By Ani White
In the last days of the spooky season, Aotearoa/New Zealand looks set to face down a genuinely frightening rogue's gallery of suited monsters as the new government forms. Your favourite slasher movie villain has nothing on these white guys. Yet before we take on the horrors ahead, we must consider the brutal path that has brought us to this point.
A postmortem of the Sixth Labour Government (RIP: 2017 – 2023)
In 2020, during the height of the Sixth Labour Government's popularity, Fightback argued that Jacinda Ardern's leadership did not live up to the hype:
For progressives around the world, Jacinda Ardern’s Sixth Labour government is seen as a bastion. However, this perceived beacon of light is in large part an index of the darkness [elsewhere].1
Ardern was a clear communicator, a competent leader, and willing to listen to professionals during a public health crisis. The exceptional nature of these qualities in part indicated just how dire things had gotten. Ardern infamously got started as a Tony Blair staffer, at a time when 'Third Way' politics were a global norm, defined by social and economic liberalism.
The early 21st century saw the collapse of Blairism as his government embraced the unpopular 'War on Terror.' The late 00s saw the deferred hope and change of the Obama era, before 2016's turning point where the victories of Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK confirmed a hard right turn from the social liberal period. Competent centrists like Ardern are a dying breed.
Yet the tone for Ardern's government was set during her 2017 General Election campaign, when she threw Metiria Turei under the bus for short-term gain. Turei had publicly stated that as a single mother on a benefit, she had lied to Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) to cover essential costs. Anybody who has experienced Aotearoa/New Zealand's punitive, paltry 'welfare state' knows that Turei was simply telling the truth. However, when a right-wing smear campaign forced Turei out of parliament, Jacinda Ardern sided with the right, publicly stating: “When you’re lawmakers, you can’t condone lawbreaking.”2
Following this pattern, the Sixth Labour government's first term saw perpetual failures to address the great threats of our time. In November 2019, the Zero Carbon Act passed with near-unanimous support. However, this was a Pyrrhic Victory: Labour pandered to National, and to key high-emitting industries, interests fundamentally hostile to stopping the approaching climate catastrophe. In general, the Sixth Labour government tended to seek consensus with enemy forces, hampering them from doing anything particularly useful.
During the 2020 General Election, the Labour government lost a commonly cited excuse for their conservatism. Left and liberal defenders of Labour had argued that the party was shackled by its coalition with the conservative zombie party New Zealand First. Now with Ardern's landslide victory, New Zealand First was no longer required for Labour to govern.
It's a common criticism that Ardern did little or nothing with a strong majority. Yet without wanting to let her off the hook, it's worth considering how Labour was able to secure such a strong majority. Ardern's government successfully flipped a number of National seats in 2020, likely due to both competent handling of the pandemic, and a lack of radical measures otherwise.
In speeches on the evening of the 2020 General Election, both Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern emphasised that they would govern for “all New Zealanders.” While this doesn't sound particularly insidious in itself, it was essentially a signal that they would try to govern for the right as well as the left. The right ultimately was not appeased.
Ambivalence in the time of COVID
It must be acknowledged that the Sixth Labour government handled the COVID-19 pandemic competently. The ability to implement immediate nationwide lockdowns, rather than various inconsistent state and territory lockdowns as in the USA and Australia, helped in rapidly shutting the pandemic down.
The government was also widely noted for clear communication, with mantras like “team of 5 million” and “be kind” encouraging a sense of nationwide solidarity in facing down a potential public health crisis. It seemed, for maybe a year, that we were all in this together. While the government did face opposition from business people and right-wing opposition parties, one only needed to glance at any country taking the “let her rip” approach to see the carnage that Aotearoa/New Zealand avoided for a year or two.
Yet the restrictions also had a disproportionate impact on poor, racialised and working-class communities. Whereas white collar workers were able to work from home, essential workers such as cleaners or service workers were on the front line of pandemic-related challenges. Migrant workers were especially under threat, as we noted in September 2020:
Left out of the “team of 5 million” altogether were the approximately 300,000 migrant workers on temporary visas. Many of those workers lost jobs or had their hours substantially reduced, but were unable to apply for benefits.3
As the economy slowly began to open up again, this was described by some economists as a “K-shaped” recovery:4 those with economic assets benefited from the recovery, while those without asserts were shut out of those benefits.
During this whole period, significant public healthcare investment was not even mentioned as a possibility. This indicates just how low political horizons are, given the health system has been underfunded for over 30 years, and hit a breaking point with the pandemic. Although people applauded nurses, the healthcare system remains overstretched and underfunded.
Finally, the most ghoulish of the ghouls returned to the scene: the far right, taking advantage of social alienation in a crisis as always. Even as the government dismantled its own traffic light system, moving towards a primary reliance on vaccination, an eclectic group of around 1,000 people occupied parliament lawn for 24 days. Although many of the protestors were poor and working-class, a layer of far right grifters from various quarters essentially operated as the movement leadership.
Ardern did not leave government for another year, but the parliament lawn occupation was a death knell for Ardern-ism. Her call for consensus now rung hollow, as 30% of New Zealanders supported the parliament lawn occupation according to some polls.5 A study by University of Auckland researchers also found that she was 50 to 90 times more likely to face online hatred than any other public figure,6 a notable sign of noxious political life even for those of us with criticisms of the Labour Party.
Labour particularly crashed and burned in Auckland, where COVID restrictions were more stringent than elsewhere. Ardern's old electorate of Mt Albert was once the safest seat in the country, and almost fell to National – but overwhelmingly because Labour voters stayed home rather than switching party. That's not an endorsement of either the right or the left alternatives, so much as simple exhaustion and alienation.
Do you believe in life after Jacinda?/I can feel something inside me say...
After Ardern's resignation, sweet summer child Chris Hipkins rose from humble Hutt South MP to Prime Minister of a whole country. Hipkins' apparent strategy was to continue Ardern's non-committal centrism, but without the strong communication skills that had made the gruel more palatable.
Despite some mumblings about the cost of living crisis, Hipkins did not really have a clear message. Early in the campaign, he ruled out a Capital Gains Tax and a wealth tax, not a departure from Ardern's policies but not exactly a promising sign of visionary leadership either.7 Unsurprisingly, potential voters were not inspired by Hipkins' lack of either personality appeal or commitment to any substantial politics: turnout was lower than in either of the elections in which Ardern ran.8
Te Pāti Māori and the Greens both campaigned to the left of Labour, achieving relatively strong results for their trouble. In Wellington Central, Green candidate Tamatha Paul rose from the first Māori woman president of the Victoria University of Wellington Students Association (VUWSA), to diligent councillor, to parliamentarian without even being on the party list. The Greens won 10.77% of the party vote, their highest ever party vote running alone (social-democratic electoral coalition The Alliance won 18.2% of voters in 1993). Although the Greens are themselves liberal centrist in their overall orientation, their strong result this election proves there is an appetite for politics to the left of what Labour offered.
Te Pāti Māori also achieved its highest vote yet, although still well below the threshold at 2.61%. The majority of Māori electorates also flipped from Labour to Te Pāti Maori, in a reversal of the 2014 General Election's mass voter desertion of the Māori Party for their collaboration with National. Yet the relatively strong turnout for the minor left parties could not compensate for the self-annihilation of the ruling party, barely achieving more than 25%.
While the major parties lumbered around knocking over buildings like Godzilla and Kong, the far right micro-parties were at least as nightmarish, only significantly smaller – more like lethally venomous spiders. Fortunately, the far right micro-party vote was split between 8 parties.9 In a similar vein, the Red-Brown front Workers Now campaigned to strip away what few rights trans people have, a poisonous brand of 'socialism' that was fortunately ignored by most people. A marginally more popular TERF group wearing leftish drag was the Women's Rights Party, led by former Alliance co-leader Jill Ovens.
Premonitions concerning the Sixth National Government (2023 – ?)
National leader Chris Luxon has spelled out that he wants ACT to join the next government, but the new government's relationship with New Zealand First's shambling zombie Winston Peters is presently unclear. This is quite common in Aotearoa / New Zealand's form of proportional representation: ever since 1996, we have maintained a three-yearly ritual whereby the prospective king courts the dessicated zombie with the nice hair and suits, literally known as the 'Kingmaker' in common political discourse.
Yet whether or not they invite New Zealand's favourite nationalist zombie into their ranks, National is comfortably able to govern with ACT. Drycleaners in Wellington will make a killing in the next three years, as the suits of these two yuppie parties are routinely splattered with blood. Patrick Bateman was just one man: imagine a platoon of approximately 44 Patrick Batemans, and you've got a picture of the incoming government.
Daphne Lawless of Fightback has argued the “memetic effects” of culture wars during elections should not be ignored by the left. In her words, we must consider:
[W]hat the election “means” in terms of an impact on how people think and feel, what it does to the confidence of one broad social group or another.10
Lawless compared conservative campaigning to a recent development in which Elon Musk bought Twitter, and hordes of transphobic racist zombies were unleashed. We have discussed the fortunately ineffectual far right micro-parties which represent similar social forces in Aotearoa / New Zealand.
Yet the zombie plague is not limited to the most irrelevant cranks. The campaigns of New Zealand First's Winston Peters and ACT's David Seymour went to a similar well. As highlighted by the Queer Endurance / Defiance statement on the election, which Fightback reprinted:
The ACT Party’s leader joked about bombing the Ministry for Pacific Peoples and, far from facing consequences, saw his party’s support skyrocket.11
Winston Peters has also moved on from blaming Asians and Muslims for everything wrong with the world, to joining in on the trans panic taking the straight world by storm. David Seymour has also joined in on this popular bloodsport.
Typically, ACT has also campaigned on “helping” sick and addicted people back to work.12 This offer of “help” is not promising for people in rough circumstances, as getting kicked off the benefit does not tend to result in great personal prosperity. Many policies and comments in recent months sound more like threats than promises.
The rot goes right to the bald top. Luxon has engaged in dog-whistles such as criticising the use of te reo Māori in signage, even though signs use both English and Māori.13 With these kinds of dog-whistles, Luxon was apparently playing to the sort of confused Pākehā who consider bi-cultural 'co-governance' to be a step too far, even though it's actually a very limited bureaucratic policy. In fact, cultural dog-whistles have become so central to right-wing campaigning that it's hard to discern much of a political programme, beyond tax cuts that for most people will be wiped out by the combination of inflation and stagnant incomes.
Is this the end?
We must keep fighting until dawn, when the red sun promises to send the vampires scurrying. And while there can be a place for taking that fight into parliament house, it has repeatedly proven not to be a primary site of strength for the dispossessed.
It can be hard to imagine that we will ever triumph over the bloodsuckers draining everybody from Slope Point to Cape Reinga. Yet we have survived horrors like this before, and we can survive them again. As outlined in the Queer Endurance / Defiance (QED) statement quoted above:
The state does not care for us. The state will not look after us. But this does not mean we need despair, or cower at home in fear... we will look out for each other where the state won’t.14
QED's statement specifically concerned trans rights, but it has relevance to other communities, as we face down a common gallery of monsters. Any one of us may be weak, but as a horde we are strong. To quote the band Garbage, from their criminally overlooked track So We Can Stay Alive (2016):
Be careful what it is you break
Every broken thing can't be fixed
And all those fragile things we are
They find their voice, and they find their power
They take a grip around your throat
They keep squeezing till your life runs out
So we can stay alive
1Ani White, “ “Lawmakers, not lawbreakers”: Jacindamania as a bastion of the Third Way, 1 September 2020, Fightback: https://fightback.org.nz/2020/09/01/lawmakers-not-lawbreakers-jacindamania-as-a-bastion-of-the-third-way/
3Bronwen Beechey, Being kind? The Ardern government and COVID-19, 8 September 2020: https://fightback.org.nz/2020/09/08/being-kind-the-ardern-government-and-covid-19/
4Reuters, “'Explosion of wealth inequality' as housing boom leaves many behind – economist”, 17 April 2021, Newshub: https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/money/2021/04/explosion-of-wealth-inequality-as-housing-boom-leaves-many-behind-economist.html
5Luke Malpass, Stuff, Parliament protest: New poll shows 30 per cent of Kiwis support anti-mandate protest, 18 February 2022, Stuff: https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/127808790/parliament-protest-new-poll-shows-30-per-cent-of-kiwis-support-antimandate-protest
6Chris Wilson, “Data reveals level of online hatred for Jacinda Ardern”, 24 January 2023, University of Auckland: https://www.auckland.ac.nz/en/news/2023/01/24/data-shines-a-light-on-the-online-hatred-for-jacinda-ardern.html
7Felix Desmarais, “'End of story' - Hipkins rules out wealth and capital gains taxes”, 12 July 2023, 1 News: https://www.1news.co.nz/2023/07/12/end-of-story-hipkins-rules-out-wealth-and-capital-gains-taxes/
8Alice Neville, "Voter turnout down on 2020, slightly down on 2017; special votes up”, 15 October 2023, The Spinoff: https://thespinoff.co.nz/live-updates/15-10-2023/lets-wait-and-see-chris-bishop-not-counting-on-a-two-party-government
9Byron Clark, “In 2023 the populist right is still a mess”, 29 September 2023
10Daphne Lawless, “Doing the same thing, expecting different results: notes on revolutionaries in electoral politics”, 2 January 2023: https://fightback.org.nz/2023/01/02/doing-the-same-thing-expecting-different-results-notes-on-revolutionaries-in-electoral-politics/
11Queer Endurance / Defiance, “Reprint: Queer Endurance / Defiance’s statement on the 2023 general election”, 18 September 2023: buttondown.email/Fightback/archive/reprint-queer-endurance-defiances-statement-on/
12ACT New Zealand, “Helping Sick and Drug-addicted Beneficiaries Back To Work, 15 September 2023: https://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PA2309/S00086/helping-sick-and-drug-addicted-beneficiaries-back-to-work.htm
13William Hewett, “Christopher Luxon says Government should be focused on fixing NZ's roads rather than creating te reo Māori signs”, 31 May 2023:
14Queer Endurance / Defiance, “Reprint: Queer Endurance / Defiance’s statement on the 2023 general election”, 18 September 2023: buttondown.email/Fightback/archive/reprint-queer-endurance-defiances-statement-on/