Within sixteen months New Zealand will have its next General Election. Prime Minister John Key will be seeking to equal Keith Holyoake’s record of four straight election victories. Opposition Leader Andrew Little’s goal will be more modest – he will be seeking to break the mould of his three predecessors and just win an election.
As always, the election will be as much a referendum on the government’s performance, as it will be a statement of how New Zealanders see themselves in the world of the time. A confident outlook will more than likely secure the return of the government of the day – a less certain or even negative outlook will obviously favour the Opposition. So the backdrop against which the election occurs will be as important as the domestic circumstances of the country at the time.
International events such as Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump, and mounting anxiety about terrorism and the insidious linkage of that to migrant and refugee policy are conspiring to portray a very unsettled and insecure world. And that, in turn, is leading to the rise of an “Up You” approach to politics from many voters who feel increasingly disenfranchised. Those whose jobs have been affected by the technology revolution and globalisation; those whose lack of tertiary education in the 1960s and 1970s has left them unequipped for today’s rapidly changing economic environment; and those who fear the social and economic security of their retirement will be threatened by society’s changing mix, all see politicians and governments as the cause of their anxieties, and are increasingly intolerant of politics, as they have known it, to do any good by them.
It is no surprise therefore that in such an environment the rise of non-politicians – like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, or even on the left Bernie Sanders – appeals. Their simple solutions, seldom based on facts or evidence, are far more appealing when contrasted with politicians and governments offering measured, considered programmes that are now seen as ponderous and increasingly out of touch. The irony is that the age of instant communications and dramatic changes that has left these people feeling so disempowered, has at the same time led them to embrace instant solutions to the problems they perceive around them.
The question for New Zealand in the lead-up to next year’s election is how far that international mood of fear will have permeated our society, and what its impact might be here by the time we come to vote. Already, the racists and the xenophobes are lining up to pedal their messages of hate and division, but again ironically, they have been around here for so long, with so little success, it is a wonder anyone bothers to take them seriously. Prime Minister Key’s challenges as he contemplates 2017 are how he presents his government as still the government for the times, and how he deals with the seas of extremism starting to swirl around him. A superficial analysis might conclude that his task is an uphill one.
However, that ignores a couple of significant factors that might work in his favour. Last week, in Britain, the former Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, announced the formation, in the wake of Brexit, of a new cross-party group, More United, to fight across all political parties the extremism and intolerance now emerging in British politics. By all accounts, its message of supporting policies and MPs that are moderately progressive has been well received by people feeling the time has come to pull back from the brink of the abyss many felt they have been hurtling towards. An early sign, perhaps, that the tide is turning?
A second point is that by the time we go to the polls next year Trumpism will have either triumphed or been vanquished. If it has triumphed, then the message of progressive moderation may well likely be an attractive antidote around the world for what may be happening in the United States by then. If Trump has been defeated, then the same appeal is likely, but perhaps more in the mould of the “Never Again” mood that swept the western democracies at the end of World War II.
John Key is no historian, so will not necessarily be influenced by what has gone before him, but he is an astute observer of the human condition, with a sharp sense of political smell. His instincts would be strongly opposed to following the path of extremism, unlike some of his colleagues who would follow whatever path was available, so long as it led to National staying in power. So, the extent to which John Key is prepared to offer himself as the antidote to extremism, in the mould of the progressive moderate, is likely to determine whether he becomes the modern Holyoake.
After all, he too was a progressive moderate, long before the term was coined. That was why he won four elections.