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?

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
David Cunliffe says "Wealth can only be concentrated for so long until popular backlash hits." Photo / Jason Oxenham
Labour leader Andrew Little is reported saying that he
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.