One Question Quiz
Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

PoliticsNovember 25, 2020

Why couldn’t it happen here?

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Donald Trump has grudgingly accepted that preparations for a White House transition should commence, after weeks of crying fraud, mounting spurious legal challenges and attempting, in effect, a coup d’état. However hapless and distant it might seem, is there the potential for a similar breakdown in New Zealand? Duncan Greive examines our defences and our vulnerabilities.

To anyone who has grown up hooked to the American myth machine, the past few weeks have been deeply confronting, as we watched a sitting president brazenly refuse to accept an unambiguous election result. Across four years, President Trump has bulldozed through so many norms and institutions which we’ve been endlessly told are the greatest in the world, but nothing could top his final assault on the most fundamental tenets of US democracy.

America’s brand, as brands often are, was always built on artifice and airbrushing. The year 2020 has been particularly unkind to its global image, as the botched handling of the pandemic, the George Floyd protests and the burning of large chunks of California made explicit the gap between the stories it told about itself and the reality on the ground.

Still, the post-election conspiracy between prominent right-wing media figures and the Republican party to manufacture a vast and evidence-free conspiracy to steal the election has felt like a new and incredibly dangerous frontier. To be willing to sacrifice the belief of tens of millions of voters in free and fair elections will be a lasting stain with impact lingering long into the future.

It also made me wonder whether it could happen here. It seems such an outlandish thought, a month after New Zealand endured one of the most civilised – some might say boring – election campaigns in recent memory. Despite the backdrop of multiple lockdowns, closed borders and an enormous economic crash which stubbornly refuses to arrive, this country elected a government whose brand is kindness, and whose leader is regularly hailed around the world as a beacon for the values of liberal democracy.

The trend over the past 20 years seems to be toward a greater civility and – cannabis law aside – a continuation of a long-established progressive arc. This contrasts with rising nationalism and partisanship in the US, along with many other countries to which we have historic ties. Most tellingly, new research shows an immensely high level of trust in New Zealand’s political system, with Research NZ’s survey showing 90% trust and confidence in our democratic system, versus 66% in Australia, 55% in the UK and an abysmal 23% in the US.

I wanted to know why New Zealand seemed steadfastly resisting that trend, and spoke to three people well-placed to analyse what it is about our institutions and political culture which are keeping New Zealand on a different track. I spoke to Professor Andrew Geddis, a constitutional law expert; lawyer Matanuku Mahuika, architect of a number of landmark Te Tiriti settlements and cases; and former prime minister John Key. I asked about our systems and our culture, and the ways in which they differ both in framework and in norm from those in the US. Based on those conversations, here are five crucial differences which seem to have the most profound impact on the enviable state New Zealand currently finds itself in.

1. The many and varied virtues of MMP

At the federal level, the US has the presidency, the Senate and the House of Representatives, with Supreme Court as a check on all that. For decades it has proudly strutted on the world stage, pointing to this lattice as an impregnable barrier to tyranny. And yet here we are.

New Zealand, by contrast, mostly just has the sweet and simple system known as Mixed Member Proportional. “The theory of MMP is that because it opens up multiple channels into the political system, it acts as a release valve,” says Geddis of what could be considered the last (and best) act of that incredible decade, beginning in 84, during which New Zealand changed so radically, for good and ill.

By splitting parliament into electorate and list MPs, and giving smaller parties plausible paths into parliament, MMP allows viewpoints which are present in society but not geographically clustered access to representation. This has a number of impacts, including allowing those with non-mainstream ideas to build their own political vehicles, rather than having no choice but to invade the major parties and seize influence from within – as have groups like the Tea Party in the US and Brexit hardliners in the UK.

Geddis says that the most successful parties in government have been “broad church and big tent”, citing the Key government’s relatively stable coalition of both the Māori party and Act as evidence of this. Key himself agrees, saying MMP encourages the main parties to prioritise the battle for the centre over energising their bases. “There’s just a much narrower gap between the two main parties,” says Key. “Obama used to say to me all the time that I was more left-wing than he was.”

(To be clear – bland centrism appears a far better option than polarisation and populism at this point, but does have a tendency to de-prioritise certain really important areas the centre isn’t all that bothered by, like child poverty or rampant house price inflation.)

Four years after his shock resignation, Key believes MMP made National a better, more representative party. “It brought much more cultural diversity and better gender balance into parliament,” he says. “Rightly or wrongly – and I would argue wrongly – in National we were very good at selecting white males into winnable seats.” While party branches choose their electorate candidates, the list is more centrally controlled, and Key believes that allowed it to build a more diverse party than its membership might have gravitated towards, thus broadening its appeal and avoiding some of ethnic voting divides seen in the US.

Mahuika says that the system design of MMP rewards parties for better recruiting from minority groups, noting that “in this current parliament, for the first time, Māori are more represented in parliament than in the population”. The impact of this is profound in terms of encouraging belief in the system as a whole, and he says that when cultures can see someone who resembles them in power, they’re more likely to believe in the institutions they oversee. “It helps disenfranchised parts of society feel like they have a voice.”

2. Te Tiriti gives New Zealand an anchor

Mahuika moved into adulthood and became a lawyer in the late 80s and early 90s, and has thus witnessed the transition of Te Tiriti from an object widely ignored or derided by Pākehā New Zealand to a founding document which is starting to approach the US constitution in terms of its centrality to our understanding of ourselves as a nation – and one in which there is broad-based political consensus. He came of age in an era shaped by the critically important role of 70s activism, but believes that it matters that Te Tiriti’s recognition came “not from a more activist court, but from landmark legislation – the Fisheries Act, the State Owned Enterprises Act,” he says. “All this took the Treaty from activists and the marae into the mainstream.”

Statistics around Māori imprisonment, life expectancy and health outcomes, to pick just three, show just how disrespected this document has been over its 180-year lifespan, and how much work remains to be done. To pick one glaring example, as the Māori Party’s Rawiri Waititi noted this week, the parliamentary oath of allegiance makes no reference to it. Yet Mahuika believes that the combination of activists, politicians and lawyers who have advocated for the Treaty over the past few decades have helped New Zealand have a more honest conversation about its history and identity.

“If something isn’t talked about, isn’t debated, it continues to fester. When it comes into the public domain, that’s how you make progress,” says Mahuika. “And that debate helped shape our sense of who we are as a people.”

Key believes that it’s one of the defining features of this country, saying “we’re one of the very few countries settled peacefully and with a treaty. That’s not to say there weren’t issues,” he adds, with not a little understatement, “like the land wars, obviously. But that’s very different to the way the US was founded.”

The US is bedevilled by its treatment of its indigenous population, widespread demonising of Hispanic Americans and the original sin of slavery and its continued impact on Black America. Geddis says this is common to many countries to which New Zealand has close ties, from the first nations people of Canada, who can question whether they are part of Canada at all, to Australia with what he calls a “free-form and sprawling” debate over the essential humanity of its indigenous population.

This was common in New Zealand too, but Mahuika believes that Treaty recognition has helped change New Zealand’s sense of self, and make it better able to address its issues. “We’re getting more removed from this idea of New Zealand as a former outpost of the British Empire and more into the idea of it as a Pacific country. And that makes it more community-minded.”

He credits the intention of the document itself, and its modern understanding, with this. Te Tiriti is rooted not in the idea of separatism, he says. “It’s rooted in the idea of moving forward together.”

3. A very different judiciary

The direct election of judges, prosecutors and sheriffs is one of the most striking elements of the United States’ sprawling democracy. Its courts are also far more powerful, able to strike down law based on their interpretation of an ancient document (the constitution) which has an intent in relation to modern society that is often quite unclear, and understood very differently by Democrats and Republicans.

New Zealand’s judges are appointed, not elected, and “there’s a desire to be, and appear to be, non-partisan,” says Mahuika. “There’s also a recognition about the need for greater diversity within senior judicial appointments across gender, ethnicity and cultural background.”

New Zealand’s judiciary has less power than its counterparts in the US, as “it doesn’t have final power to strike legislation down on rights issues”, says Geddis. He also says that it has in recent years proven to be mostly very measured, “always a half-step behind society – a fast follower, not a leader”. Which may satisfy neither conservatives nor progressives, but helps keep the courts a reliable and relatively uncontroversial institution.

Geddis also points to its “expanded role for tikanga and the Treaty in law”, and the way the leaders of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal and District Court appear united in a desire to increase openness and transparency. This helps maintain public faith in them, and renders them less likely to be called in as weapons in an attempt to strike down an election, say.

4. A very different media culture

Fox News right now is a study in contrasts. The network has frequently been the most-watched channel on all of cable in the US since the election, and its “decision desk” was the first to call Arizona for Biden. The news operation has admirably held the line in skeptically reporting the many falsehoods of the president and his various apparatchiks.

Yet in the evening, in primetime, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson rule, and it’s all been stolen election, all the time. The remainder of the mainstream media has inevitably had to grapple with a president and party consistently deriding its accurate reporting, and thus evolved into a kind of “resistance journalism”. News organisations like the New York Times have seen huge financial benefit from its Trump coverage through increased subscriptions, while also grappling with the tensions between its position as the “paper of record” and a very different era for reporting, and reporters.

“We just don’t have the extremes of Fox News on the one hand and MSNBC on the other,” says Key of the New Zealand media environment. After 15 years of very close proximity to the press gallery, he says “it’s difficult to be sure how most of them would vote”. This contrasts with a US media in which it’s hard to imagine a major commercial news organisation which isn’t explicitly or implicitly backing the worldview of one of the two parties.

Despite what some Twitter accounts might say, most of New Zealand’s media, particularly at its largest organisations, simply doesn’t have such baked-in biases. Even those which do have a discernible leaning will typically provide commentary on all parties which swings between hostile and admiring, with only the ratios varying.

Having reliably partisan media creates a powerful reward mechanism for more extreme forms of politics, and it’s the absence of Murdoch media properties – Fox News, plus crucial newspapers and networks in the US, UK and Australia – which feels like a defining element of our political media ecosystem. Rupert Murdoch’s tendencies – deeply conservative, anti-government, addicted to powerbroking – seem to have a directly corrosive influence on right wing politics. His absence from the New Zealand market makes the National party something of a control group among established dominant conservative parties in the US, Australia, UK and New Zealand – the only one which doesn’t have to consider his perspective when making decisions, and the most centrist in that group.

Murdoch has had holdings in New Zealand for much of the past 20 or so years, at times heavily invested in our newspapers and in Sky TV, during which time, coincidentally, National had its most right wing populist leader of recent times in Don Brash. Yet it has never been a priority for Murdoch, nor has his influence been particularly evident. Since his last major interest ended in 2003, National has had a succession of big tent leaders who, even when the party has made plays in a more more conservative style – think of Paula Bennett’s suggestion that gang members should have fewer human rights, or Gerry Brownlee’s Covid-19 conspiracy theories – it has not received any political benefit from doing so. By contrast, when the government required wide acceptance of its initial lockdown there was little resistance from major media outlets (unlike in the US), helping ensure world-leading compliance with the restrictions.

Murdoch’s absence might be because New Zealand is small and not that fiscally exciting a media market. Or it might be because we still have a relatively tightly regulated media environment, which demands fairness and balance across news reporting on radio and television through the Broadcasting Standards Authority, and pushes for it across print and online through the Media Council. Regardless of what drives it, our major media ownership is a patchwork of the state, a publicly listed company, private equity and one seemingly very well-intentioned woman. And New Zealand appears far less polarised for it.

5. A non-partisan public service

One of the signatures of the Trump regime has been employing low capacity regional millionaire donor cronies to run massively important branches of government, like the post office, the environmental protection agency or the weather service. This is in part due to the United States’ widespread “fire at will” employment law, in part due to the convention that anyone, anywhere, is a party political operative.

By contrast, “New Zealand’s political environment still delivers non-partisan decisions,” says Geddis, citing the role of the director-general of health this year as an example of a public servant in a very prominent role who strived for and largely succeeded in making decisions which were not seen as political.

Key agrees, adding that our politics is less prone to volatile swings because “the bulk of advice that ministers get is from neutral ministries that don’t change just because the prime minister changes”.

All major parties basically agree that everyone from the DG of health to the chief ombudsman to the head of NZ on Air is there to serve the public, not whoever happens to be in power. It helps keep politics contained to parliament, instead of spreading its viral load throughout government. And while it might not always be strictly true – teachers’ unions reliably support Labour, Treasury historically was well aligned with National – the fact both parties largely refrain from criticising the public service helps maintain public faith in it, and the quality of those institutions through transitions of power.

This has its limits – there are always frozen budgets, charter schools and expanded or merged ministries – but the frequency and scale is far smaller than the whiplash turns that are common in the US

Does it mean we’re safe?

For all that, none of it means New Zealand is immune from a demagogue ascending to power. Many of the elements listed above could be grouped under an umbrella Geddis characterises as a benign political culture – which is to say that we don’t particularly like it when politicians contravene them.

There’s also far less deep-seated partisanship. “A large proportion of the country votes on merit, and who they think best reflects the values of the country at the time,” says Mahuika, adding that the move of Māori electorates from NZ First, to Labour to the Māori Party shows this exists there too.

With the possible exception of Peter Goodfellow, no one would characterise Ardern’s government as tyrannical, but Labour’s victory in last month’s election shows that MMP is capable of delivering an absolute majority, and New Zealand is unusual in being “unicameral”: there is no upper chamber to scrutinise legislation passed by the House of Representatives. Nor do we have a written constitution.

All the prime ministers we’ve had in the 21st century, and probably all since Muldoon, have aspired to big tents. But as the current US experience shows, recent history and convention can erode quickly. Which is why the best defence we might have is simply to be alert. To raise the alarm when we see erosion coming, and to know the difference between a politician we just don’t like, and one who truly seeks to destroy the system.

The best safeguard of all, in other words, is us. And having made it through one of the greatest stress tests imaginable, perhaps New Zealand really is as different as we like to think of ourselves. As Mahuika puts it, “how we behave in times of trouble, in times of crisis, is that we come together as a community. Instead of breaking apart.”

Keep going!