Politics

New radicals: the challenge for NZ politics in the time of Corbyn and Trump

Radical populism arises on the left, the right and in the centre. In this essay, from the newly published Journal of Urgent Writing, Simon Wilson makes a radical proposal for New Zealand.

It was a time when New Zealand was sick of being New Zealand. It was the 1980s, a high old time, a time of action, and we had such high hopes — for more economic opportunity, said some, while others toiled for greater moral purpose. We had hopes for social equity and fairness, for finding new ways to live in this country, for being able to stand with dignity as ourselves. Not that we joined all the dots. How could we? You don’t always know it’s history when all you see is news. We didn’t realise how much it was all related or that it would be so far-reaching, but we knew we’d had enough. Change was afoot.

Not everybody benefited, and some of the benefits were only begrudgingly accepted. Later, in 1996, the Wellington Film Festival premiered the Vanguard Films documentary Someone Else’s Country, which told the story of the Fourth Labour Government of 1984–90: radical economic restructuring that closed factories, industries, whole towns; that changed the economic basis of agriculture and took liberties with the democratic process along the way. The film’s audience was outraged, although we knew all this well enough by then, and afterwards we repaired to the bars of Courtenay Place to talk about it. It was late on a Sunday afternoon, a time when, until recently, bars had not been allowed to open. Oh, the irony. It was that great fiend Roger Douglas, the finance minister who led all the restructuring, who had dared to ask why we couldn’t have a drink on a Sunday.

Finance minister Roger Douglas on the steps of Parliament, 1984 (Alexander Turnbull Library)

The upheavals of the 1980s — profoundly economic, social, cultural and, therefore, political — stretched left and right and remade this country from the inside out. Public protest reached its apogee over the Springbok Tour of 1981 and continued in the anti-nuclear movement. Economic orthodoxy was profoundly reworked: Keynes was dead and the monetarism we called Rogernomics rose in his place. The movement calling for Māori sovereignty and the workings of the Waitangi Tribunal changed the relationship of Māori to Pākehā and Māori to the state. Feminism demanded a fundamental rethink of what respect for women might mean, nowhere more manifest than in the publication of Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle’s 1987 Metro article ‘An Unfortunate Experiment at National Women’s’.

What did it all mean? New Zealand became a better place. Economically stronger, culturally stronger and far more accepting of diversity. But it also became a worse place, with unions undermined and the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people stripped from them. Many rebuilt their lives; many others did not. Regions collapsed, old infrastructure like the railways collapsed, and families were pitched into a welfare dependency in which, almost two generations on, many are still trapped today.

In 1996 we called ‘enough’ on the duplicity of politicians on both sides, who went into election after election promising one thing and doing another, and we embraced MMP. As for that new economic orthodoxy, now known as neoliberalism, it remains. But governments on both sides have judged it expedient to employ a soft touch.

We have also been lucky, and we’ve been, in some ways, well managed. From Labour, eight years of surpluses and, in the Super Fund, the creation of what could become a powerful sovereign wealth fund. From National, retention of the goal of operating surpluses, which it lost in the wake of the global financial crisis and finally regained in 2017. The welfare state remains a work in progress, but recent reforms have not been cataclysmic. On both sides there is a serious commitment to Treaty justice. There is also, finally, a commitment to a raft of social fairness issues: even the leading Catholic in parliament says he is relaxed about marriage equality.

Natasha Vitali and Melissa Ray leave the Auckland Unitarian Church following their wedding on August 19, 2013, the same day the marriage equality law was passed. (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty)

Alas, we have also been managed by dullards. Very little of the political capital of successive long-term Labour and National governments was spent repositioning the country for the twenty-first century. Child poverty has not been targeted. Our waterways have been degraded. Our cities are woefully ill-prepared for the pressures of contemporary urban life — and even when we had the chance to rebuild a city, almost from scratch, courtesy of the Canterbury earthquakes, we botched it. The positives in our economy rely heavily on the terrible fortune of those quakes, the savage distortions of property investment and a wilful blindness to the pressures of climate change.

It’s as if we’re sitting in a comfortable and stylish car. The seats are great and there’s good music on the stereo, except we’re up on blocks because the car hasn’t got any wheels. And each time we — that’s ‘we’ who might be well-educated, or reasonably well-employed, or property owners, or healthy, or Pākehā — look out of the window, there are a few more people lining the street, hungry, cold, coughing, looking back at us. Not a big crowd yet, and not an angry crowd. Yet.

Are we going to wait for the anger before we get out of the car and try to do something to fix things? Are we not going to get out at all — just lock the doors and hope someone comes along to save us? We do all know that won’t happen, don’t we?

In the 1970s the hīkoi led by Whina Cooper protested the lack of justice for Māori over land, and Ngāti Whātua reoccupied their land at Bastion Point. There was a very strong pro-choice abortion movement, vigorous anti-apartheid campaigns, ongoing action against the Vietnam War, and even a campaign against French nuclear testing in the Pacific led by the short-lived Labour Government. It was a decade of protest, accompanied by a great deal of end-of-days desperation from the Muldoon Government, and it presaged, for the 1980s, that sudden flood of radical change.

Robert Muldoon, prime minister 1978-1984. (Photo: NZ On Screen)

We’re there again. Ten years after the global financial crisis of 2007–08, we know that capitalism, for all the material progress it brings, is not built to safeguard the interests of the 99 per cent. Growth brings prosperity, but it also brings suffering. We are almost all vulnerable to the insatiable quest for profit, the cyclical ravages it visits on the world. Which is not to say we know what to do about it, or that there is demonstrably a better way.

But here we are, entering the 1980s all over again. Everything, again, is about to change. It’s not as easy to see here as it is overseas, but the core reasons for it there are also present here. This time, will we make it work for us?

In the past year, voters in the US, the UK, France and elsewhere have delivered a message to their politicians, and it is this: we are being ignored, we’re sick of it and we’re not going to take it anymore. An oldie but a goodie, although what’s new is that people are using the ballot box to say it. Established politicians should feel good about that — nobody’s head is being stuck on a pole — but they should still feel worried for their political futures. This is a full-scale revolt against the establishment.

Why will it happen here? Many say it won’t, that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders rose because people were alienated by the democratic process, and so did Jeremy Corbyn and Emmanuel Macron. But, they say, we have MMP, a demonstrably fairer method of voting than the alternatives in Britain and the US. That’s true; and it’s easy enough to say also that we don’t have a rust belt, that welfare is not collapsing, that people don’t blame immigrants for everything, we don’t have race riots, our cops don’t wantonly shoot to kill, we’re not frightened of women politicians, we’re not being attacked by terrorists . . .

All of which suggests that the particular circumstances that gave rise to the new populists do not apply in New Zealand. This may even be true. But the underlying factors are present. We’ve suffered from years of neglect by poll-driven, short-term-focused governments, and the frustrations that this causes are apparent in complaints arising from almost every sector. Take mental health, neglected for years because it was publicly viewed as a problem concerning ‘crazy people’ who might kill someone: dangerous, but very rare, and therefore fundamentally ‘not our problem’. Now it’s perceived as being about depression and suicide, and suddenly it is our problem because we all know those things are widespread. So mental health is finally getting some of the attention it should have had a long time ago. Transport planning is the same: infrastructure is built to respond to a crisis, not to future-proof our cities. Poll-driven politics has delivered us neither the politicians nor the political structures able to deal with rapid urban growth, poverty, global economic pressures, climate change, the gap between economic and environmental planning and so much more.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK Labour Party. (Photo: Carl Court/Getty)

Trump, Corbyn and the rest appealed to people’s hopes and fears. Why would that not resonate here? We’re not so different from the US and Britain. Is it even relevant that we lack the particular characteristics that have driven the mood for change in those two countries? When the New Zealand anti-establishment uprising happens, it will, like theirs, have its own local character. But it will happen, because why would any population resist the knowledge that voting can make them powerful, that, after all, they really might be listened to? When it happens, it will be fast and it will be decisive.

What’s the really important ingredient missing in New Zealand at this point? I’d say it’s leadership.

Leaders come in all varieties: there’s no single model for populist, anti-establishment heroes, as the very different personalities and backgrounds of Trump, Corbyn and Macron plainly demonstrate. We’ve had two extremely popular leaders in our own recent history — Helen Clark and John Key — and their differences demonstrate the same thing. Neither appears to have a natural successor, in parliament or outside of it. But that will surely change.

The message most people take from the achievements of Trump, Corbyn and Macron is the one that reinforces their own views. Maybe that’s all I’m doing, too. But it’s clear that the new spirit of radicalism they all represent can attach itself to any political philosophy. Donald Trump and most of the Brexit vote arose on the right; Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders astonished almost everyone with the strength of the appeal on the radical left; Emmanuel Macron marched down the middle. The new radicalism is against the establishment and all who sit helpless within it. It can even, paradoxically, colonise establishment parties, as Corbyn and Trump have successfully shown.

Macron’s victory, though, may be the most instructive. To form a new party, win the presidency and then virtually annihilate the establishment in the legislature elections that followed was truly remarkable.

Macron, as The Economist and others have noted, is the radical centre, and as such he did something the opponents of Trump, Brexit and British Prime Minister Theresa May failed to do. He won. He did something else, too: he stopped the extreme right. The radical left has always thought that was its job — but the rise of Macron suggests the radical centre might be a better bet when it comes to this particular task. It’s an observation that won’t sit comfortably with Corbynites and the rest of the radical left, but Corbyn didn’t win.

French president Emmanuel Macron taking part in a promotion for Paris to host the Olympics Games in 2024. (Photo: Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)

We know about radicalism in New Zealand. Our political history features great waves of progressive welfare reform, moments of notable industrial-relations reform, universal women’s suffrage before all other countries, egalitarian education, treaty-based settlements between tangata whenua and later immigrants, the nuclear-free policy, the no-fault principles of ACC, and let’s not forget those society-wide disruptions of the 1980s. There’s a goodness at the heart of all this, a commitment to fairness, decency, a functional and inclusive society. Can we take that goodness, and not the misery that can also attend great change and has too often done so in our history? Can we take that goodness and apply it to a new progressivism for today?

What would radical centrism look like in New Zealand? If it’s no longer credible that unbridled neoliberalism creates wealth and security for all, it also doesn’t follow that all of its tenets are wrong. Fiscal surpluses, for example, are valuable for exactly the reason often given — not tax cuts, but because they help establish resilience, which we know is important because of earthquakes, of course, and also because of climate change. Floods, droughts, coastal erosion and fires are our lot now. Further, positing that surpluses are the enemy of welfare is a false notion peddled by vested interests on both sides. When the Greens this year promised a 20 per cent rise in benefits and Labour talked of billions more in social spending, those election commitments were predicated on the government’s surplus. And it is surely beyond dispute that low inflation is the single greatest mechanism for providing economic opportunity for everyone.

Settings like these are already centrist. So is mixed-model ownership of assets. You don’t have to be a neoliberal to accept there might be merit in new and sometimes complex options for asset revenue and ownership. And you don’t have to be a Marxist to recognise that unions, and no one else, are the lead organisations advocating for safety and reasonable living standards for workers.

Meanwhile, we need a rethink on so much else. Making poverty history — why is that not a widely agreed political goal? Housing everyone well. Reconceiving the nature of work and, in the cities especially, working on our connectedness: the nature of transport and communication and the meaning of community. Building infrastructure for the future, because if we’re going to get serious about resilience, that also is necessary. As is reinvigorating the democratic process by overhauling how it works.

A radical centre in New Zealand would not be Macronist, because we are not France. It would have its own guiding principles, and they might look something like this:

  • The economy and the environment are one.
  • Long-term planning is fundamental to the purpose of government.
  • Fiscal surpluses are invaluable for that long-term planning.
  • The state doesn’t need to do everything.
  • Government exists to safeguard and enhance the values of society and the rights of citizens, not to cut taxes.
  • Low inflation is a foundational tool for creating opportunity for all.
  • A developed economy should be a high-wage economy.
  • Poverty and all its bitter handmaidens can be defeated, and they must be. Not sometime, when we can, if we can; but as a result of policies we put in place right now.

A radical centre would borrow from left and right. It would balance the virtues of established thinking with the demands of new circumstances. It would reaffirm the value of liberal democracy.

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern speaks to media two days after the election on September 23. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

We need a new kind of political thinking. One that doesn’t buckle to poll-driven politics; one that does win voters to the idea that long-term planning is important. To succeed at this we require a political strategy to rally support from all over.

Some ideas belong in the middle because they are widely shared across the spectrum. One obvious example is a retirement savings programme that leads to fair and comfortable living standards in old age. Another is an education system that equips all children well for the future.

The barriers to ideas like these are twofold: the desire of politicians to gain short-term electoral advantage; and the parliamentary process itself, which requires politicians to adopt adversarial positions almost all of the time. Yet, radical centrism can triumph. It happened in this country in 2007, with the amendment to the Crimes Act known as the ‘anti-smacking bill’. By 113 votes to 8, parliament made it a criminal offence to beat children, and even when 87.6 per cent of voters in a referendum in 2009 called for the new law to be repealed, parliament held firm. Never mind that the bill was sponsored by the proudly radical leftist MP Sue Bradford; it succeeded because it had cross-party support: a classic example of how an issue can be lifted above adversarial politics to achieve profound social change. That’s radical centrism in action. We could do with more of it.

Criminalising corporal punishment belonged in the centre because it was the right thing to do it, even though it was not widely popular. Other ideas belong in the centre for the inverse reason: they are popular but not reliably advanced by either the left or the right. Environmentalism, for example. We all think it’s a good thing, and yet both Labour and National have often compromised environmental principles because they prioritise other factors, like jobs and business opportunities.

Let’s go back to retirement savings and superannuation. There is an imperative to create stable, long-term policies, and there is a wide consensus that we should do so. Yet saving for retirement has long been treated as a partisan issue because of the immediate electoral advantage that parties have sought to gain from it. Labour introduced a compulsory savings scheme in the 1970s, but National drove Labour from office in 1975 with the message that we had been overrun by dancing Cossack communists. It didn’t make sense, but no matter. The country lost the makings of a sovereign wealth fund and we are all, individually and as a country, the poorer for it.

Winston Peters in 1996. Screengrab: TVNZ

In the 1990s, New Zealand First blocked a retirement savings accord. During the past three years, National and Labour have even swapped sides on whether to raise the age of entitlement for superannuation. It’s not principle but a perception of electoral advantage that drives such politicking.

Debate is stuck. And yet superannuation needs a rethink, and it’s not helpful that these days all we do is argue about one element of the issue, the ‘retirement age’. Our pension plan, and the thinking behind it, belong to a time when life expectancy was lower, when far more people had physically demanding jobs, when almost nobody stayed in paid work beyond the official retirement age, when relatively few women were in the paid workforce, and when it was assumed that generational cohorts would remain roughly equal in size. Why would we not rethink superannuation now? Most of those factors have changed markedly.

Not that it will be easy. While many people now willingly work past the official retirement age, many others do not. Māori do not live as long as Pākehā; women live longer but earn less (and can therefore save less) than men. Clearly, when it comes to guiding principles, flexibility needs to join fairness. Equally clearly, parliament is almost impotent as a vehicle for addressing these issues, and royal commissions get us only so far when their findings can be — as we have seen so often on so many issues — ignored by parliament.

Alternatives do exist. The Auckland Council has used a ‘consensus working group’ approach to problem-solving on difficult political issues twice in the past few years: on the future of the port in the Waitematā Harbour, and on the housing crisis. Parties with a relevant interest are convened under an independent chair, they hear expert submissions and they talk the issues through to the point of consensus. In another model, some local bodies in Canada, Britain and Europe establish randomly chosen citizens’ panels to hear expert evidence and then to debate the matter at hand — if possible, to a point of consensus.

The outcomes of such mechanisms are still subject to the normal political processes — that is, parliament can ignore them. But handled well they can create political momentum, allowing politicians to feel it is safe to support proposals that might previously have made them nervous. At the very least they break deadlocks in debates, shifting those debates away from what to do and towards how to do it.

Local bodies in New Zealand now make extensive use of workshops: working sessions where councillors meet with council officers and others to work through the detail of major planning issues, budgets and the like. By the time they get to formal council meetings, much of the debate is over and a consensus majority will likely have formed. There are strengths and weaknesses in this: councillors who participate become well informed before they make decisions, but not all do participate, at least not fully enough. The process is not transparent because the public is excluded, and it is not widely participatory either.

There’s no perfect model in place yet. Remember, though, even back in the 1970s we established no-fault accident compensation through a royal commission. How hard would it be really to update the process for the twenty-first century and apply it to retirement savings and superannuation? The need is for effective, well-informed long-term decision-making. Can a combination of expert investigation, in-depth consideration and formalised citizen engagement achieve that? It could become a defining feature of radical centrism in this country.

Paremoremo Maxium Security Prison, Albany. (Photo: David Hallett/Getty Images)

What about prisons? We have one of the largest rates of incarceration in the developed world and the statistics of our prison population are stark: by one recent count, 63 per cent didn’t pass NCEA level 1 and are therefore, according to Mike Williams of the Howard League for Penal Reform, ‘functionally illiterate’. Even more — 70 per cent, says Williams — don’t have a driver’s licence. Substance-abuse problems are common, and underlying all of this are issues relating to mental health. Each of these handicaps can make a person unemployable. And let’s not forget: Māori make up half of the prison population.

You might think the primary focus of ‘corrections’ policy would be to provide extensive mental health support and to develop widescale literacy and substance-abuse programmes, and that because these things are hard to do in prison, the goal would be to keep people out of prison. You might wonder whether a primary mechanism for all this would be to empower iwi to take the lead. Indeed, it’s heartening, listening to politicians on both sides, to discover that they tend to agree. They actually seem to get it. But prioritising the effective tools for health, rehabilitation and constructive engagement with society has not been headline policy for either major party. Why not? Because in electoral terms the debate is almost always overwhelmed by chest-thumping on law and order. Punishment, rather than creating a more resilient, engaged and law-abiding citizenry, is still the assumed core purpose of corrections policy.

Good policy has been derailed by electoral opportunism. When parts of society are broken, the outcome is misery and despair; not just for those who are personally broken, but also for ever-widening circles of innocent people around them: their own children and others in their families, and, if they are criminals, their victims and everyone around them. Nobody should need to be told this, except clearly our politicians do need to be told. And when we know how to fix this and we have the tools to hand, but our politicians still do not fix it. How culpable for all that misery does this make them?

Education? We have arguments about charter schools all the time, yet charter schools are such a tiny part of the system they’re irrelevant to almost everyone. We argue about National Standards, which obscures the larger and far more important debate about what types of assessment really are valuable. In education, almost everyone agrees the key is good teachers and good school leadership. The politicians on all sides appear to understand this. What’s more, although there is no single model for a ‘good teacher’, the pedagogy (or teaching practice) is also widely agreed on. So which party has a comprehensive plan to strengthen the quality of teachers and principals? None of them. As with prisons, so with schools. One major party opposes the other because that’s what they do, and both offer policies that fit the prejudices and vested interests of their core supporters. And we get precious little progress.

There’s more. Māori economic and social development. Closing the gender pay gap. Optimising the value and managing the risks of big data. Managing the conservation estate. Greatly empowering the providers of primary healthcare. Workplace safety. Ensuring that everyone — especially every child — has the dignity of somewhere warm, dry and secure to call home. Also, climate change.

All of these issues are largely beyond dispute: the consensus, on the whole, already exists. And yet political parties seek advantage by creating disputes over them and — as a direct result of this self-interested politicking — the consensus is buried by the battle. The ‘anti-smacking’ law was passed 10 years ago. Its profound success in unblocking the adversarial parliamentary process has opened the door for how many other universally significant, consensus-based decisions? Not one.

An Amnesty International demonstration at parliament (Photo: Amnesty International)

We do still have real and important political disagreements, on many issues. The nature of trade agreements, the future of dairy, the future of mining, wage bargaining and other aspects of industrial relations, the question of a living wage, the question of a universal basic income, transport planning, resource planning, devolution of power to Māori and devolution of power to cities, too. The best way to balance universalism and targeted assistance in welfare.

These issues and many more are genuinely in dispute and we should not stop debating them. Party-political disagreements on things that matter are important. They expose beliefs to scrutiny, sort truth from propaganda and banality, and help us decide what’s worth fighting for. Free and frank oppositional debate is the great strength of democracy; pluralism — giving legitimacy to the existence of contesting ideas — is the engine of progress.

But democracy is weakened when pluralism becomes so ritualised that the best ideas do not shine. In our parliamentary system the government proposes, the opposition opposes, and after they go through the prescribed rounds of debate and consideration, the government decides. Under MMP we have settled into a kind of centrism that is not progressive and is the opposite of radical. It’s complacent, short-sighted and blandly reassuring. It deadens our aspirations, it weakens our capacity to deal with change and inevitably, from time to time, it throws governments into crisis management.

That’s why radical anti-establishment politics will rise in this country. Crisis management instead of forward planning creates a time bomb of frustration. Perhaps, for now, there is more resignation than rage among voters, but how long before they decide there is an alternative?

Where will the alternative come from? Within an existing party, as Jeremy Corbyn achieved? Perhaps it’s Jacinda Ardern? Through the takeover of one, in the manner of Donald Trump? Or in a new movement, like that of Emmanuel Macron? On the left or the right or in the centre? All are possible. That we don’t have a political leader or movement already commonly identified as that alternative does not mean it won’t happen. The question is, will it arise constructively (really, could it be Jacinda Ardern?) — or catastrophically?

Think about it, for a moment, in terms of rural development. There are around five million dairy cows in New Zealand, double the number just 25 years ago. The result has been disastrous for the environment and not always of great benefit to dairy farmers themselves: they’re exposed to wild swings in the value of their product and even wilder anger from a large and fast-growing section of the population. Mid-year, even the Minister for Primary Industries, Nathan Guy, was saying he thought that the number of cows might be ‘close to the limit’. That’s a euphemism for going too far, of course, but he couldn’t very well say that.

Cows at the Synlait dairy farm in Canterbury. (Photo: Martin Hunter/Getty Images)

So how are we going to restore some sanity to our rural policies? To regain resilience, to safeguard biodiversity, to clean up the waterways and restore the birdlife, to establish the primacy of vital environmental principles and to integrate all that with the pursuit of productive economic goals? How will we rethink our treatment of the land?

It will take time and it will involve some heartache, and it will need, above all else, the active engagement — the leadership — of the agricultural sector. Farmers have to be on board. This will be a big new project for this country, as big as the superannuation project and the project to make poverty history. And to kick it off, how about this as a slogan: ‘Farmers are the Guardians of the Land’.

I know, some people might find that counterfactual. But remember, in the 1980s farmers led the way in embracing change. They felt the pain — but they got it and they turned out to be good at it. Now we’re at that moment again — the moment, very like the start of the ’80s, when change is threatening to sweep the country inside out. Now we’re here, are the farmers up for it again?

The people who work the land could become the people who look after the land. Kaitiakitanga. But will they? If that’s not a proposition worthy of a radical centre, I don’t know what is.

The Journal of Urgent Writing 2017, edited by Simon Wilson and with contributions by Emma Espiner, Morgan Godfery, Jess Berentson Shaw, Jo Randerson, Tim Watkin, Carys Goodwin, Sarah Laing, Mamari Stephens, Raf Manji, Max Harris and others, is on sale now (Massey University Press, $40).

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.