OPINIONPoliticsApril 30, 2024

On the politics of vengeance


Last night’s dismal poll result for the coalition government shows the limits of trying to govern as an opposition, argues Joel MacManus.

There’s a quote from the American political activist Barbara Deming: “Vengeance is not the point; change is. But the trouble is that in most people’s minds, the thought of victory and the thought of punishing the enemy coincide.”

Anger is the single most powerful motivating force in politics. Any significant change needs a groundswell of anger to motivate and empower people to overturn the existing regime. Those of us in the media know this too; we can guarantee a lot of clicks when writing about something that outrages our readers. 

Good political strategists intimately understand how to tap into the issues that make people feel potent emotions. Those emotions aren’t usually anger, at least not at first. They might be indignation, worry, or the big one, fear. Whether the issue is co-governance, immigration or inflation, a skilled communicator can turn any root emotion into anger, as long as they can effectively identify and target the person or institution that deserves the blame. 

While in opposition, the three parties of this coalition government excelled at whipping up anger within their support bases, each in their own unique way. It worked, they won the election, and now they are in charge. 

Politicians with very clear, well-defined ideologies can channel the forces of anger subtly towards their preferred theory of change. But if you’ve spent your years of opposition whipping your voters into a frothy mess of red-eyed, spittle-spreading anger, they don’t want to hear about minor tax adjustments or wonky reforms. They want vengeance.

The coalition agreements for both Act and NZ First were written in ink dipped in the politics of vengeance. They said more about what they hated about the previous government than what form their own would take. It looked more like an opposition than a government, more about what they were against than what they were for.

The latest 1 News Verian poll shows National, Act and NZ First would be out of power if an election were held now, a catastrophic turnaround for a government elected just five months ago. It shows the limits of the politics of vengeance. When you’re in opposition, yelling from the outside about an economic or cultural elite seeking to control, manipulate or harm the country looks like punching up. It doesn’t work so well when you’re in power, especially in New Zealand, where a government’s power is as close to absolute as it gets. It just makes you look mean – or worse, pathetic.

On the campaign trail, Act Party leader David Seymour wanted to make 15,000 public servants redundant “as fast as possible”. This was explicitly pitched as an act of vengeance. “Government departments have made New Zealanders’ lives more expensive and divided them by race. They are tired of it, and so is Act,” read a party press release at the time. 

Now that the cuts are actually happening, it doesn’t look like righteous revenge against a woke cabal of insiders. It looks like thousands of regular New Zealanders losing their jobs, and tens of thousands more stressed about the possibility. 

In opposition, Act could attack a poet for being mean to James Cook, and it looked like an outsider targeting an out-of-touch cultural elite and the government that propped them up. Now they’re the party of the (shared) deputy prime minister, it looks like a powerful group bullying an individual artist for not toeing their ideological line.

Christopher Luxon doesn’t always reach for the same target issues as his coalition partners, but he falls into the same trap. He took over as opposition leader as the economic conditions were taking a turn for the worse, and he could simply hammer Labour by repeatedly accusing them of “economic vandalism”. Now as prime minister, Luxon still reaches for the same grab quotes at almost every single press conference. It’s still fair enough to blame the last guys, but the schtick is wearing thin. It looks more like weak excuses rather than effective attacks. This government is in power because they were good at being in opposition. But they aren’t in opposition any more. They’re the government.

Every party plays the risk of getting too excited and overpromising while in opposition, and then having to face up to those promises while in government. Labour in opposition seems to have forgotten it was in government half a year ago, and is once again making noise about wealth tax, immigration reform, light rail and all the other things it didn’t do while in power. In Labour’s case, multiple sweeping reforms across government proved more difficult than anticipated, and it couldn’t see through all its promises. In the National-led coalition’s case, they are fulfilling their promises. It just looks a lot harsher in reality.

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