Saturday, April 13

Kiwi populism… and future shock.

The last decade has seen the rise of populism across the Western world as well as more authoritarian populist offshoots in Latin America.

Populism occurs on both of (what were) the traditional Left and Right, combining a charismatic leader, socio-economic change and challenges, and a sector of the population who feel forgotten, excluded or dismissed by those they label the elites. 

It’s worth noting that New Zealand under Jacinda Ardern experienced a far rarer form of populism by and for elites. In Arden they had a once-in-a-lifetime charismatic leader who centre-left elites felt could overcome the exclusion they had experienced under the Key government years. Yet globally speaking, the Key government could easily have been labelled elites, being technocratic managers. What we forget is that Key had a broad suburban ‘every-man’ charisma to back up his charisma amidst the business community. He also deliberately included the Māori party in his government to build a broad popular, but not populist, coalition. Without the charismatic leadership of Key National floundered and this gave the centre-left elites their chance under Ardern.

But this inverse populism of the Ardern government could never be sustained because the imposition of elite populism and policies, combined with the COVID response, soon saw a social media and then electoral counter-revolution. When the charismatic elite populist leader departed, replaced by the uncharismatic elite Hipkins, we saw a return to the NZ status quo – or as close as we can get under MMP.

The last time we had previously experienced such elite populism was the 4th Labour government under Lange that introduced neoliberalism. In fact, you could argue that neoliberalism was, on the one hand, an attempt by some in Labour, from that old Labour working-class background, to win back that working-class vote. It said to them, ‘we trust you to be able to make choices’ and ‘you know best what to do with your lives and your money’. It certainly worked with what we could call the aspirational skilled/trades working class. But on encountering the restoration of the more usual Labour elite with Helen Clark –  in both opposition and then in government – they abandoned Labour for National, Act or New Zealand First – and have never returned.

That it was twice under Labour that New Zealand experienced elite populism tells us how far Labour has come from their traditional union and working-class origins. It also serves to remind us just how far back Labour lost its traditional white working-class vote. We can trace this move away from Labour back to the 1970s when the New Left activists of the 1960s and 1970s undertook a takeover of crucial electoral branches and then the parliamentary Labour party. Building on the legacy of the old Labour populism of Norm Kirk who was able to sense the shifting social and political mood and accommodate some New Left issues, the New Left elite were helped by the growing authoritarian populism of Rob Muldoon. As All Black Fergie McCormick of ‘Rugby Men for Rob’ stated in the 1975 election: “Rob Muldoon is a bit of dictator but New Zealand needs to be run firmly”. Michael Basset has noted that “this statement caught the public mood.”

The mood was souring however by 1981, on the back of economic decline. It was the 1981 Springbok tour protests that signalled the coming victory of the 4th Labour government in 1984 and paved the way for elite populism as a revolution from above against Muldoon’s New Zealand. This is what makes the 1984 election so fascinating. It was the elites who were feeling forgotten, excluded and dismissed by those in power and they seized their chance at the election booth.

Central to populism is the impact of social, economic and political change. This is what Alvin Toffler, back in 1970, famously named ‘ future shock’. Populism is driven by such future shock, usually experienced through a broad loss of jobs and a changing workforce, a challenge to the expectations, norms and values of what used to be working-class communities, changes in the social, cultural and ethnic makeup of the population, and the sense of ‘ what was’ being not only lost but dismissed by those in power.

To put it another way, future shock is the sense that your future is being taken away from you. By whom? By ‘them’…and ‘them’ is a category that can expand or decrease depending on the issue, community and location. It is the question of the ‘them’ that makes the current rise of populist sentiment in New Zealand quite distinct from that elsewhere in the Western world.

As well as ‘elites’ and more recently ‘the woke’, traditionally one of the ‘them’ the populist mood has focused upon have been ‘immigrants’ and ‘migrants’. That is, both those seeking permanent residency and those seeking temporary work.

New Zealand has experienced very significant immigration and migrant increases for the past two decades. If you add in earlier migration then it’s understandable how almost 30% of the New Zealand population was born overseas. If you add in children born to migrants then that number increases exponentially. If you add those who had one or more grandparents born overseas [ i.e. both my grandfathers] then the number increases even more.

Immigration continues to grow, with the latest figures showing a net migration gain of 126,000 in 2023. To get a clearer picture, that was a net gain of 173,000  non-New Zealand citizens balanced against a net loss of 47,000 New Zealand citizens who went elsewhere in 2023. Or in other words, we experienced a migration increase equivalent to the population of Dunedin – in one year.  New Zealand is therefore a country experiencing a very sustained and high level of immigration that has significantly changed many parts of the country over the last two decades in particular. This is a strong driver of the ‘future shock’ that drives New Zealand populism.

Much lower levels of migration as a percentage of the population have resulted in the growth of populist rhetoric and politics in many Western countries – so why has this not eventuated to the same degree here?

There was a time when Winston Peters and NZ First seemed to be riding on a wave of anti-migrant populism and in the early 2000s a focus on anti-Muslim populism that drew upon fears of cultural and religious difference, combined with the fears of possible terrorism. But the terrible tragedy of the March 15 2019 terror attacks by a white supremacist put paid to that. It was to New Zealand’s credit that the nation united in determined outrage, horror and deep sadness that such an attack could happen here.

Populism against a migrant population now aligned you with white supremacist terror and we saw a significant down-scaling of public anti-migrant populist rhetoric.

The other driver away from anti-migrant populism was the ongoing messaging that New Zealand required migration for economic growth.  Migrants were perceived and presented as bringing the necessary skills, money and work ethic that the country required, especially in the face of the ongoing New Zealand brain drain. We can now add to this the issue that New Zealand’s birth rates have dropped to their lowest level since 1943.

Yet populism needs a ‘them’ to focus on and blame for ‘taking away the future’ and it is here that we have seen a distinct New Zealand twist in its populism. While we continue to see populist rhetoric and sentiment directed against ‘the elites’ and the ‘woke’, we now see an increased populist sentiment directed against those sectors of  Māori who are seen to be articulating, pursuing and, by some, demanding a different future from the one the populists and their supporters desire.

Because increasing economic migrants is seen as a political necessity to maintain any sort of an economic status quo, let alone economic gain for the nation, the populist focus now turns, in a New Zealand twist, from the migrant to the indigenous as those who will threaten the expected future. This means future shock is not seen as arising from the introduction of immigrant populations, cultures and society but rather as from the expression and hopes of Māori regarding the Treaty, sovereignty,  bi-culturalism, and the use of te reo Māori.

This populist turn delivered New Zealand the current coalition government, especially when such Māori aspirations were seen as supported by a pakeha elite and woke population. However, such ‘Kiwi populism’ currently lacks a leader with enough charisma and political power to succeed. While Winston Peters has made a career of such populist politics there are questions as to how long he can sustain it, while his appointment as  Foreign Affairs minister will keep him out of the country for significant periods. David Seymour might have a bit more political power and drive, but he lacks the necessary charisma. Just as importantly, the centrist status quo ethos of National seems determined to allow the populist sentiment a voice – because it is as much directed versus the Labour elite and the Greens as it is certain sectors of Māori – while also determining, as senior coalition partner, that it won’t become a totally divisive reality.

However, as New Zealand increasingly becomes a society of immigrants regarded as central to a successful economic future we need to ensure that populist sentiment does not increase and that Māori are not labelled as the ‘them’ who are seen as taking away a hoped-for future by those experiencing future shock. How – or if – this can happen will depend on all the political and social cohesion skills that National under Luxon can muster. Expect the focus to shift versus the elites and the woke – while Māori are quietly re-engaged with.