Friday, July 19

Buggered, knackered, no.8 – and she’ll be right…

The rise of populist politics and the crumbling of the identity and meaning of the traditional parties across the Western world have seen an increasing number of commentators declare that the old political divides of left and right are now increasingly meaningless.  This is not surprising if we consider that the status quo is now some form of largely misunderstood neoliberalism of the centre that parties both center-left and center-right jockey to employ or moderate whenever they get into or near power.

18 months ago, American journalist Alana Newhouse wrote an essay outlining what she saw – and others confirmed they experienced- as the brokenness of American society and politics.  As she noted: “ The most vital debate in America today is between those who believe there is something fundamentally broken in America, and that it’s an emergency and those who do not.”

This gave rise to what is termed brokenism: “At its base, brokenism revolves around the idea that institutions and even whole societies can and do decay—sometimes in ways that are obvious, often in ways that are not.” On the other side are what are termed the ‘status-quoists’ – who might agree that things are not right but believe that “what can broadly be called the “establishment” is not only familiar…; it is safe, stable, and ultimately enduring.”

Having read – and re-read – such pieces, I got thinking about that question of the end of the left and right;  and then, on what this might mean here in New Zealand?

It is 40 years since that 20th century kiwi populist Robert Muldoon, confronted with the crossing of the floor of parliament by MP Marilyn Waring, hit the bottle and lost his bottle and so came out slurring to declare to the waiting parliamentary media that he was calling a snap election in exactly one month’s time.  National lost, Labour won and  Roger Douglas moved very swiftly to introduce neoliberal reforms and policies that have yet to be undone.

Even then, the old notions of left and right seemed outdated. You had a National party run as a cult of personality, imposing very centralised and controlled big state monetary policies that elsewhere in the world were seen as the resort of under-siege communist societies.  The parliamentary Labour party was already suffering political dismorphisim and transitioning rapidly to an urban neoliberal reformist blitzkrieg inner circle trapped in a traditional Labour conservative working-class body.  Third parties were the anti-Muldoon and anti-Trade Union New Zealand party of Bob Jones; the protest-vote-catching financial illiteracy with a fascist heritage Social Credit party; the decline and fall of utopian enviro-socialism Values Party; and the first stirrings of stand-alone Māori politics of Mana Motuhake. 

I’m now 57 and 1984 was my last year at high school, and while I was deeply interested in politics, I couldn’t vote. But it was apparent even then that the old notions of left and right were not what they were assumed to be. It was clear that there were those in both Labour and National who seemed to have more in common with each other than with their own respective parties, and it was from this that ACT was born in 1993. In that same year interestingly, nationalist elements from National and Labour created NZ First; while predating such moves, the Greens carved out a rethought environmental progressivism in 1990 and soon joined the dissident democratic socialist Alliance in 1991. Then there was the hybrid social liberal, conservative Christian, grouping of United Future which was continuously in government from 2002-2017; even if it really just shrunk to be the unofficial ‘Peter Dunne of Ohariu’ party, something only a Wellington electorate could support for that number of years. Labour’s unwillingness to take Māori concerns seriously led to the establishment of the Māori party in 2004; which then confounded all traditional notions of left and right by supporting a National-led government after the 2008, 2011, and 2014 elections. It was reborn, after electoral defeat,  as Te Pati Māori and has staked out a position that in some ways is on the left, but is also strongly independent nationalist in orientation.

So it is clear that left and right increasingly mean little in New Zealand and haven’t for decades.  This is even clearer when we consider the vote splitting, common in many electorates, between who is elected as MP and who the party vote is cast for.  A number of Auckland electorates in particular have a Labour MP but vote National for party vote. Perhaps most striking is Auckland Central that has twice voted for a Green MP but remained a steadfast National party vote.

In considering the New Zealand context, I can see that we too are increasingly split between brokenness and the status quo, but I feel there is a distinctly antipodean nuance that can be added. That’s why I propose the real divisions in New Zealand are in fact 4-fold – and these occur across all parties (and non-voters) to various degrees: ‘buggered’, ‘knackered’, ‘no.8’, and ‘she’ll be right’.

The ‘buggered’ see the country as in a state of almost unremediable collapse. Government both central and local, institutions, infrastructure, housing,  race relations, the welfare state, law and order and our political parties are all buggered to a greater or lesser extent. Many of the  ‘buggered’  have migrated elsewhere – or intend to. Those who stay often stay because they feel they have little choice and fewer options. Their country is not what is was – and in fact never was what ‘they’ felt it was – or should be. Some retain vestiges of hope and want to see policies that MANZGA (Make NZ Great Again).

The ‘knackered’  are just plain worn out.  Life has just got increasingly harder for them and their families. They battled through regional and urban decline, job changes, and the ongoing impacts of the neoliberal changes from decades ago. Some succeeded but then the GFC, or housing, or age, or  Covid  – or a combination of things just wore them down. They are making do (often ‘just making do’) and have often withdrawn from seeing politics as having anything to do with or for them. A number of the ‘knackered’ are younger people, born into knackered societies and contexts. They are not so much apolitical as depoliticized.

The ‘no.8’ take their name from the stereotypical Kiwi attitude that anything can be fixed with a bit of no.8 wire, the right attitude, and a bit of common sense, hands-on ability. They believe there are practical solutions to most problems if we apply a bit of ‘Kiwi ingenuity’. The ‘no. 8’ might see things as buggered and people as knackered – but believe that with the right actions, policies, and incentives, things (including the environment) and people can, and will be, turned around for the better.

The ‘she’ll be right’ are the New Zealand version of the status quo. They tend to be ‘doing ok’ and often express versions of ‘we don’t know how lucky we are’. They believe little real or substantial change really needs to happen; they distrust the ‘no.8’, dismiss ‘the broken’, and tend to ignore or fear ‘the knackered’.  They seek a continuation of ‘how things are’, with a nod back to ‘how things were’ and a small hope of ‘how things will be’.

 The problem is that our political parties, if they see themselves as ‘left’ or ‘right’ or even ‘center’, no longer match the sensibilities of the nation – or the electorate. Elements of all 4 typologies can be found across all parties, but the real division is between the ‘no.8’ and the ‘she’ll be right’.  The future will be determined by the choices made by – and between – these two groups.  For me, the future has to be with the ‘no.8’ (even as someone woefully inadequate at DIY), for I do believe that we have the skills, intelligence, practicality, and ability to ‘no.8’ our way to a better future  – just not with the state of our current parties and thinking.