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There’s a special bond between New Zealanders and their institutions. (Getty Images)
There’s a special bond between New Zealanders and their institutions. (Getty Images)

The BulletinFebruary 11, 2022

New Zealand’s case for optimism

There’s a special bond between New Zealanders and their institutions. (Getty Images)
There’s a special bond between New Zealanders and their institutions. (Getty Images)

For two decades polls have shown this country has held a nearly unshakeable belief, unique among democracies, that the future will always be better. Justin Giovannetti reports for The Bulletin.

The one consistently satisfied democracy. There’s one statistic that sets New Zealand apart from nearly all other western democracies. When asked if your country is on the right track, most of the world’s citizens respond with a resounding no. Sometimes events conspire to make the majority happy for a few weeks or months, before malaise sets back in. New Zealanders are the glaring anomaly. For the past two decades, the citizens of Aotearoa have answered yes nearly every time they’ve been asked if things are heading in the right direction—the one exception was during the global financial crisis and happiness quickly came roaring back.

What’s going on? Talbot Mills Research has been asking New Zealanders the right direction question for years. I asked Stephen Mills, the executive director of the polling firm, if he could explain what the chart above means. While Talbot Mills provides polling for the Labour party, there isn’t a partisan link between New Zealanders and their satisfaction. Whether the occupant of the prime minister’s office was Helen Clark, John Key, Bill English or Jacinda Ardern, a consistent majority were happy.

“It varies from broadly happy to hysterically happy,” said Mills. “New Zealand has basically been happy since Helen Clark was elected. The economic numbers have varied in that time. I always took it as a sign of broad satisfaction, that people didn’t need to worry about the country being governed properly. They didn’t have to agree with the prime minister, but they felt the country was going the right way and the government was basically competent.”

Where are we now? It does feel odd writing this story as a vocally aggressive protest outside parliament is in its third day. During the first year of Covid-19, despite a pandemic, recession and closed border, a record number of New Zealanders gave the country a thumbs up. That enormous surge in support has now evaporated and the country has gone back to being merely content. By global standards, that’s an incredible place to be. The World Economic Forum looked at citizen satisfaction a few years ago and found that despite years of healthy economic growth, longer lives and some of the safest societies in human history, most citizens of democracies were extremely unhappy with things.

A very different result across the Pacific. The result of American being asked the right direction question is nearly the opposite of New Zealand. One poll in June 2009 found a majority happy, otherwise they’ve been quite pessimistic for decades. Less than a quarter of Americans currently think their country is doing well, MSNBC has looked at why nearly everyone thinks things are on the wrong track. Partisanship, polarisation and a loss of faith in the future is at the core of it.

The international situation also points towards falling trust for nearly all institutions. Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm, has been asking people for years about trust in their institutions. The firm’s 2022 trust barometer found that distrust is now the default view around the world, with a near total collapse in optimism across developed countries. Leading the decline are government officials and journalists, who are deeply distrusted around the world. The only institution that’s still seen in a positive light globally is business. New Zealand wasn’t part of the trust barometer, but it seems likely it would once again be an outlier. The last time the trust survey was conducted here was in 2020. This was the top-line conclusion: “New Zealanders trust their government more than any other nation in the world.”

The question of optimism in New Zealand and trust in the country’s institutions is a topic The Bulletin will look at further in 2022. Regardless of your politics, the country’s positive outlook is worth understanding, celebrating and fortifying if necessary.

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