Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Political Roundup: New Zealand's revolting masses

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2016 is turning into the Year of the Anti-Establishment. Well, certainly in other parts of the world, with the rise of Trump, Sanders, Corbyn, and now Brexit. So where’s New Zealand’s “NZ-xit”, and could a revolt against the elites happen here?
2016 is turning into the Year of the Anti-Establishment with the rise of Donald Trump. Photo / AP
2016 is turning into the Year of the Anti-Establishment with the rise of Donald Trump. Photo / AP

The most important political opinion poll in years was recently released, but it gained very little news coverage (nor analysis from political pundits, or reactions from politicians). The poll, carried out by Colmar Brunton, showed that New Zealanders have an increasing disdain or distrust of the New Zealand Establishment. You can see TVNZ's reporting of the result here: NZ is facing a 'crisis of distrust' with faith in MPs plummeting - new study. According to this coverage, "The level of trust in Members of Parliament has fallen by 54 per cent since 2013, with less than one in 10 New Zealanders saying they have complete or lots of trust in elected officials."

The survey was the most in-depth study of its kind undertaken in New Zealand, and it was commissioned by Victoria University's Institute of Governance and Policy Studies, who published the full results in their report "Who do we trust?". The details present strong evidence of a perception that New Zealand government ministers, as well as all MPs, are becoming less trustworthy, and don't make decisions based on what is right. The media, too, get a very bad mark.

And if this isn't convincing enough that New Zealanders have a problem with elites, then a second survey - also barely reported - showed that there's a growing divide between the "informed public" and the "mass population" on the issue of trust of elites.

The survey showed that amongst the "informed public" there are 53 per cent who have trust in governments, but for the "mass population", the figure is only 41 per cent - see Holly Bagge's article, In purpose and peers we trust.

This gap of 12 percentage points - labelled "trust inequality" - is similar to other countries reported in this global survey. The report suggests that this factor is fuelling rebellion all over the world: "Trust inequality between the 'haves' and 'have nots' brings a number of potential consequences including the rise of populist politicians, the blocking of innovation and the onset of protectionism and nativism... The trust divide goes some way to explaining the rise of populist politics ¬- Donald Trump in the US, Marine Le Penn in France and Brexit in the UK. A number of developed democracies all have significant trust issues." You can see the wealth of data about New Zealand and global distrust of elites in the full PDF report, Acumen Edelman Trust Barometer 2016.

David Cunliffe says "Wealth can only be concentrated for so long until popular backlash hits." Photo / Jason Oxenham
David Cunliffe says "Wealth can only be concentrated for so long until popular backlash hits." Photo / Jason Oxenham


Inequality fuelling discontent

The worldwide rise of anti-Establishment feeling is obviously being driven by numerous factors, but central to this is the impact of economic inequality, especially since the global financial crisis. Here in New Zealand, inequality has also hit particularly hard over recent decades. These trends are leading to various forecasts of proletarian revolt.

David Cunliffe says "The message from Brexit and Trump, Sanders and Corbyn is (ironically) the same: ignore working people at your peril. Wealth can only be concentrated for so long until popular backlash hits" - see: Brexit: What, why and what next?.

Duncan Garner is even talking about possible "revolution", but also says: "Remember that 40 per cent of Kiwis own just 3 per cent of the wealth - imagine if they all voted, shudder the thought - especially among the ruling and wealthy elite in the Beehive and boardrooms around the country" - see his weekend column, Mind the gap - the growing gulf between rich and poor in this country. According to Garner, inequality is "a ticking time-bomb" and should be a "wake-up call" for politicians.

Economists, too, are ringing the warning bells. Bernard Hickey says that "All over the developed world the masses are revolting", and the consequences of ignoring this is that democracy itself could die - see: The people are revolting. He recommends major reforms to advert disaster: "At some point, the governing elites of mature and globalised economies like ours will have to come up with a new deal to redistribute some of the bounties of globalisation...That new deal will have to involve some sort of redistribution of income and wealth, and the rebuilding of the welfare state."

Economist Shamubeel Eaqub also predicts that Brexit-type working class rebellions "will come to New Zealand too" - see: Brexit a pyrrhic victory for Divided Kingdom. He emphasises the huge divides opening up in New Zealand society at the moment: "I see clear battle lines drawn between the provinces and the urbanites in Auckland; between young renters and property speculating boomers; between the majority white New Zealand and migrants. If they wake from their political apathy and vote, it will be our Brexit."

Eaqub has also written recently about the increasing class divide in his column, NZ egalitarian? That's a pretty little lie. Reflecting on new research from Victoria University which shows that although tax evasion costs the economy 33 times more than welfare fraud, welfare cheats are 10 times more prosecuted than tax evaders, Eaqub says: "There are clearly two different New Zealands in the justice system, just as there is across our growing and declining regions, or between home owners and renters, or boomers and millennials. We are pitting parts of New Zealand against others, and inevitably the entrenched and rich versus the rest."

For details of the latest inequality evidence released by Statistics New Zealand, see Belinda McCammon's 10% richest Kiwis own 60% of NZ's wealth. And for a counter-view to the supposed problem of inequality, see Bryce Wilkinson's Wealth inequality - a national disgrace. He argues that the mere fact of some getting richer doesn't actually harm those who aren't.

It's not just inequality fuelling alienation of the public. Other social ills are measured in the global Social Progress Index, in which New Zealand used to be ranked at number one - see Simon Collins' New Zealand slips to 10th on Social Progress Index.

But is all this simply the usual suspects on the left forecasting doom? Not according to veteran political journalist Richard Harman, who says elites in this country are increasingly worried - see: Claims that stats suggest there's room for a Trump in NZ. Harman says he "is aware that among some influential New Zealanders, usually supportive of the Key Government, there is a growing concern that the disparity in wealth indicated by these figures, could also indicate that there is a potential for the kind of populist backlash seen with Donald Trump in the US and the Brexit vote in Britain."

Likewise, see Geoffrey Palmer's blog post, The political elites foisted a new system on ordinary Brits. Little wonder they're grabbing it back. He argues that the rising radicalism is unfortunate but understandable, given inequality and disempowerment: "I hope it doesn't happen in New Zealand. But growing economic inequality may lead it that way. Some sense of democratic renewal is needed to avoid alienation, there is a sickness in western democracies."

New Zealand not so revolting

But is New Zealand really the same as these other places? Martin van Beynen says that although this "common malaise pervading the West" is spreading and New Zealand might therefore also face rebellion, there are some different aspects to our situation - see: NZ's festering malcontents including Winston need to be watched.

According to van Beynen New Zealand is less class conscious, nationalistic, or riven by bitterness, and is "not as prone to demagoguery and populism as many other countries". What's more, New Zealand elites faced with rising radicalism will want to "neutralise it or somehow placate it."

The NBR's Rob Hosking also stresses that New Zealand politics is in a more moderate place: "Most western democracies now have equivalent movements to that which pushed for Brexit - in New Zealand it has taken the form of a combination of New Zealand First and the recent anti-trans Pacific Partnership protests. By global standards the local variety has been mild - certainly there has been nothing as toxic as the French or other continental anti-immigrant parties, or even Mr Farage's more polite British variety" - see: Brexit bomb will have political reverberations (paywalled).

Hosking argues that New Zealand has already transitioned to a post-Brexit situation, having had our rebellion earlier: "The UK is, in a way, going through the kind of political convulsions New Zealand went through between 1984 and 1993, except the country appears to have crammed them into one small supernova of political psychosis. In New Zealand both main parties lost their marbles at different points during that period but at least they had the good sense not to both do it at the same time. The sort of resentment being demonstrated by British voters is remarkably similar to the kind of resentment that led to New Zealand citizens voting to adopt the MMP electoral system in 1993" - see: Two important messages from Brexit for New Zealand (paywalled).

The same argument is made by Bronwyn Hayward of the University of Canterbury, who says "We had an MMP reaction where people were really kicking the establishment, and that's left Labour and National in New Zealand in a much stronger position than either of the two parties are in the UK, because they've got more room to manoeuvre". Her comments are reported in Sam Sachdeva's article, What can NZ Labour and other politicians learn from the Brexit vote to leave the EU?.

Labour leader Andrew Little is reported saying that he "concedes the party started to drift from its traditional voters in recent years". Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour leader Andrew Little is reported saying that he "concedes the party started to drift from its traditional voters in recent years". Photo / Mark Mitchell


Problems for Labour and the left

The above article also deals with the problems that the New Zealand Labour Party faces in parallel with its British counterpart, which has become increasingly divorced from its traditional constituency. Labour leader Andrew Little is reported saying that he "concedes the party started to drift from its traditional voters in recent years". Little says: "There is a sense that we haven't spent enough time talking about issues that actually affect day-to-day lives across the country....We've been seen as a party that talks about a lot of issues...but the core issues that mean that people have a decent life and get ahead, like jobs, like housing, we're not identified as having talked about that until quite recently."

Josie Pagani is also reported as saying that "the problem comes when Labour parties are run by social liberals living in major cities, with little input from those in the working class". She says: "If you've lost touch with your working class groups, they sense that not only are you not representing their values and their fears, that you're actually disliking them - they sense that you despise them."

Such problems are also hinted at by David Cunliffe who says, "The Brexit vote represents the current progressive paradox: the left should be able to represent the many marginalised by neo-liberal capitalism; but is struggling to connect with them in reality, particularly young people and males" - see his blog post, Brexit: What, why and what next?.

For the political left, there's a danger that the rising radicalism will benefit more reactionary populists. John Minto reflects on this, saying "Here in New Zealand it is Winston Peters who wants to don the Donald Trump/Boris Johnson political suit" - see: The hi-jacking of the working class. He warns that "Until the left is able to provide a coherent, message that it is the greed and corruption at the heart of capitalism which is to blame for the appalling situation low-income families find themselves in then we shouldn't be surprised at the Trump/Brexit developments."

Immigration and Winston Peters

Winston Peters is the figure most commentators point to as the likely recipient and benefactor of any radical surge of protest against elites. Peters has been championing Britain's Brexit, saying that the result is "not just a wake-up call for the UK, or the EU, but to democracies everywhere".

Certainly the National Government is taking such threats seriously, with Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse telling his party's annual national conference that immigration would be an election "hot-button issue" - see Audrey Young's Immigration flagged as big issue. Woodhouse elaborated: "Our friend Winston has already started that conversation, ably supported by a Labour Party that despite their claimed liberal leanings are now talking about things like Chinese-sounding surnames."

If Winston Peters is the most likely winner from any rising radicalism, especially of the more populist or reactionary kind that targets immigrants, then we should be even more ready to look at the question posed by Tracy Watkins: Arise Sir Winston, Prime Minister of New Zealand?. But in conjunction, it's worth reading Toby Manhire's Introducing Winston Peters, New Zealand's Prime Minister At Large, and Andrew Geddis' What Winston Peters could learn from binge-watching Danish drama.

Of course, in the end, if any political rebellion eventuates, it could be in a very different form to social class or even anti-immigration. Other social divides are becoming important. Increasingly, for example, there is a generational divide that is becoming politicised - see Henry Cooke's Why hating baby boomers makes sense - but might be the wrong way forward.

Finally, for political satire on what a Brexit might mean for New Zealand, see Andrew Gunn's Making pakeha plans with Nigel Farage, and Toby Manhire's Brace for the post-vote Brexodus.

- NZ Herald

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Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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