By Chris Trotter*
Where is National in the co-governance debate? It is tempting to respond “missing in action”, but that would be misleading. When she was in charge, the party’s former leader, Judith Collins, made her antipathy to the whole concept of co-governance abundantly clear.
As so often happens in New Zealand politics, leadership change in one of our major parties is assumed to render all its former statements and positions “inoperative”. As if the caucus and party organisation have had an encounter with the Men in Black, whose handy gizmos have wiped their memories clean of every policy they ever endorsed – or rejected.
It’s an approach which speaks tellingly to the general reticence of both the “mainstream” parties to any longer engage in serious debate on substantive issues.
This unwillingness to facilitate debate contrasts sharply with the expectations of the politicians and journalists of the past. Right up until the 1980s, it was accepted that the National and Labour parties stood for an easily distinguished set of political beliefs which were, to a greater or lesser extent, in conflict with one another. That these beliefs represented the broad economic interests of New Zealand’s contending social classes was similarly accepted. Debate and democracy were, accordingly, regarded as inseparable.
The neoliberal revolution of the 1980s and 90s put an end to these understandings. After 1984, it became increasingly clear that National and Labour, far from representing antagonistic class interests, had become the joint promoters, and defenders, of the new status-quo. That there were no viable alternatives to the free market and free trade policies guiding the fortunes of the planet was an article of political faith on both sides of the House.
Unsurprisingly, the process of convincing the members of both major parties to accept this new political paradigm was not without its trials and tribulations. Both parties suffered splits and defections. Labour gave birth to “NewLabour”, and then the Alliance, under Jim Anderton. National to NZ First, under Winston Peters. When the dust settled, however, it was clear that the days of lively internal political debate were over. To suggest otherwise was extremely career-limiting.
It was not in the interests of either major party to expose the sameness of each other’s core policies. Expecting the leading politicians of National and Labour to go head-to-head over policies they all supported was patently unrealistic. Disagreement between the parties was confined largely to questions of competence.
Who was better at “managing” the economy – National or Labour? By which the nation’s political journalists generally meant: Who is better at following the advice given to them by the Treasury, the banks, and the business community? Or, sub-texturally: Who is better placed to fend off the demands of the poor?
Blandness is not, however, the stuff of which exciting political contests are made. If neither Labour nor National could campaign on a platform that threatened the neoliberal status-quo, then they would have to find something else to fight about. With issues relating to class inequality and exploitation off the table, the emancipatory agenda of “The Left” was reduced to matters of identity. Race, gender and sexuality, and the injustices pertaining thereto, offered huge scope for fundamental political differentiation vis-a-vis the socially conservative. Enter the ‘Culture Wars”.
Few Labour MPs have been more staunch in their prosecution of the identity agenda than Louisa Wall. How then to explain her party’s decision to drive her from the safe Labour seat of Manurewa and, after a decent interval, from Parliament itself? What was it that prompted Labour’s leader, Jacinda Ardern, to tell Walls (the successful champion of the Marriage Equality Bill) that she would never be a member of her Cabinet? Is it possible for a Labour MP to be too woke?
Wall's own answer to this question makes it clear that it was not being too woke that got her into trouble with the Labour hierarchy, but being insufficiently wedded to the neoliberal economic order. It was Wall's decision to throw her support behind the only-very-slightly-heretical David Cunliffe – rather than Ardern’s great ally, the not-heretical-at-all Grant Robertson, that sealed her fate. (That the leadership race between Cunliffe and Robertson took place nearly nine years ago, not only indicates how seriously the neoliberal order is defended within the Labour Party, but also just how ruthless “kind” Jacinda, and her friends, can be.)
The Left’s problem, of course, is that the Right can end the Culture Wars any time it chooses, simply by embracing a large measure of its identity-politics agenda. One has only to recall National MP Maurice Williamson’s speech describing the “big gay rainbow” shimmering over his Pakuranga electorate on the morning of the day he voted for Wall’s Marriage Equality Bill in 2013. Or, John Key’s visits to the Big Gay Out throughout his prime-ministership, to grasp just how easily the liberal Right can outmanoeuvre the liberal Left.
Is this the explanation for National’s determination not to take a clear – let alone a socially conservative – position on the question of co-governance? Are National Leader Christopher Luxon’s key advisors determined to avoid the party being identified with what Labour, given half-a-chance, will brand the Racist Right? Does it explain why they seem content to allow Act Leader David Seymour to carry the Right’s colours into this particular engagement of the Culture Wars?
Possibly. Or, National could simply be hedging its bets. Waiting to see how large the right-wing “trash vote” is shaping up to be in 2023, before committing itself wholeheartedly to opposing co-governance. The latest Roy Morgan poll puts National-Act well ahead of Labour-Green, but it also shows a rising number of votes going to parties further to the right than either National or Act. If that far-right vote continues to grow – not least because National will not come out clearly against co-governance and the Treaty “partnership” – then an increasing chunk of the overall right-wing vote may end up being dissipated across parties that cannot clear the 5 percent MMP threshold – and wasted.
Labour’s problem is not one of co-governance being too radical for “Middle New Zealand” to swallow. Its strategists understand that there is a growing impatience, intensified by Māori and Pasifika experience of the Covid-19 pandemic, with “business as usual” and the status-quo. Labour’s pollsters reassure them that there is a willingness among the young to embrace policies that are new and radical. Labour also knows that it absolutely cannot afford to lose the Māori vote. Its problem is not the policy, but how to sell the policy.
It has been so long since Labour embraced genuinely radical policies; so long since it sent out the likes of David Lange, Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble to win hearts and change minds about the future direction of the country; so long since it felt confident enough to debate its opponents in the clear light of day, with the cameras rolling; that it no longer has the confidence to take on its opponents.
When Willie Jackson announced that he had Covid and wouldn’t be able to debate co-governance with David Seymour on TVNZ’s Q+A, many in Labour’s upper echelons breathed a huge sigh of relief. But, Labour will not beat National by joining it under a cone of silence. Parties do not win elections by keeping quiet. They win them by making noise.
*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.