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Thursday, 1 December 2016

No Spark, No Fire?: Looking for "The Shift" in NZ politics prior to the 2017 election

With the hysteria in the US finally abating now might be a good time to consider what is heading our way with New Zealand’s 2017 election cycle.

At this point the date of the NZ Election for 2017 is unknown but given how politics around the world has recently been developing that is the least of our worries.

But perhaps what is happening elsewhere (think all those shock outcomes and change being enacted via the ballot box) will not happen in NZ when Kiwis go to cast their votes next year.

Unlike the US we do not have a highly bi-partisan two party system to dissuade voters and block genuine choice; we have MMP which has given us a mixed parliament and while not perfect it has removed the obvious dysfunction of two party politics.

Nor have we allowed our political system to degrade so much that what an actual election throws up (and I use that term to its full range) is either a monstrous demagogue or Machiavellian schemer. What we have are either bland our soulless political mannequins or populist rabble rousers, both of whom are checked by a weakened, but functioning, electoral system.

Unlike the UK we are not headed towards some sort of watershed vote (ala Brexit) or have succession issues on our hands (as with Scotland previously thinking about leaving); currently there are no plans for the South Island to leave the North and no bugbear unions impeding our sovereignty and making us feel not the masters or our own destiny.

Unlike the Philippines we have not elected a hard arsed action hero to deal with our problems by killing them one bullet at a time (where the people are the problem not the actual problem themselves); instead we have a bland faced used car salesman who has neither the will nor the want to deal with any problem.

Unlike Australia we don’t have a revolving door for prime ministers and governments (five in five years); instead we have a relatively stable election cycle with governments serving over multiple terms and no internecine warfare inside the parties (although Labours struggle pre Andrew Little came close but at they were out of power when it occurred so the fallout remained within the party itself).

Unlike Turkey we don’t have a shady dictator consolidating his hold on power and running the opposition out of town; in NZ we may end up voting John Key in as our virtual dictator simple because there are few alternates to his conniving visage and we simply can’t be buggered to choose anyone else.

I could go on listing other countries and places (Brazil, France, the Middle East, Hong Kong, most of Europe etc) but you get the picture. Political flux is the order of the day, established elites are being challenged for control of the levers of power and the electorate is learning the value of its vote as a tool to punish governments by electing spoiler or extremist candidates to government with no consideration for the established norms.

Combine all this with a climate of economic uncertainty (think post GFC economics, recession, rising prices and the credibility of the economic orthodoxy being strained to breaking point), slow building but ultimately disastrous ecological change (think climate change or bee colony collapse), the problems of reduced sovereignty (think immigration matters, terrorism and garbage like the TPPA) and you have a combination of factors which are producing rather drastic shifts in democratic outcomes

So will there be “a shift” in NZ politics in 12 months’ time like many other countries around the world have seen? Are we headed to some sort of revolutionary outcome like the rest or will it remain business as usual in Godzone?

The obvious way to consider this question would be to consider what the kiwi electorate wants and how it expresses it through the voting system come election time but if we play that game we are assuming that New Zealand will somehow be bucking the current trend in global politics and living in its own little bubble.

So what will it be Shift or Bubble? Steady as she goes, nothing to see hear and safe clean and neat or sudden lurch to the fringe, incendiary political outcomes, all the swimming pools filled with tomato sauce and “cats and dogs living together,mass hysteria!”.

The recent twists and turns of politics around the world today indicate that steady state political models are currently not able to deal with what kind of rabbits the people are pulling out of the electoral hat. So perhaps we should be turning to another model more adept at dealing with the current state of politics, such as how Punk Eq or punctuated equilibrium (to borrow the term from evolutionary biology) relates to Natural Selection. 

Such a model would have to base itself on the simple premise that instead of predictable consensus forged in the middle ground of politics with politicians acting more as managers rather than leaders we now have to factor in the fading of the middle ground as the central play space for political actors and all the raunchy action migrating out to the fringes where it is empowering different narratives and actors who have little or no commitment to the status quo or consensus and are instead devoted to playing the game as zero sum/winner takes all.

This has already shown itself in a variety of ways around the world with the struggle among the elites in the US over who will rule with clear outsider Trump wresting power away from the patrician classes (at least for now) by appealing to the latent nationalism that lurks in all people; through the rise of political figures speaking the language of change (like Corbyn, Trudeau, Sanders, Trump and Duterte); with fickle electorates and weak parliaments (think Australia and Italy) and an electorate willing to enact punitive outcomes on those in government that they perceive as having failed (think almost anywhere that extremist candidates or outcomes are popping up like mushrooms after the rain or like in South Korea where the populace is braying for the current presidents blood for letting her “astrologer” run the country).

With such a model, the question (Raymond!) becomes one of not “if” but “when” and for those people who are calmly sitting there saying “it can’t happen here” have a think about this.

Recent events around the world have come as a shock both to the media reporting on them but also to the politicians who get caught up in them. For both parties the safe bubble in which they operate stayed in place right up until it was popped and change charged in like an angry goat.

So if your belief that “nothing like that will happen here” is based on such a view you may wish to reconsider things.

It’s true that kiwis are a passionless lot (as keenly noted by Gordon MacLauchlan in his books The Passionless People and The Passionless People Revisited) who don’t seem to care that John Key (described by MacLauchlan as a “passionless PM”) and his bunch of ghouls are happy to strip the country bare for a profit, and that with an electoral structure like MMP we have a pressure valve for the kind of pressures that two party systems can generate but we also have issues like the housing hernia, growing poverty (child or otherwise), natural and man made disasters (think Christchurch and its bungled aftermath), an economy reliant on dairy, tourism, and cheap Labour and a past we seem unwilling to honestly address.

Somewhere between these two competing forces is a place, a moment, when a spark ignites, the fire starts and if recent events hold true then in a democratic country the place where the fire starts is in the build up to a national election as the dissent simmering underneath starts to push up angry candidates with angry voices who reject the current status quo (think MOR politics as it currently stands) and see no value in compromise (having been previously marginalized by the system) and are now willing to toss a match onto the wood pile (soaked as it is in the highly combustible passions of those who have suffered under the current regime) and watch the whole thing burn.

Call it puritan rage, call it Joker politics call it what you want (hell even call it FukYooPolitix) but no matter the name the outcome is the same, upset to the current system and the rise of candidates, who for want of a batter word, are revolutionary in that they have little intent to play the same old game and seem eager (if only for now) to sweep away the old order.

Perhaps it’s best in the words of Newton’s third law, “for every action is there is an equal and opposite reaction”.

The fact that it’s all happening now can be attributed, in part, to a weakening (by things like the GFC, the chaos of war and climate change) of the means of suppression that the elites and the establishment have put into place over the years to keep the populace docile (think media obsessions, fads and abject consumerism as the new religion) no longer sufficient to prevent reality from crashing in, and one by one the house of cards starts to fall apart.

In NZ, our own house of cards has been maintained in a kind of demented stasis by the fact that the political actors had ossified into present positions, roles and niches and there is little room for new entrants into the game (good luck Gareth Morgan). Previous vehicles for change (such as the Green and Act) have failed to achieve any genuine reform and simply become co-opted actors in the parliamentary play pen.

If you cast your mind back to the days of Social Credit, Norman Kirk’s 72 cabinet, the land marches, the springbok tour, Winston Peters barnstorming success in 96 or more recently in Northland, the shock outcomes of the MMP and Anti-Nuclear referendums/votes, the Greens in their early days (well before corporate stooge James Shaw infiltrated) or the even the Lange Government in 84 (before they ran amok with the hatchets) and it’s not hard to see a genuine desire for change which has been viciously suppressed by 17 years of MOR politics as enacted by Labour and National Governments (with the smaller parties acting as willing handmaidens).

And add in those current stresses to our little green land and I am willing to lay good money down that 2017 will deliver a shock to the system if the electorate has any opportunity to spit in the faces of the establishment by electing a spoiler party or candidate and thus shifting the game out of the center and onto the fringes. All it takes is one spark to light the fire.

And at this time the opportunities are thus:

Gareth Morgan and The Opportunities Party (TOP): Morgan is the outsider’s choice but as a genuine outsider he is the perfect vehicle for voter rage. The problem for him (or those who vote for him) is that the afore mentioned passionlessness (is this a word?) of Kiwis and his own lack of policy experience might not be enough for him to get the 5% required to bring his brand of shock politics to parliament. Net result for Morgan is that whatever he is planning to do between now and Election Day it had better be good and it would be helped by any political scandals or crisis that freaks people out to which he can make capital on.

In Morgan’s case we will have to see what he is like once the party releases its policy program and Morgan himself start the media machine rolling. At this time an unknown and untested force in the political arena.

Winston Peters and NZ First: The older more preferred brand for people willing to “stick it to the man”. His success in Northland (previously a National Stronghold) proved the blueprint for getting elected on the back of a voter backlash by focusing on local issues and grievances and using them as cudgels to beat the government into submission. Winston is very likely to be King maker again but may have to share some of that position with Morgan (if he can work his mojo).

The problem for Winston is that he has been around so long that he is not really a genuine vehicle for change but rather a reactionary club with which to pound the government from time to time. In this vein he is less a radical rather than a reactionary which serves a similar function but will usually tend toward more conservative outcomes making it hard to imagine a lot of young radicals being attracted to the party (as it did in the 90s).

In the end Winston is no longer a true agent of change but rather a cathartic throwback, the fate of all aging rock stars, who will peddle his brand of entertainment until he retires or dies.

The Greens: With James Shaw slowly consolidating his hold on the party (at least in the media) the Greens are facing the potential of a watershed election. Play their cards right and they could make serious capital off their current polling (12%) but remain hemmed in by being to the left of Labour.

This means that its either play the part of political patsy for Labour or engage in a deadly game of political brinkmanship by engaging with National to either force Labour to be more compromising to them or to actually backdoor Labour and enact policy in league with the dark forces of National (possible give that Shaw’s corporate background).

The danger for them is that this risks a serious schism in the voter base with the hard core rejecting such a dirty dance while the more casual Green voters (think those liberals ticked off with Labour but not yet bitter enough to swing to the polar opposite and vote National) running for the hills as their previous vehicle for their liberal angst sells out and starts working with “the Man”.

The Maori Party: having recently Joined Forces with Mana through Tuku Morgan enacting his plan to unify all Maori threads into one vehicle (by bringing Hone Harawira and Mana back into the fold), a plan to vote strategically (ie not dividing the Mana and Maori vote bases by each fielding a candidate in select electorates) and by attempting to isolate Labour (though getting the Maori King to back them and poo poo Labour) there is a clear potential to improve on their current position (1% in the polls) but to do that means building an expanded voter base and tapping into the anger of Maori through the electoral process.

They have the advantage of the Maori seats to avoid the 5% threshold but that in itself may not be enough if they end up playing the same game as they did before as siding with National would simply be seen as backing the problem as well as simply ticking off Harawira (who is not their biggest fan) and ruining the good vibes built up by getting the band back together.

Like the Greens the potential is there but such potential cuts both ways and in a moment of weakness they could end up pissing it all away (think the Lib Dems in the UK) and doing further damage to the brand.

And on the losing side of the ledger:

ACT: There might be a few riled up voters in Epsom who want to experience the “thrill of revolution” but the odds are against that they would want to do that by voting ACT. ACT might retain its seat but it has none of the Far Right credentials to tap into that strain of voter anger as economic conservatism and white power have little cross over potential in New Zealand. It is bad enough that ACT spout free market dogma like a low budget form of hate speech (its certainly hating on the poor) it would only be worse if they started to add in an ugly racial element.

Net result for ACT is that they had better make sure they retain Epsom.

National: As the current government National is the lightning rod for all the anger being generated so there is little if any rational for those voting for change to vote for them. Also with John Key as the poster boy for everything wrong with the government he is an obvious repellent for any would be voters ready to enact some angry change.

Labour: Andrew Little has had plenty of opportunities to up his game and bring Labour out of the doldrums but unlike his counterpart in the UK (Jeremy Corbyn) he has proven to be politically inexperienced and with a personality like a sack of dead cats. It’s no wonder that Labour remains low in the polling while popular face John Key can suck up the prize for preferred PM with almost no opposition.

Little has blown his chances unless he can figure out a way to tap into all that electoral anger and so far he has shown little understanding of the situation he is in or that he has any idea of the way out of the wilderness so it’s probably safe to say that he will be rolled not long after the election if Labour cant form an unlikely coalition government between them, NZ First and the Greens.

It also doesn't help that Labour are the other side of the establishment coin, they still think they are the "natural" opposition party despite piss poor polling and seem unable to make capital of the issues as they exist.

His (Little's) only hope is that Gareth Morgan gets such a slice of the vote to be able pool it with Labour and the Greens to form a government; BUT that itself also requires a neutral Winston to not bolster National so that chances of that happening are astronomically high (both for Morgan and Peters).

So while several of my previous posts have reeked of revolutionary bravado the game is still afoot in NZ and what is lacking at this time is a spark which will ignite the voters; be it a candidate or an issue or both.

In short, no spark = no shift.

The flip-side is that many of these electoral outcomes have been hard to spot coming because of the previously mentioned media and establishment suppression or ignorance of how ugly thing were getting away from the high tower but as its stands in NZ the latent issues are there but as yet no real vehicle for their reckless energy.

So we can watch and wait (like passive little spectators) or consider going out there and string up some action ourselves. As my previous posts have noted now is the perfect time to get into the game as periods of flux (much like war) often open up rapid opportunities for promotion (think battlefield commissions) for those out doing their part.

I know what I will be doing. Do you?


  1. Does it bother you that nobody ever comments here? Do you sometimes feel like the musician who rehearses for days and days and then performs to an empty room?

  2. Hi Kal: According to my sites tracking I get about 100 - 200 hits per day on a good day and about 30 on a quiet so while no one is commenting I do get some people reading what I write.

    I also know from the tracking where they come from so at least of some of my old readers from KP followed me over, not always the most commentate lot).

    I do get the odd comment but yes on the whole few and far between.

    That said I write not just to blog but also as a way of working through my thoughts and as a bit of cathartic relief (as I once noted on KP I write reports and such all day for a living so this is a form of working out some of that analytic/bureaucratic stresses) so while not a hot bed of comments and discussion it serves its purpose.

  3. Fair enough, sorry if I hit a nerve

    So what do you think of the Italian referendum

  4. No Probs Kal, I am pretty thick skinned, so my reply was not meant to sound defensive, just adding some facts to why I am not so worried about the low level of replies as I am still getting hits.

    Have only glanced at Italy peripherally but I know it has a history of government and party change so is this business as usual or something else? I will have to go have a look and find out.

  5. Doesn't every democratic country have a "history of government and party change"?

  6. Not like Italy, from what i know (which is admittedly not much) it has had revolving door parties and governments for a lot longer than OZ.

    Unlike NZ where there is a degree of stability in government and parties, Italy seems to be in near constant flux (which is what i have found out so far from my "research").

  7. It's also worth noting that the Italian government hasn't changed as a result of the referendum

  8. Not yet, but its in flux, seems from my cursory reading of the news and such its some sort of election is being called for.

    Looks like the center left under a popular comedian (Bepee Grillo) and the Five Star Movement is looking to shake things up.