Leading into the 2014 election I recall Chris Trotter was feeling pretty optimistic, he even suggested National’s vote could slump to the low 40s and a Labour – Green bloc would therefore have a chance of clinching power.
He must have been polling in Mt Albert.
Fast Forward to 2017, and the ever adaptable Trotter had taken a more pragmatic approach, channeling Winston Peters as man of the hour, someone willing to call ‘time’ on the experiment we refer to as ‘neoliberalism’.
So, Peters the revolutionary? Oh, Please.
What is true about Peters is that for decades he has been part of an enigmatic group of politicians around the world who ply their trade casting suspicion over society’s elites. In 1992, he became fed up with his place in the National Government and buggered off to start his own political party, calling it ‘New Zealand First’.
Under the auspices of Mr Peters, New Zealand First have constructed a political platform that resembles a ‘giant jenga’ of bicultural nationalism and blue rinse conservatism.
In contrast to the liberal order that arose and its claim to ‘empower’ individuals, Peters spoke about the faceless elites within it who he claimed were in fact ‘disempowering’ the nation. It is a form of politics that has struck a chord with a significant cross section of the voting public.
But from the mid 90s, Peters had started tailoring the first of his invisible ensembles, something he could drape over a newly empowered and marauding constituency. He accomplished this by promising many things to many people. He promised the workers that he would ‘stop the clock’ on economic liberalisation, the elderly were promised that he would safeguard their retirement and Maori were promised an end to the National Government. He would also sing a tune that would resonate with all 3 groups, an end to the record numbers of Asian immigrants arriving in the country.
In New Zealand’s first MMP election he garnered 13.4% of the vote and every single Maori constituency. This brought him 16 MPs and more crucially, the balance of power.
It was in the period between 1996 and 1999 that Peters attracted his first public calling out. After tailoring the imaginary threads of National’s demise in the ‘96 election, he made an about face and joined with them in coalition. And instead of providing the elderly with the financial security he promised, he severed the area between his spine and lower back and fought for a referendum on compulsory superannuation – a proposal bitterly rejected by voters.
By now, the facade of fine tapestry became clearer and the popularity of Peter’s party begun to plunge, as did National’s. Shortly thereafter, a plucky Jenny Shipley rolled Jim Bolger out of a job and Peters knew it was time to abandon ship. But a small group of New Zealand First MPs, led by Tau Henare, broke away and continued to support the now Shipley-led National government.
Peters’ plan to flush away the Shipley government and save himself had backfired spectacularly. When the 1999 election finally came around just about everyone linked to New Zealand First were bundled out. Peters himself only clung on to his seat by only a few dozen votes.
But Peters was by no means a spent force.
The old yarn of a child finally calling out the Emperor for ‘not wearing anything at all’ should also present an opportunity for us to reflect on why we have such difficulty calling out politicians who offer us such little substance. It is as if the ‘system’, this ghastly form of neoliberalism, has taken on a form of personification that absolves those who have spent decades governing within it, from taking any responsibility for its existence, or any meaningful action to replace it.
By 2002 Peters had bounced back, scooping up votes from a National Party that had plummeted to its lowest share of the vote in electoral history. He still rallied against immigration from the sidelines but the Clark Government didn’t require his services until 2005.
Just as the first tranche of baby boomers started heading into retirement, Peters reentered government and produced a ‘seniors card’. A practically useless bribe at a time when the price of everything had started increasing at a rate not seen in over 30 years.
Ironically, despite decades of isolationist rhetoric, Peters traded in domestic policy for a post as Foreign Minister. And throughout his tenure the bi lateral trade agreements continued, the numbers of cashed up immigrants accelerated and the gaps between rich and poor widened.
By 2008 the public started to howl that the fine tailored ensemble they had been sold (again) was in fact ‘nothing at all’.
This time Peters and his mob were voted out entirely, albeit for only 3 years.
Peters emerged from the ashes in 2011 to lay claim as a guardian of democracy. Just as he had done decades earlier, he convinced the public that he was the man who could be trusted to keep those faceless elites in line, especially those who frequent otherwise innocuous looking Auckland cafes.
By 2014 he was so emboldened by the response to his campaign that he took his immigration stump speech to the oldies a bit further than he usually would. “Two wongs don’t make a white” said Peters, who made the news that night for being a racist dick.
Peters has spent longer in the New Zealand parliament than the time neoliberalism has dominated its politics and he has been part of 3 governments (Bolger, Bolger / Shipley, Clark) that were proponents of it. Meanwhile, his go-to election issues have remained practically unchanged for the past 25 years, the only notable exception is that his party sometimes oscillates between pro Maori positions and others which are clearly antagonistic.
New Zealand First policies are just ‘common sense’, Peters will say. And it is the promise of ‘common sense’ that leads a disillusioned public toward measuring up for his triennially regurgitated and largely evidence-free vision for the country.
It is as if every 3 years the Emperor’s subjects become inflicted by one of those memory cleansing devices you would find in a ‘Men in Black’ movie.
Now to the 2017 campaign and the mood for populist quasi-conservatism articulated by Peters is perhaps stronger throughout the world than it has ever been. Some political pundits are even suggesting that Peters could go as high as 20% of the party vote, virtually all of it coming at Labour’s expense.
The blue rinse constituency will tell you that a vote for Peters is a return to the nostalgia of better times. A time when New Zealand was supposedly prosperous, egalitarian and grounded in its bi-cultural underpinnings.
It’s actually just a vote for the Emperor’s new clothes.
Chris, the facade is not neoliberalism – just those who pretend to be doing something about it.
This column was originally published here by my good friend Josh Van Veen.