We used to talk about the “cultural cringe” in New Zealand. That was the old notion that if something came from overseas, it was automatically superior to any local equivalent, and therefore had to be embraced almost uncritically. Those days have largely gone – thankfully – although every now and then the malady that Austin Mitchell once diagnosed as “overseasia” returns.
The most recent reported outbreak has been in the wake of the British General Election. For the second time in three elections no party has won an absolute majority in the House of Commons. By contrast, that has been the norm in New Zealand since the advent of MMP in 1996, yet we have not been seriously threatened by political instability subsequently. A large body of constitutional, academic and political knowledge – and experience – has built up here as a consequence.
For her part, Teresa May, seems to have acknowledged that experience, however grudgingly, with reports that she has consulted our Prime Minister about the mechanics of running stable, minority governments. But she seems to be alone in the sea of lost for words analysis that our media has reported in the wake of the British result. We have a long-established process of running effective and stable minority governments in this country, under both National and Labour leadership, yet few seemed interested in drawing the parallels, preferring instead the sometimes befuddled speculations of dumbfounded British commentators. It was a return to “overseasia” at its best.
A small point that was overlooked in the British result was the performance of the Liberal Democrats – the unambiguously anti-Brexit, pro-immigration centrist party that increased its representation by 50% (from 8 to 12 MPs), arguably the best performance in proportionate terms of any party, and an oasis of reason in the midst of chaos. Indeed, had the election been conducted under an MMP type system, they would have won at least 45 seats, and the hitherto largely obscure (outside Northern Ireland at least) but extremely weird Democratic Unionists (who now seem set to control Britain’s destiny until the next election) no more than 6 or 7 seats.
A notable casualty of the election was the right wing, racist extremist UKIP party which has been virtually obliterated. Conventional wisdom would suggest the Conservatives should have been the beneficiary of this meltdown, but the surge to Labour implies a significant number of those UKIP votes must have gone its way. Maybe that is the thinking behind New Zealand Labour’s recently announced immigration policy, which seeks to cleave into territory occupied by New Zealand First? While Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First are running here as a loosely connected troika-in-waiting, the risk for Labour has always been it might not end up in a strong enough position post-election to be able to dominate the other two in any governing arrangement, making for an “In the Thick of It” omnishambles. So, the rationale for launching a pre-emptive strike into New Zealand First territory was clear. Not only will it help staunch the flow of traditional working class votes to New Zealand First, it also provides the opportunity to try to put New Zealand First back “in its box” as it were, and strengthen Labour’s potential to dominate a still unlikely post-election governing arrangement. The complicit silence of the Greens in this regard is telling. But will they be Labour’s next cannibalisation target?
One lesson that has been learnt in New Zealand over the years is that the worst of days in Government, always far surpasses the very best of times in Opposition. Bloodied, humiliated and chastened as Teresa May’s Conservatives may now be, they will quickly knuckle down to that reality, and make their situation work, the eccentricities of the DUP notwithstanding. Just as we have learned to do after every election since 1996. “Overseasia” in reverse, perhaps?