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New Zealand: Political Volatility under Cost-of-Living Crisis

Credit: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

LONDON, Oct 20 2023 (IPS) - It’s a rapid reversal for New Zealand’s Labour Party, in power for six years. At the last election in 2020 it won an outright majority, the first party to do so under the current voting system. But three years on, it’s finished a distant second in the election held on 14 October. The result speaks to a broader pattern seen amid economic strife in many countries – of intense political volatility and the rejection of incumbents.

Jacindamania fades

Former Labour leader Jacinda Ardern captured the public imagination when she took the helm of her party in August 2017. Labour had been floundering but went on to gain seats at the election the following month, unexpectedly forming a coalition government.

Aged 37, Ardern was her country’s youngest-ever prime minister by some margin, and the world’s youngest female government leader. Many saw her as a breath of fresh air, offering an approachable and empathetic brand of politics. Ardern enjoyed an international profile unprecedented for a New Zealand prime minister.

The 2020 election saw Ardern and her party rewarded for what was widely seen as an effective pandemic response, credited with saving around 20,000 lives. The opportunity seemed on to pursue an ambitious agenda. The government could point to progress in decriminalising abortion, tightening gun control laws and introducing stronger workplace rights. But many saw the government as having an overcrowded legislative agenda, failing to make headway on headline policies such as child poverty, while voters increasingly became preoccupied with high inflation.

Ardern announced her resignation in January 2023. Her popularity and that of her party had declined amid the soaring cost of living, which some blamed on long pandemic lockdowns.

Ardern had been the target of a bombardment of online abuse, much of it vilely misogynist in nature. Last year New Zealand police reported that threats against Ardern had almost tripled over two years, as anti-vaccine disinformation and conspiracy theories accumulated extremist adherents. In 2022, anti-vaccine protesters camped for weeks outside parliament. The protests, which ended in violence, were a magnet for far-right extremists. Levels of vitriol previously unseen in New Zealand were again present during the election campaign, in which women and Māori candidates in particular were subjected to intimidation and instances of violence.

Ardern’s replacement as prime minister, Chris Hipkins, promised to focus on bread-and-butter issues. He cut many progressive policies and pitched squarely for the centre. But his strategy failed. Labour was the only major party to shed votes. It lost support to the centre-right National Party – New Zealand’s other party of government – along with the right-wing Act and the nationalist and populist NZ First. But it also shed more progressive voters, with the Green party and Te Pāti Māori, which advocates for Indigenous rights, picking up support.

Fractious coalition ahead

Quite what government will form isn’t yet clear. Results are provisional and won’t be finalised until 3 November, with over half a million ‘special votes’ still to be counted – many from New Zealanders living overseas. Due to the death of a candidate a by-election will also be held.

The National party has 50 seats in the 121-seat single-chamber parliament; the workings of the electoral system mean parliament will expand to 122 seats once all votes are counted. This total means it’s clear the National party will head a coalition government, with Christopher Luxon as prime minister. But a National-Act alliance might not be enough to command a majority. NZ First may need to be part of the coalition too.

NZ First is the creation of maverick opportunist Winston Peters. Over the course of a long career, Peters has pulled off the trick of positioning as anti-establishment while working with both main parties in coalition governments, including Ardern’s first administration, and serving as deputy prime minister twice. This time he was able to capitalise on anti-government sentiment developed under the pandemic, including by opposing vaccine mandates.

Among his campaign targets were Māori rights, with Peters – himself Māori – pledging to withdraw support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Another focus was trans rights, tapping into the same currents of manufactured outrage seen in Europe and North America, with a law proposed to restrict access to toilets for transgender people.

The numbers may mean that the National party finds it easier to govern with Peters than without, even though the three parties disagree on key policies, including on the economy and housing. It could be a rocky road ahead.

Advances reversed?

For New Zealand’s civil society, the question could now become how best to defend gains made and keep on the agenda vital issues such as climate change. The climate crisis was barely mentioned during the campaign even though the country is experiencing extreme weather along with the rest of Oceania. Hipkins scrapped a series of transport reforms intended to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Act, certain to be part of government, wants to get rid of New Zealand’s Climate Change Commission and Zero Carbon Act, which mandates an emissions reduction plan and cap.

The last government’s experiments in ‘co-governance’ – essentially collaborative management, mostly of environmental resources, between government and Māori representatives, based in New Zealand’s foundational Treaty of Waitangi – seem sure to end. All parties likely to be involved in the new government attacked these moves with a flurry of hyperbolic claims. Act and NZ First characterise efforts to challenge the exclusion of Māori people as privileging them over other population groups. The danger is that those strongly opposed to Māori rights will feel emboldened, signalling increasing division and polarisation ahead.

New Zealand offers a lesson on the political consequences of the impacts of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis intensified by Russia’s war on Ukraine. In just three years, overwhelming political support evaporated. Progress may be temporary and subject to rapid reversal. Civil society must be able to switch strategies just as quickly, from advocating for more to defending gains already made.

Andrew Firmin isCIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.


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