There’s been a lot of hand-wringing on both the left and the right of New Zealand politics, before, during and after the 2023 election regarding the supposedly recent rise of division in New Zealand society. Dame Anne Salmond has recently – and I must say belatedly – identified this as the rise of identity politics and divisive decision making. I say belatedly because we have been noting the rise of identity politics in New Zealand society for well over a decade (on the combined social-media and academic back of the rise of US identity politics) while divisive decision making is central to the Westminster political system. It would in fact be difficult to identify a time in New Zealand politics and society when there hasn’t been some type of divisive decision making and action by those in power. The issue being, some decisions that at the time seem and are experienced as incredibly divisive soon become the new norm and status quo; homosexual law reform and prostitution decriminalization are two that come easily to mind.
We could call these emancipatory decisions, that is decisions seeking to facilitate freedom of participation, work and citizenship. Changes to employment law, collective bargaining, arbitration, and compulsory unionism are other examples that are more contested, being seen by many as emancipatory decisions, but by others as restrictive or anti-worker. Identity politics is more problematic because while it is articulated as emancipatory, its exercise is often experienced both as divisive and as a demand by a minority to change and limit how people think, talk and interact in the public space. As such, identity politics is the restriction of collective identity rather than as often expressed, its expansion.
Salmond situates her discussion in the context of the Bosnian war in 1993 as a Cassandra warning of what, supposedly, could be in store for New Zealand if the current centre-right coalition government continues to act in ways set out in their various manifestos pre-election. Yet to compare New Zealand with Bosnia in the wake of the post-Cold war breakup and division of Yugoslavia is seemingly to wilfully draw an extremely long bow of comparison – and expectation. The history of the Balkans, over centuries of empires, conquests, political realignments and divisions, cultural, political, religious and nationalistic histories and enmities, is completely different to New Zealand – past, present or future. The Bosnian tragedy also arose within a series of other Balkan conflicts, wars, nationalisms and geo-political powerplays. To say what could happen in Bosnia could happen anywhere and then redirect the ‘anywhere’ to New Zealand under the current centre-right coalition government is to lay the ground for a left-wing moral panic.
As I noted, New Zealand society has always been divided. Pre-contact Māori society was as divided as any other society; it experienced divisions within and between hapū and iwi like any other human grouping. For collective identity is always contested and the result of the exercise of power and authority. Similarly, colonial New Zealand was a society divided in many various ways along and across class, ethnic, gender, political, urban and rural, religious, and regional lines. We also need to remember that over the past 200 years New Zealand’s collective identity has been both challenged and imposed, rethought and rearticulated by the wars of colonization, the on-going exercise of settler power and authority against Māori, land seizures and confiscations, women’s suffrage, widespread industrial action and response such as Massey’s Cossacks in the 1913 waterfront strike, the Depression riots and special constables, the 1951 waterfront strike/ lockout, ‘White New Zealand’ immigration policies, the dawn raids of the 1970s, land marches and protests, the 1981 Springbok tour, the control economy government of Muldoon and the responding policies and actions of the fourth Labour Government, MMP and referendums… and such a list could be easily expanded.
The idea of a cohesive, non-divided society of normative collective identity is a myth propounded by those dissatisfied with the current day and those in power. It’s the social and cultural politics of rose-tinted selective nostalgia, for we know that collective identity is myth-making and the exercise of power, politics, media and education combined.
The exercise of power is always divisive, if not on the group represented by those holding power, then certainly experienced by those power is exercised on. Decision-making by those with power is what political theorist Carl Schmitt calls the act of sovereign exception. By making a decision, one is acting as sovereign power, especially when it is an exception to the norm – or, more often, an exception to what those opposed to the sovereign power wish or want. Collective identity is therefore a double-myth, the myth of those with power and an alternative myth of those who feel acted upon or against. At times of a transfer of political power the dominant collective myths and the narratives of what constitutes normative and collective identity change – and this is what New Zealand is experiencing at the moment. MMP just allows these divisions to become more visible as coalitions seek to negotiate, exercise and impose their visions and versions of collective identity both within a coalition and out into and onto the nation.
The Labour majority government of 2020-2023 alerted us to the fact that absence of a governing political coalition is no guarantee of a successful collective identity being exercised by those in power. Rather, its exercise of sovereign power seemed to shatter hopes for, and experiences of, positive collective identity held by a great deal of the population, perhaps because it failed to understand what actually constituted the myths of collective identity for the majority of New Zealanders. In this, I am reminded of a comment made by the German writer and journalist Hans Magnus Enzenberger in his discussion of Swedish politics: “It seems to me that the Swedish Democratic Party is no ordinary political party. It plays a hegemonic role, which means it determines the rules that everyone else must follow for political survival.”
In New Zealand, I believe the National party plays a similar hegemonic role. We could go as far as to say that the Clark Labour Government was so successful because it followed the National party hegemonic rules. It is when National deviates from its own rules that it loses power or falls apart in leadership challenges and squabbles, as it did in 2020. This is why a coalition government under National party hegemony is perhaps the best expression of what New Zealand’s collective identity looks like; it may not be one the centre-left likes but it is the normative expression of our collective myths in power and action.
The hegemonic role of National is the politics of pragmatism, polling and compromise; it understands that there will always be division within a society and that collective identities expand and contract depending on the issue. Hegemony in a democracy means being more attuned to such collective identities and myths than your opponents – and in MMP, your coalition partners. It is being able to identify and exercise the degree of acceptable division and when necessary, reassess, compromise and pull back to ensure collective identity remains collective for the majority.
The challenge for Labour and its possible coalition partners is to be able to express a coherent and cohesive set of collective myths and identity under a leader able to hold them in creative tension.