THINK OF DENMARK – go on, think of Denmark. What springs to mind? Lego? The Little Mermaid? Squishy little segments of surprisingly tasty cheese? Bacon? Slaughtered Minks? How many of you are thinking of a social-democratic political party reversing its electoral decline by adopting the immensely popular immigration policies of insurgent right-wing populists? Not a lot. Hardly surprising. How often do New Zealand’s news editors think of Denmark?
“The Danish Solution” is worth considering, however, as our own General Election draws ever nearer. Since the political survival instinct is every bit as strong as all the others, we should not be surprised when failing politicians and failing parties adopt policies that outrage their supporters. If their ideological heresy is rewarded by the voters, then it’s amazing how quickly that outrage fades. If the voters remain unimpressed? Well, then there will be blood.
Faced with impending electoral disaster, what might New Zealand’s social-democrats throw overboard?
If Denmark offers us any guide, then the choice will be driven by fear of the racial “other”. The right-wing populist Danish Peoples Party made huge electoral gains in 2015 by offering to protect their country from the problems Sweden had brought upon itself by opening its doors to refugees and immigrants from the Third World.
Over the course of five decades, Sweden went from being one of the most racially homogeneous societies on Earth, to a global poster-child for the virtues of multiculturalism. For Swedish social-democrats, this policy of welcoming the persecuted and the vulnerable was an article of left-wing faith: proof that their country, unlike so many of their European neighbours, was not irredeemably racist.
Except that large sections of Swedish society were deeply hostile to multiculturalism. Among the Swedish upper-classes, in particular, the ideology of 1930s fascism lingered on long after the end of the Second World War. As the number of immigrants grew, the Swedish far-right grew with them. Racist xenophobia and Islamophobia inspired racist assaults and arson attacks on refugee centres. Undaunted, the Swedish social-democrats held firm to their multicultural dream – and were voted out of power.
Confronted with a similar choice, the Danish social-democrats opted to bend to the will of the majority. The massive surge of support to the Peoples Party’s hardline anti-immigration policies convinced them that the Danes had no intention of going down the same road as the Swedes. Failure to respond to the clearly expressed preferences of the electorate would condemn the Danish Social-Democratic Party to the status of an also-ran: politically correct, but reduced to making up the numbers for larger, more responsive and racially exclusive political parties.
Among the Danish anti-racist Left, the social-democrats about-face on immigration represented a shameful capitulation to all that was rotten in the state of Denmark. Better, they said, to remain pure and powerless, that to compromise their foundational principles in the name of reclaiming the party’s lost power.
But, as the Australian Labor leader, Gough Whitlam, told the ideologically obdurate and inflexible left-wing of the Victorian Labor Party in 1967, by advancing such an argument: “We construct a philosophy of failure, which finds in defeat a form of justification and a proof of the purity of our principles. Certainly, the impotent are pure.” Or, as the late Jim Anderton expressed it, rather less tartly: “One day in Government is worth a thousand days in Opposition.”
It may soon be the New Zealand Labour Party’s turn to make a similar choice between the impotence of morally unimpeachable Opposition, and the ethical compromises attendant upon winning, retaining and wielding political power. Just as Helen Clark was required to choose between acquiescing in the Court of Appeal’s foreshore and seabed decision, and seeing Don Brash’s National Party ride to victory in the 2005 General Election; or retaining sufficient Pakeha support to remain in office, even at the cost of alienating enough of Labour’s Māori support to make the formation of the Māori Party a realistic proposition.
It would be fascinating to know just how far the electorate’s opposition to Labour’s policies of “co-governance” extends. Given the extent of its polling and focus-grouping, one can only assume that Labour’s strategists are well aware of the consequences of rolling out the policy as currently configured. Were it not for National’s and Act’s clear determination to exploit the Pakeha public’s fear of co-governance, it would be easy to assume that only a small minority of the population are sufficiently exercised by the ideas contained in the controversial He Puapua Report to make them the key determinants of their voting choices.
That National and Act are unwilling to give away the co-governance issue (as Key gave away National’s opposition to the anti-smacking legislation in 2008) strongly suggests that Labour’s policy is shaping-up to be one of the hottest “hot-button” issues of 2023.
The only explanation for Labour’s Pakeha majority’s consistent refusal to jettison the party’s commitment to co-governance is its fear that such a decision would spark a full-scale revolt in its Māori caucus. A revolt so serious that the mass desertion of Labour’s Māori MPs to the Māori Party could not be ruled out.
In such circumstances, neither the continued loyalty of the Greens, nor that of the entire Labour caucus, could be counted on by the Labour leadership. The resulting parliamentary crisis could only be resolved by calling a snap election.
Could the adoption of “The Danish Solution” rescue Labour? Much would depend on how effectively the Labour leadership presented the range of choices confronting the electorate. If National and Act could be presented as the radical right-wing alternative, whose extremist policies would almost certainly spark serious civil strife, Labour would be able to present itself as a moderate hand-brake on the equally radical co-governance ambitions of the Māori Party and the Greens. Adroitly handled, Labour could emerge from the crisis as the only party capable of keeping the peace. As such it could call upon the electorate to give it the numbers in Parliament to frustrate the reactionary plans of the Right and the revolutionary programme of the Left.
National and Act would gnash their teeth in fury. The Māori Party and the Greens would condemn Labour as sell-outs, moral cowards and traitors. But when the smoke cleared, Labour would find itself finally free of its historical ties and obligations to Maoridom – those would now belong to the Māori Party exclusively. From this position, Labour could advance itself as the only reliable defender of te Tiriti o Waitangi and the democratic and egalitarian principles it embodies.
An altogether preferable alternative to Labour fading into political irrelevance, as a triumphant Right lays waste to New Zealand’s three most precious taonga: Egalitarianism, Democracy – and the Treaty itself.