NZ POLITICS DAILY: The election of our discontent

Are New Zealanders revolting? Not exactly.

A political poll out yesterday shows that not all is well with the New Zealand political system and society. Recording significant levels of disenchantment with politicians and the economic system, it suggests that New Zealand might not be as insulated from the worldwide increase in radical politics and rebellion against the establishment as might have been assumed.

The poll is covered in Henry Cooke’s article, Over half of Kiwis think politics and the economy are rigged against them. This reports on an IPSOS survey, which suggests  “56% think politicians don't care,” “64% think the economy is rigged,” “One half wants a strong leader,” while “45% don't mind the way we are going” (but the rest either think the country is in decline, or aren’t sure).

The survey company’s Nicola Legge is quoted saying that “There definitely does seem to be some sense that there is a mood for change” and “There are also signs that as we prepare to go to the polls in September many are open to a leader that will break the mould and release us from more of the same.”

I’m also quoted as saying “this poll could be taken as a wake-up call that not all is well in New Zealand. Levels of satisfaction are clearly in question at the moment."

After all, the fact that nearly two-thirds of New Zealanders – 64% – believe “that New Zealand’s economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful” is hugely significant. When citizens no longer believe that economic resources are distributed and controlled via a fair and proper process, they will be readier to take up other non-conventional ideologies and political practices.

Concerns about economic inequality and unfairness
The results of the above poll show that – even if there is no electoral revolt looming – there certainly is a changing perspective on fairness and issues of power. The responses indicate that the resurgence of concerns about economic inequality is significant.

And another new poll out – this time from Roy Morgan – also gives an idea of the type of disenchantment that exists over economics. According to the polling company, “in the run-up to this year’s election it’s all about the economy, especially housing affordability, housing shortages, cost of living, inflation, unemployment and homelessness” – see: New Zealanders’ concerns highlighted in run to election.

The single biggest concern in the election campaign, according to voters, is “Poverty and the gap between rich and poor.” The survey’s authors expand upon this: “Economic issues like poverty and the gap between the rich and poor and housing issues including house prices, housing affordability and housing shortages and the homeless or homelessness more generally dominate the issues facing New Zealand. Economic issues were mentioned by just under 27% of respondents, with an additional 23% mentioning housing/homelessness issues as the most important problems facing New Zealand – totalling more than half of all respondents.”

Where are the parties of disenchantment?
While it’s not clear any of the disenchantment and concern about inequality will necessarily result in electoral change, as I say in Henry Cooke’s article above, “there will be some looking for some sort of electoral outlet for their concerns. And the best-positioned parties are going to be NZ First with Winston Peters and Shane Jones, and TOP to some degree."

Cooke also has a good article this week, reporting from “a packed 350-seat roadshow in Wellington” where Gareth Morgan made his pitch – see: TOP prospect: Can Gareth Morgan crack 5 per cent?

Morgan’s politics are painted as representing a “new breed of evidence-based populism” but with the suggestion that might be a contradictory combination: “Gareth Morgan is not a politician. He has a speech impediment. He wears black sweaters instead of suits. He answers simple questions about voter apathy with 13-minute rants that switch from superannuation reform to drug legalisation and everything in between. But he's not that kind of non-politician – the kind lighting up the Western world, the populists, the nationalists. He's an elitist, pure and simple; a technocratic policy snob who brooks no disagreement with ideas that he sees as self-evident."

Where is the party of the left in this?
But why is no party of the left seriously reflecting the discontent of those at the bottom? Around the world there have been plenty of radical left forces rising to meet this demand – most obviously with Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. But writing in The Press today, Chris Trotter says it’s Hard to imagine Andrew Little inspiring Corbyn-like passion.

Trotter explains why politicians of the left are less inclined to channel the interests of the disenchanted poor: “Today's social-democratic politicians are middle-class professionals who are, by-and-large, as disdainful of the electorate as they are uninterested in its inner emotional life. Not only have they forgotten how to dream dreams and see visions – they don't see the point.”

Therefore, the so-called missing million won’t easily be drawn into politics by gimmicks like Labour’s Movement for Change: “No one involved in this exercise seemed to understand that, to replicate the outpouring of youthful energy that characterised the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Corbyn, one first has to lay one's hands on candidates capable of inspiring such unstinting effort. Corbyn's magic cannot be summoned up out of a phone-bank staffed by well-meaning foreigners. Young volunteers will pour in to staff a Corbyn or Sanders-style political crusade – but only after they have themselves been mobilised by the fiery rhetoric of such political crusaders. There is no algorithm for passion, no playbook for inspiration.”

Former Labour cabinet minister Steve Maharey also reflects on his party’s woeful campaign to engage non-voters in his latest NBR column – see: Why the 'missing million' is missing (paywalled). In this he argues that the root cause of all the disenchantment lies in globalisation, and its impact on people’s livelihoods in the west.

Maharey says: “In simple terms, politicians will have to offer policies that deliver positive change. And that is exactly what the surge of populist politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders are doing. They are appealing directly to those most hurt by globalisation and saying “I will protect you.”

This is unlikely to happen here, according to Maharey: “Will any of this play out in the New Zealand election? With barely three months to go it seems unlikely. Winston Peters will attempt to take on the populist mantle and will have some success. But the other significant parties have already made it clear that they intend to operate within tight fiscal constraints. This makes it impossible to offer the kind of populist agenda that has stirred voters in other countries. And there is no talk of more far-reaching change. This does not mean the New Zealand election will be without importance or interest. I will still encourage everyone to vote. But the million will still be missing. For them it will be largely business as usual. They will hear that their interests will be addressed and maybe that “a different world is possible” but I doubt they will believe it.”

Will disenchantment mean a revival of politics?
Matthew Hooton has an election overview article in the latest Metro magazine, titled The Revolution is postponed. The underlying issue in this analysis is the question of whether Andrew Little or Winston Peters can “do in New Zealand what Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn have done in the US and the UK?”

Hooton suggests New Zealand moved into a new political era where sea-change is possible in politics, and instability rules. And ideological struggles are re-emerging: “In 2017, it’s back to the 1960s when the ruling generation is saying things are as good as they get and to leave well enough alone, while the emerging generation is demanding more.”

Such rising disenchantment and radicalism won’t be prevented, Hooton says, just by the fact that economic conditions are comparatively good in New Zealand. He details a buoyant economy, and says “Despite all this, growing discontent, especially among young people, is real. Private polling data on whether New Zealand is heading in the right direction is far more wobbly than the actual economic conditions would normally justify. For those who have struggled over the past decade, something, anything, risks seeming more attractive than the status quo.” And he warns Bill English that economic buoyancy doesn’t always lead to public contentment: “He better be wary that the revolution usually comes after conditions improve.”

Ultimately, Hooton believes change is on the way, but will arrive too late for the 23 September election: “there’s only instability ahead. If there is to be a sea-change in New Zealand politics, it’s unlikely in 2017. Those wanting change are best to look ahead to 2020.”

And in relation to some of these themes, I wrote an article in the Otago Daily Times a few months ago about the new radical global mood we are experiencing, putting it in the context of other landmark eras during the past 50 years – see: The turning points of politics.

My point about this global era is that the new disenchantment around the world is reviving interest in politics and radicalisms of many different types: “It’s not clear yet where this anti-establishment revolt is taking the world. But it should be obvious that we’re now in a new political era, and it’s one in which there’s an increased public interest in politics – as well as a disillusionment with the old ways of doing things. Public participation in politics is starting to return, and there’s a revived concern to understand what is going on.”

Finally, discontent with the status quo was strongly channelled by TV3’s Jesse Mulligan, in his monologue against Prime Minister Bill English’s apparent complacency with the state of New Zealand – watch and read his three-minute response to a tweet from Bill English: Government delivering to 'all NZers'? Yeah right.