Just An Ordinary Kiwi Joker: Key and his government remain preternaturally popular because they represent, for a substantial plurality of New Zealanders, the most persuasive attempt, so far, at describing what the national community of twenty-first-century New Zealand looks like.
BRYCE EDWARDS AND JOHN MOORE have taken the country-and-western melodies of populism and over-dubbed them with their own revolutionary lyrics. But, the resulting songs will never be sung by populists. Revolutionaries, too, are unlikely to find the Edwards/Moore mash-up inspirational. In the final analysis, revolution should be about overturning and replacing the existing order. Populism, in almost every instance, is about restoring the old one.
The article in question, “Could Anti-Establishment Politics Hit New Zealand?” (NZ Herald, 11/11/16) takes as its starting point the Dutch political scientist, Cas Muddle’s, definition of populism as “having the three key features of being anti-Establishment, authoritarian and nativist”. Certainly, these characteristics are present in most populist political movements, but they do not define them.
At its heart, populism is a revolt against the idea of political and cultural diversity. The populist seeks to make real the homogeneous nation of his imagination, and whether or not he’s successful depends upon how closely his imagined national community resembles the idealised nation of his fellow citizens. A populist movement only ever gains significant political momentum when large numbers of citizens discover that they share a common vision of what and who their nation is – and isn’t.
And if you’re not included in the populists’ definition of the nation, then your chances of being invited in are slim. Seriously, they’d rather build a wall.
Radical though the populists’ programme may be, populism itself is not automatically anti-establishment. If the democratic process has placed an individual or a party in power which the populists reject as unrepresentative of the nation as they define it, then, certainly, they will oppose the elected government.
Populist opposition to a specific political establishment should not, however, be construed as confirmation of populism’s hostility to all establishments. The populists’ ideal nation may be ruled by elites of whom they heartily approve. Restoring a deposed establishment – the rightful rulers – is no less a populist objective than deposing the establishment set up by its usurpers.
Ideologically-speaking, nearly all of New Zealand’s populist moments have been driven by this deeply conservative restorative impulse. The National Party, in particular, owes its existence to the determination of rural and provincial New Zealanders to overthrow Labour’s socialist usurpers and restore the nation’s rightful rulers – farmers and businessmen.
National’s choice of name was no accident. The new party was (and still is) perceived as standing for the pioneering virtues of the nation’s early settlers: those enterprising men and women, overwhelmingly of British stock, whose Christian capitalist values gave New Zealand its distinctive cultural signature.
The Labour Party, by contrast, was (and still is) seen as the party of the big cities: those sinkholes of moral corruption, physical squalor and political insubordination, whose representatives are incapable of recognising and protecting the cherished values of “heartland” New Zealand. (An imaginary entity with no purchase on this country’s actual geography or history.)
It is no accident that New Zealand’s two most accomplished populist politicians both emerged from the ranks of the National Party. The national community imagined by Rob Muldoon and Winston Peters has, from the very beginning, been defined by its enemies: immigrants, overly assertive Maori, militant trade unionists, left-wing journalists, effete academic intellectuals and (back in the 1970s) rebellious student protesters propelled into the streets by the universities’ alien and subversive ideas.
Muldoon’s great skill as a populist politician lay in convincing his fellow New Zealanders that their race, class and gender offered no barrier to membership of his national community. The National Party’s 1975 election slogan, “New Zealand the way YOU want it.”, captured perfectly Muldoon’s contention that the nation had fallen into the hands of people determined to transform it into something no genuine New Zealander could possibly want. The only viable option for right-thinking Kiwis was to join Muldoon’s national (and National) community of traditional Kiwi values. “Rob’s Mob” elected him on a landslide.
Peters’ populist appeal – inspired by the events that followed his mentor’s crushing defeat in the snap election of 1984 – is similarly restorative. Its unchanging target: the neoliberal establishment installed by Labour’s Roger Douglas between 1984 and 1990, and then further intensified by National’s Ruth Richardson between 1990 and 1993.
This bi-partisan betrayal of Muldoon’s “New Zealand the way YOU want it” populism lies at the heart of Peters’ party – New Zealand First. The nation’s tragic fall from grace is, according to NZ First’s founding narrative, the result of the corruption of its two “great” parties – National and Labour.
In the post-Cold War political environment in which NZ First was formed, Peters was free to cast the past leaders of both major parties as patriots. While holding very different ideas about how to achieve it, the NZ First leader assured his followers, politicians like Keith Holyoake and Norman Kirk wanted only what was good for New Zealand and New Zealanders.
Since the mid-1980s, however, (Peters’ narrative continues) the neoliberal, free-market virus has infected both Labour and National. Neither party any longer cares a fig for the national community. On the contrary, both have committed themselves to neoliberalism, globalism, multiculturalism and, most perversely, biculturalism – the disintegration of the “one people” brought into existence by Governor Hobson at Waitangi on 6 February 1840.
So potent is this latter grievance to those who inhabit the national (and National) community that Don Brash, an avowed neoliberal, came within an ace of defeating Labour in the 2005 General Election. His in/famous “Orewa Speech” and John Ansell’s “Iwi/Kiwi” billboards were almost as electorally compelling as Muldoon’s populist slogan of 30 years before.
In the final week of the 2005 campaign, Brash attempted to consolidate the populist surge unleashed by his attacks on “Maori privilege” by equating the national community – “Middle New Zealand” – with the National Party itself. That the electorate failed to respond in sufficient numbers was, almost certainly, due to Brash’s flinty-faced neoliberalism. In order to clinch such a crucial identification: the national community with the National Party; New Zealand’s distinctive brand of restorative populism required an altogether brighter and happier countenance.
Which brings us, of course, to New Zealand’s present prime minister, John Key. For Edwards and Moore, Key’s National-led Government is the establishment against which the flaming-torch-bearers and pitchfork-shakers of populism are massing menacingly. But in this they are, I believe, entirely mistaken.
Key and his government remain preternaturally popular because they represent, for a substantial plurality of New Zealanders, the most persuasive attempt, so far, at describing what the national community of twenty-first-century New Zealand looks like.
Key’s version of the national community is animated by the same virtues of resilience, hard work and self-sufficiency that characterised its earlier iterations. Wrapped around these core attributes are the traditional benefits of a happy family life, a “good” education, gainful employment and home ownership. Ethnicity, gender and sexuality only matter on “Planet Key” when they become a barrier to accepting the values and aspirations of the “average New Zealander”.
It was John Key’s promise to make the nation once again recognisable to the average New Zealander that propelled him and his party into office in 2008. Like another extremely wealthy businessman-turned-politician we are all learning to live with, Key’s message was one of restoration.
Helen Clark’s politically-correct, nanny-state establishment would be dismantled and replaced by the old order (tricked out for the punters in the glad rags of “a brighter future”). Busy-body public servants and the undeserving poor would be firmly but fairly put back in their proper places, and New Zealand’s “rightful rulers” would return to MAKE NEW ZEALAND [a] GREAT [place to bring up kids] AGAIN.
This is what Edwards and Moore cannot seem to see. That an “anti-establishment”, “authoritarian” and “nativist” government actually took office more than eight years ago. That the national/National community is an accomplished political fact. That Populism has already won.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Sunday, 27 November 2016.