tip the scales ever further in National’s determined favour. New Zealanders like an underdog, and have an innate sense of fairness, fair play. So when we all collectively saw John Key being seemingly harrassed (however righteous that scrutiny actually was), many people therefore concluded that it was some sort of unfair beat-up. And rallied behind the then-incumbent Prime Minister and his colleagues as a result. The pudding, in short, was over-egged, and the Government’s critics wound up with egg upon our collective faces as a result. It happens. It especially happens when we are playing the pop-cultural version of Canute – endeavouring to stand against and thence turn back the onrushing, indefatigable Tide.
There is another factor, as well – albeit a closely related one.
During the course of Simon Bridges’ latter tenure as National Party Leader, what we saw was a terrier yapping at the pant-leg of democracy. And that became the ‘democracy’, in practice. Instead of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition , we were treated to the choleric spectacle of “Opposition For Opposition’s Sake”. And seemingly upon the most spurious and flimsy of matters.
It got so bad that when Todd Muller took over, one of his first acts as part of his ‘sales pitch’ was that he would be bringing to an end exactly this kind of performative pantomimicry in our Parliament. Which lasted all of five minutes before we saw a spate of National functionaries capitalizing upon a literally imaginary homelessness problem (as in, not our real homeless problem – an imaginary homeless man being housed in a real hotel, I mean) , the ethnic surnames of New Zealanders returning to quarantine here, and the improper use of a position of trust with an emergency service provider … amidst inter many alia.
The National Party also then demonstrated its effusively strong enthusiasm for Democracy by having its second Leadership election in a little more than two months. You could perhaps be forgiven for presuming that all this ‘practice’ at voting for their figurehead meant they were warming up for the big one later this year (the General Election, I mean – not the internal party contest for who gets to replace Judith Collins and have a crack at the next one). Although the fact that National MPs seemingly kept taking their lead from their new leader(s) and undermining the leader would appear to suggest that they’re vastly more interested in “struggling together” than they are in struggling together.
All things considered – if a relatively strong level of support for the National Party is thought to be vitally necessary to our Democracy … it is difficult indeed to blame the ordinary voter for thusly concluding that this oppositional “democracy” thing may, in practical terms, be a bit overrated.
Now some may suggest that this is dangerous. Certainly, a few voices in the media stated as much, saying that because they did not feel free to criticize Ardern without getting a negative response from their audience – that this was a stifling effect upon their freedom to report as they saw fit … an effective pillow ‘pon the face of our democracy. We saw this particularly following a certain 1 pm press conference where the Prime Minister was relentlessly harangued on some matter she’d already answered in pursuit of a ‘gotcha’ moment. And I say “we saw this”, because we quite literally did – it was all broadcast live. And people weren’t particularly enthused by the spectacle. What did this result in? Media claiming that it was our fault for being unimpressed – that we didn’t understand how a press conference was “supposed” to work , and that we should stop broadcasting the pressers so that the only accountings of what happened which voters would get … would be the media’s own reporting of what happened, shorn of all context and just a gutsful of ‘Gotchas’ all the way down.
This is NOT to attempt to suggest there’s no place for scrutiny of a Government, especially during a crisis scenario – such as that we’ve implicitly been grappling with for seemingly all of 2020. It’s just to state the obvious: that what people saw, from both the Opposition and the Media, often seemed much more like a vested interest in tearing down the Government rather than helping it to meaningfully do better in its execution. Is it any wonder that we progressively began to tune these voices out? ‘Jacinda Under Fire’ became a sort of avatar-cum-apotheosis for every elector who’d felt themselves unfairly critiqued, complained about, harassed, harangued, beleaguered, blamed, and battered. We really did start to empathize and identify with this evidently hard-working figure apparently surrounded by idiots and egotists upon a daily basis.
Except it was not only the vehicle of our major putative Democratic Alternative that turned out to be a clown car. It was also what they were actually endeavouring to push for most of that time that fit that description. During a period of significant success for our home-grown elimination strategy, National and various voices in the Media instead pushed for opening the borders or ‘having the conversation’ about what an ‘acceptable’ death-rate would be relative to the economic harms of continuing to ensure our populace are kept safe. To say it was unpopular (except with a certain narrow sector of the business world and, apparently, certain universities who are seemingly entirely dependent upon masses of foreign students to be economically viable), would be an understatement. But they kept at it
It was only relatively recently that National finally chose to move away from such short-sighted rhetoric, under Collins of all people, and even then they STILL semi-frequently descend into “whatever Labour is for, we want the opposite!” style contrarianism. We also STILL occasionally hear from the “Plan B” advocates, along with other such fringe voices who’ve all-of-a-sudden discovered an enthusiasm for Swedish Social Democracy .. but only for the certain style of “interventionism” that’s delivered greater restrictions than present New Zealand for markedly inferior virus control.
At best, as applies National during those months, you could read their rhetoric as being pig-headed and pig-eared (in the form of a purse) stubbornness ; a lack of flexibility and responsiveness because they’re both out of touch and not used to having people question the economic Received Wisdom which has prevailed here since the mid-1980s. More cynically, as well as more recently, you could interpret their actions as being driven out of a desire for “Power for Power’s Sake” ; a willingness to say or do absolutely anything in pursuit of the scepter and the crown. Ironically, exactly what many people would find most repugnant about a certain sort of monarchy – or, more aptly, a tyrant. And a petty, tin-pot tyrant certainly would seem to aptly encapsulate their present leadership in both style and (lack of) substance.
If you want something “Dangerous” for our democracy – for our society! – that, I would humbly submit, is it.
Therefore, while you can argue that it’s “dangerous” for us to be moving in the direction we are electorally – wherein a system expressly designed to ensure that there would never again be absolute / majoritarian governance is now prospectively going to deliver us up exactly that – I am not sure that I agree. In this instance, anyway. And that’s for one very simple reason.
The idea that a lack of choice is dangerous – requires that there actually be a lack of choice. This situation is not that. Rather, it is precisely that there IS choice, and people are overwhelmingly choosing one party, one leader.
The opposition to this sentiment – and you mark my words, the Mike Hoskings and Leighton Smiths of this world shall be absolutely breathless in their turmoil of an “It Can’t Happen Here” piquant texture and flavouring – is effectively tantamount to suggesting not that absolutism or ‘monarchy’ should be avoided for its own sake … but rather that democracy in and of itself is a bad idea because it may, every so often, produce a rather remarkable out come.
Some might opine that this view could just as easily be affixed to Donald Trump … and yet I don’t think that’s right either. Not least because Judith Collins is presently doing an admirable job of demonstrating just why Trumpian pseudo-“populism” is rather ill-fitted and seemingly quite seriously unpopular here in little old Lilliputian New Zealand. But also because, properly considered, the Jacinda phenomenon is, in essence, the mirror image of Trump – and that is why everything is exactly the other way around. Proving, I suppose, that being right is not mutually exclusive with being popular – and that populism can be the wind in a progressive ship’s (flying boat) wings.
There are valid reasons, to be sure, to lack a certain enthusiasm for Labour governing entirely upon its own – and this helps to explicate just why the two horse race at this year’s Election is apparently between Labour and Labour-Greens for the Government. But to bring things back to the jurisprudential matters which provided the active inspiration for this piece – the legal challenge to the first Lockdown, and that most curious of statements by its presumptive prosecutor that it did not matter whether the lockdown was ‘necessary’ , only that it was pro-forma legal …
While, again, there are legitimate and valid reasons for looking into the legality of state actions here in New Zealand (and we should be thankful that we have a system, a society wherein such a thing can take place with relatively swift expedition, it would seem); it also feels that various of the people most up in arms about such things are less concerned with heading off some illusory Road to Fascism – and more with actively diverting us down the Road to Freedumb. In the American sense. Where all manner of strange and counterproductive proscriptions as well as prescriptions are left inviolate due to a slavishly hidebound adherence to certain ‘letters of the law’ (quite literally judiciously reinterpreted to suit) and a largely feigned fear of Tyranny. As in, the historical specter of the King of England, rather than the currently-festering, present-day proclivities of their pseudo-democratically empowered despot in the person (or should we perhaps phrase – ‘persona non grata’) of the President. Not just the income-bent one, either. A situation which has sadly come to its ultimate fruition through precisely the kind of internal and internecine division into multiple semi-literally armed camps that Jacinda as a sort of ‘grand uniter’ [capable, it would seem, not only of welding together coalitions – but also of drawing votes from both Labour and even National’s usual supporters] is again a diametric opposite to.
That, too, speaks toward Jacinda as a Hobbesian figure – an avatar of the collective pooling of our individual sovereignties. An Over-Sovereign, if you will [Chhatrapati] – a monarch.
Or, in short:
Leviathan Is Coming