Kia Ora! A critical assessment of Jacindamania

(This is a guest post by Olivier Jutel, lecturer of journalism at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji. You can find him on Twitter at @OJutel.)

For those looking for an escape from Trump’s America, New Zealand appears to be a choice destination to ride out the catastrophe, with historic achievements like the first welfare state, a robust anti-nuclear movement successfully staring down the United States, and the Waitangi tribunal that monitors the government’s progress on keeping its obligations to the Maori.

Yet, fantasies born out of one’s own political desperation do not tend to hold up well under scrutiny.

It is telling that misanthropist billionaire vampire and Trump supporter Peter Thiel became a citizen of New Zealand, indulging in equal parts his Lord Of The Rings fantasies and bunker style apocalypticism. The role New Zealand plays in the dreams of the rich was recently captured in a Forbes column featuring cataclysmic projections of sea level rises and land reclamation. The author states, “New Zealand will grow in size…will quickly become the glory land, and ultimately become one of the safest areas in the entire world.”

uture map of Australia and New Zealand by Gordon Scallion
Hey, I wonder if Glenn Beck has been advising his followers to buy farmland in New Zealand?

The centre-left coalition government, led by Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party, is torn between the past glories of social democracy and a geographical exceptionalism that indulges equal parts ahistoric romantic notions of New Zealand and dread. The coalition brings together the inarguably talented Jacinda Ardern and the stone-faced survivor and populist Winston Peters of New Zealand First, whose party held the balance of power after the September 23rd poll. The Green Party who sit the furthest left on the spectrum will be outside of cabinet in a confidence and supply arrangement. It’s a familiar and frustrating position for the Greens who have sought to forge a natural alliance with Labour. Earlier in the year they signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Labour which was violated in spirit as soon as the Green’s troubles saw Labour’s polls numbers shoot back up to “major party” status.

The New Zealand left is genuinely jubilant given the seeming invincibility of the outgoing three-term National Party government. The former Prime Minister and current ANZ Bank New Zealand chairman John Key crafted a unique brand of Third Way Toryism that was relaxed on social issues and augmented its old money and farming base with the so-called “aspirational” middle class drunk on a mid-oughts style property boom. From egregious corruption; the leaking of state secrets to NZ’s Breitbart; diabolical child poverty; a 1970s style environmental crisis; government culpability in the deaths of 29 coal miners; nothing seemed to dent National’s popularity.

The National Party remain far from broken, however, having gained the largest share of the popular vote (44%), yet it lacks a natural coalition partner. It will be amusing to watch their brand of Tory post-politics return to the historical pattern of redbaiting which one hopes will boomerang on them. Their defeat however is an unalloyed good for workers, the vulnerable, students, the public sector and Maori whether or not Labour go for centrist amelioration or something more ambitious.

Ardern’s ascent is a truly remarkable story and an electoral turnaround not too dissimilar to Jeremy Corbyn’s twenty point swing. She succeeded Andrew Little with the party in crisis. The former trade union leader had proved worse than ineffectual ceding ground to the National Party in the polls and on principle regarding “flexible” labour laws. Corbyn’s recent success presented an obvious model to the party but in a manner analogous to the Democrats and Bernie Sanders, Labour was concerned with how to energize the youth vote without actually adopting a radical agenda or fighting the party establishment.

Labour’s approach was far more Trudeau than Corbyn, running a likeable personality, Gen Xer and talented candidate with talk of, “values,” and, “positivity,” with a mantra of “Let’s Do This!” There are certainly some policies that would make an American leftist ecstatic, a move towards three years free tertiary education and a working group on taxes aimed at presumably raising them for social policy. But in Third Way fashion they remain committed to the rubric of fiscal responsibility in a demonstration of “seriousness” to the business community.

The Ardern campaign also veered predictably into Clintonian territory: Wonder Woman memes and the “I’m With Jacinda” slogan aside, and a form of lean-in feminism for professional strivers was signalled early in the campaign. Arden was interviewed on live radio by a former cricket star who proceeded to make the occupancy of her womb a question for national debate. Jacinda promptly smacked him for 6 in a moment of definitive slaying. Within 48 hours she faced a different test of her feminism and class politics.

Metiria Turei, a Maori woman and co-leader of the Green Party, was in the eye of a media storm for having admitted to minor benefit fraud while a single mother working through law school. Turei’s personal testimony was part of the Green’s policy announcement of a 20% benefit increase across the board. Rather than take on Turei’s moral intervention, Ardern let her MOU partner twist in the wind. When Turei, at the insistence of Labour, withdrew herself from consideration for a ministerial portfolio Ardern kicked her on the way down stating she would have ruled her out regardless. Turei’s resignation came soon after and New Zealand lost its best parliamentarian on inequality and child poverty.

A genuine left politics of fight and moral urgency does not suit this Labour Party so well. It is a party that remains indelibly marked by its class treachery in the 1980s as the Labour government of David Lange lead the aggressive neoliberalization of the country. The party is aware they have a problem here, Ardern and others will routinely denounce neoliberalism while claiming that, “being fiscally responsible is not akin to a neoliberal agenda.” It is a wonderful comic routine of denouncing the neoliberalism they introduced reminiscent of nothing so much as the politics of Blairite Labour in the UK.

What’s more, there remains a talent and credibility gap in carrying this message to a public that have faced the greatest growth of inequality in the OECD in the last 30 years. There is no equivalent of a Tony Benn/Old Labour wing of the party as these people all left in the early 90s. While Ardern’s personality politics proved surprisingly successful, there is no Momentum or Our Revolution here, no independent activist organization that is pushing the party and its policies to the left. Party membership and leadership votes have been reformed for accessibility in a manner similar to UK Labour, however there has been no surge in membership and the parliamentary caucus has routinely worked to undermine whatever remains of the party’s left.

In this identity crisis the party has embraced the beast of immigration politics. After decades of financialization, stagnant wages, lax foreign investor laws and a lack of capital gains taxes, New Zealand is faced with the most unaffordable housing in the OECD. Our largest city, Auckland, combines the low density housing of San Francisco, the sprawl of Los Angeles, and a lack of infrastructure and public transport. It’s a problem that requires the massive ambition and the integrated social policy that defined the Labour party of 80 years ago. Labour has made some pledges around low-cost public housing and tackling (foreign) speculation, but the political discourse around New Zealand’s future has been shaped by a truly demoralizing immigration debate.

Labour under Ardern has promised cheerfully to, “take a breather on immigration,” proposing cuts between 30-40% of net intake. This would mean annual immigration numbers of around 40,000 for a country of 4.5 million that is twice the size of the state of New York. The party insists this is not racist while also circulating real estate documents highlighting the “Chinese sounding names” of buyers and using Australia’s moral abomination of a migration model as a means to attack the National party government from the right. In June, Labour responded to OECD figures showing growth in our world’s highest youth suicide rate with a call to “nurture our young” with a “fresh approach” to immigration.

This strategy is clearly poison for the prospect of creating a left politics of solidarity and justice. Labour are convinced they can be humane about keeping our little corner of the world comically under-populated. There is nothing “natural” or quintessentially Kiwi about this. We are a fluke of colonialism, founded by the New Zealand Corporation which sought a monopoly on land purchases (and confiscations) in order to keep prices high to spur capitalist agricultural production for the empire. In the shadow of Trump and the rising fascist right across Europe, Labour is spurning internationalism for a “left” politics that sees its job as portioning out a dwindling social surplus. Labour thinks they are clever here but their modest left politics cannot beat back the demons of nationalism or the darker vision of Thiel and the global super-rich who are so fond of New Zealand.

The natural inheritor of this politics is the soon to be deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, and his party New Zealand First. Peters is a skillful politician, economic nationalist, and populist capable of destabilizing the political calculus between National and Labour. His popularity has been based on wedge issues such as the referendum to repeal “anti-smacking” legislation, railing against the media and PC culture, and regular bouts of xenophobia. Like Trump he enjoys stealing the show, but unlike Trump Peters is competent and engaged with public policy, albeit in a horrifying way. Like a lot of far-right wing political figures in the West, he is obsessed with central bank policy, having railed against monetarism and Chicago economics for as long as I can remember.

Labour’s failure to go even half-Corbyn may create political space for New Zealand First should Peters upstage Labour on the economy, effectively locking in Labour’s anti-immigrant gambit into a new consensus. On announcing his decision to form a coalition with Labour, Peters staked his decision on an explicitly economic populist message stating that, “many New Zealanders have seen capitalism, not as their friend, but as there foe. And they are not all wrong.” Peters speaks ominously about the coming economic hard times. This is a language of antagonism that is far more direct than the rhetoric of Ardern’s Labour, and there is a darkness running through it that portends isolation, mistrust and worse.

In other words, if you are looking for the reinvigoration of an Antipodean social-democracy in Middle-Earth, you are going to be disappointed. That is not what Jacinda Ardern has on tap for Aotearoa and it will have to be forged in exigent circumstances by a left force and organization that has yet to take a consistent form.

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