The Populist Cocktail: Take, ‘Immigrants willing to work for ridiculously low wages preventing ordinary Kiwis from accessing well-paying jobs’. Add, ‘Big cities – particularly Auckland – sucking up the nation’s scarce resources and leaving New Zealand’s provincial heartland starved of everything from decent roads and railways to policemen able to respond when called’. Shake vigorously and decant into the nearest polling-booth.
TRUMP, TRUMP, TRUMP. Has an American president ever dominated the global conversation so effortlessly – or so absolutely? All those foreign policy “experts” who argued that under the lofty administration of Barack Obama American power has waned have been forced to reconsider their position. And no wonder, because practically every hour of every day since his inauguration, President Trump has proved beyond all doubt that the United States remains, indisputably, “the indispensable nation”.
So completely does Trump dominate the global news cycle that, even here, at the bottom of the world, political experts have begun speculating as to whether New Zealanders might be in line for an Antipodean version of “The Donald”.
Others object that the Americans have, as usual, come late to the party. New Zealanders, they insist, have had their very own populist political leader for nigh-on a quarter-century. His name? Winston Peters.
But identifying Peters as the New Zealand Trump merely pushes the question back one space. Instead of asking: Does NZ have its own Donald Trump? The question now becomes: Can Peters replicate Trump’s extraordinary success?
The short answer is: No. Trumpism could only be established in New Zealand by a politician drawn from the ranks of one of the major parties. Such a person would then have to take his or her party by storm: over-ruling and over-powering its existing power structures with the assistance of fanatical supporters drawn from both within and without the party.
Labour’s rules make such a political eruption much more achievable than National’s, but the absence of a Trump-like figure in its caucus makes one much less likely. National, on the other hand, has Judith Collins who, given the right conditions (and they would have to be very far-right conditions) could place herself at the head of a populist putsch – but only if her caucus colleagues believed themselves to have no other option.
Because populism is not summoned into existence by the wiles of an ambitious politician. In fact, the opposite is true. The conditions that make populism viable invariably prepare their own political executors. “Rogernomics” empowered Jim Anderton. “Ruthanasia” called forth Winston Peters. The disintegration of the American working class caused by globalisation and automation; the challenge posed to the hegemony of White America by rapid and irreversible demographic change; these were the principal ingredients of the spell that summoned forth Donald Trump.
What, then, are the economic and social forces currently influencing New Zealand society that could enable Peters and NZ First to give the forthcoming general election a populist tinge?
Essentially, they are the same forces that drove the United States into the arms of Donald Trump: fear of the “other”, and the hollowing out of the heartland.
The ethnic composition of the New Zealand population has changed so dramatically since the mid-1980s that native-born New Zealanders no longer regard their social and economic ascendancy as unassailable. Although Peters has yet to give unapologetic voice to these racial anxieties, their potential to deliver the coup de grace to an already faltering bi-partisan consensus on population policy is undeniable.
What populist worthy of the name could have viewed the shocking video footage of an angry young Maori woman abusing a pair of young Muslim women stretching their legs at Huntly and not drawn the all-too-obvious conclusions about the volatility of race-relations in contemporary New Zealand?
It is, moreover, very likely that the young Maori woman’s anger was fuelled by more than racial animus. It’s highly probable that envy was also a factor.
For those whose lack of education and skills keeps them trapped in declining provincial communities, the presence, however fleeting, of young professionals from metropolitan New Zealand can only remind them of all the things they seek but cannot find: employment, income, accommodation, mobility, freedom … and a future.
It is a potent political cocktail just waiting to be mixed.
Take, ‘Immigrants willing to work for ridiculously low wages preventing ordinary Kiwis from accessing well-paying jobs’. Add, ‘Big cities – particularly Auckland – sucking up the nation’s scarce resources and leaving New Zealand’s provincial heartland starved of everything from decent roads and railways to policemen able to respond when called’. Shake vigorously and decant into the nearest polling-booth.
Peters delivered the latter ingredient straight to the voters of Northland in March 2015. Mixed with the former, and garnished with the bitter fruit of homelessness and poverty, he would have a political cocktail of unprecedented potency.
The only question that remains is: will Peters mix it?
Is our political culture as irredeemably divided as America’s? Are our core institutions as bereft of competent defenders? Is Winston Peters as blinded by ignorance and narcissistic self-regard as President Trump?
Personally, I do not think so. If the drumbeat is Peters, Peters, Peters – it’s unlikely to accompany our collective march to the scaffold.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 14 February 2017.