By Chris Trotter*
Waiting for the miracle, as Leonard Cohen observed, is an agonising test. Especially if its arrival is far from certain. Judith Collins is living through that test right now. Convinced that political disquiet is taking hold of more and more New Zealanders, she waits for evidence of its existence outside National’s rural heartlands. Collins’ “Demand the Debate” campaign has undoubtedly stirred the latter, but is her caucus capable of holding its nerve until those former National supporters who voted Labour in 2020 start showing similar signs of feeling “left out”?
The “Groundswell” protests were generated primarily by the Government’s unrelenting imposition of regulatory responsibilities on an already stressed rural sector. Farmer anger and impatience was readily mobilised because rural dwellers still enjoy a significant degree of effective political representation and are well-used to participating in decision-making forums. Federated Farmers, in particular, reaches into every wool-and milking-shed in the country. The Fonterra co-operative is run by and for its highly engaged farmer members. Farmers are used to having their say – and being heeded.
Collins’ problem is that the rest of New Zealand has become decidedly rusty at defending its interests. Gone are the days when working-class Kiwis could rely upon their peak trade union body, the Federation of Labour, to flex its industrial and political muscle on their behalf. The current peak union body, the NZ Council of Trade Unions, is overwhelmingly a middle-class institution dominated by the Public Service Association, the teacher unions and the Nurses Organisation. Since its formation in 1987, the NZCTU has operated as a “top-down” organisation. Middle-class unions don’t ask their members – they tell them. (That Labour and Green activists are drawn disproportionately from this social layer and its representative structures is no accident – a point we shall return to presently).
That the National Party lacks the ability to raise Cain in either the working-class or the professional middle classes with the same swift effectiveness that it rouses the ire of rural New Zealand is a truism of New Zealand politics. Only Rob Muldoon demonstrated any facility for breaching the electoral and cultural defences of the working-class, and even then, his infamous “Rob’s Mob” encompassed only a small fraction of New Zealand workers.
National’s grasp upon the professional middle-class first began to weaken in the 1970s, but it was the Springbok Tour of 1981 that generated the first really significant migration of professional support from National to Labour, where – with a worrying wobble-or-two under John Key – it largely remains. Poor performance by Labour may send some of this social-liberal support leftward to the Greens, but only rarely rightward to National.
Among the conventionally wise, National’s “Demand the Debate” campaign is dismissed as dangerously mis-targeted. By their reckoning, Covid-19 and its economic fallout remains the central issue of New Zealand politics. A serious misstep on the part of Jacinda Ardern’s government in relation to the Coronavirus – most especially an outbreak of its highly infectious Delta variant in the community – is seen as the eventuality most likely to move the needle decisively in National’s direction.
While it is hard to argue that a Delta variant outbreak would not, indeed, rebound to National’s electoral advantage, that does not free the main Opposition party from its obligation to take the political fight to the Government on other issues. After all, the Delta variant may not break through the border. By the end of the year, most adult New Zealanders may have received both jabs of the Pfizer vaccine. As predicted, inflationary pressures may prove to be temporary. New Zealand’s economic growth may continue to surge ahead of forecasts. National cannot regain power by simply hoping for the worst.
While massive and widespread economic dislocation remains the principal reason for Governments being hustled out of office, the same result may befall political leaders for whom a sudden loss of public faith has been engineered. The fates of Richard Nixon, Gough Whitlam, Bill Rowling and Donald Trump bear testimony to how rapidly political fortunes can change when a decisive majority of the voting public gives up on you in disgust. Engineering such a reversal is never easy, but Collins could learn something by studying Muldoon’s demolition of Labour’s Bill Rowling in 1975.
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At the heart of Muldoon’s campaign was fear. The First Oil Crisis of 1973 had raised well-justified fears of impending economic dislocation. Rowling’s decision to borrow his way through the crisis was attacked to great effect by the National Party’s “Economic Wizard”. With his in/famous “Dancing Cossacks” political ad’, which characterised the Labour Government’s newly-established Superannuation Fund as an anti-Capitalist Trojan Horse, Muldoon also exploited New Zealanders’ Cold War-stoked fear of socialism.
It was, however, a much more diffused fear that Muldoon exploited most effectively. The fear that the New Zealand in which most of the voting public had grown up was under insidious attack. The moral and political certainties of the post-war years, he asserted, were being undermined by liberals and radicals who held the “traditional values” of the majority in ill-disguised contempt.
Muldoon’s stroke of political genius was to implant the suspicion that these revolutionary ideas had found a home in the upper echelons of the Labour Party. Ideas which had received short shrift when “Big Norm” Kirk was alive, Muldoon insinuated, were now tolerated – even encouraged. The ill-conceived “Citizens for Rowling” campaign was portrayed by National’s leader as a bunch of academics and liberals pouring scorn on a humble champion of the “Ordinary Bloke”. It was out of this febrile political atmosphere that Muldoon distilled National’s winning election slogan of 1975: “New Zealand the way YOU want it.”
If Collins can pull off a reprise of Muldoon’s political miracle, then she too can win. For that to happen, however, the normal electoral order of things must be reversed. In 1975, for example, it was not uncommon to see eager young university students waving placards celebrating Labour’s promise of “A New Society” being shouted down by young working-class adults chanting “We Want Rob!” Those young workers had jobs they feared losing, and mortgages they feared being unable to pay. They interpreted Labour’s new society as a threat – not a promise.
If Collins can blend together the twin challenges of responding to Climate Change and fighting racial injustice into a single, frightening, threat to the way of life of New Zealand’s comfortable majority. If she can persuade voters that getting rid of their prized SUVs, sending people to jail for “Hate Speech”, and setting up a separate Maori justice system for the Mongrel Mob, are all illustrative of Labour’s and the Greens’ determination to change everything – irrespective of the wishes of the majority – then there is every chance the electorate will respond negatively.
Should Collins further lace her political concoction with the idea that the Labour/Green “social revolution” is being driven by a new priesthood of public servants, academics, journalists and “woke” members of the helping professions – all of whom have come to regard their less-enlightened (deplorable?) fellow citizens as “suitable cases for treatment” – then she will lead the National Party to an election result as miraculous as Muldoon’s 1975 reversal of fortune.
The only questions that remain to be answered are whether Collins possesses Muldoon’s ruthless and unwavering political aggression; and whether or not her caucus is as terrified of her as Muldoon’s caucus was of him. If the answer to both questions is ‘No’; and Covid-19 can be kept at bay; then in 2023 Jacinda Ardern and Labour will ensure that National remains left out of the debate. Still waiting for the miracle to come.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.