In many ways, 2016 felt like a tipping point – characterized across the media as an anomalous eruption of everything that could go wrong. Some celebrities have died; others have risen to the Oval Office. The earth has splintered, fractured, and shaken both geographically and geologically. A dead gorilla from Cincinnati became a hero.
The effects of these developments on Aotearoa New Zealand will become apparent as this year’s general election unfolds. For our political system, the biggest 2016 earthquake wasn’t Brexit or Trump, or even the colossal 7.8 that hit Kaikōura in November – it was the resignation of our Prime Minister, John Key. Key was a wealthy former banker whose iconic leadership of the National-led Government for the past eight years turned him into something of a cult figure. His departure has already transformed the landscape of the election campaign, which his successor, Bill English, has decided will culminate on 23 September (strategically situated on a Saturday that won’t conflict with an All Blacks rugby match).
The last New Zealand general election in 2014 flew by relatively under-the-radar in international terms. We’re a small, distant country, with 4.5 million people, and what most people understand about us is either Lorde or Lord of the Rings. Yet as in other countries, election year is when all the absurdities bubble to the surface. Last election, for example, the controversial MegaUpload tycoon Kim Dotcom established the Internet Party and joined forces with the radical Māori-interest Mana Party to try and enter Parliament through an electorate-seat win. A week before the election, Dotcom hired the Auckland Town Hall and skyped in Edward Snowden and Julian Assange for an event called ‘Moment of Truth’. Investigative journalist Nicky Hager released a book called Dirty Politics, which revealed an insidious collusion between the right-wing hate-blogger Cameron Slater and the then Justice Minister Judith Collins. The election ended with Eminem suing the National Party over the use of ‘Lose Yourself’ in an election advert.
Without the cool, calming influence of John Key, the 2017 campaign might be even more chaotic. New Zealand Labour has been embroiled in leadership instability since Helen Clark resigned the leadership in 2008, and if National goes the same way, anything could happen.
Key has been Prime Minister for as long as I’ve been politically conscious. His enduring popularity – a product of his too-Kiwi accent, recognizable turns of phrase, and reputation as ‘a bloke you could have a beer with’ – has been one of life’s constants. Even after his attempt to change the New Zealand flag made us the butt of John Oliver’s jokes – for the umpteenth time – and left us with nothing but a crowdsourced database of MS Paint-designed flag drawings to show for it, he was still invincible.
Without Key, a change of government in 2017 is just about conceivable. Our new Prime Minister, Bill English, has none of Key’s charm – he’s quiet, clever, fiercely conservative, and utterly dull – and the opposition coalition of Labour and the Greens might just be able to reshape the national conversation. Despite its stability, our society is not without its problems. Our houses are cold and expensive; the health system is strapped for cash; too many young people are locked out of home-ownership and face the edging away of our superannuation system. Our waterways are polluted, thick with cow run-off, and our native creatures are suffering from an underfunded Department of Conservation. The effects of the Government’s fiscal conservatism are becoming too obvious – encouraging us to have the conversations we have avoided for nine long years.
I think Bill English’s Achilles heel, however, is something different – not his domestic policies, but his refusal to engage fully with the international political arena that we cannot escape, despite our isolation. He has refused to take a clear stand on Trump’s Muslim ban, and our refugee quota remains embarrassingly low.
Part of New Zealand’s identity lies in being ‘too big for our boots’ – we gave women the vote first, we became nuclear-free during the Cold War, and we even catapulted
headfirst into the new neoliberal regime with formidable – and perhaps surprising – intensity. We are in an era that calls for another one of these radical, put-your-foot-down moments – but Bill English seems reluctant to deliver. When asked to describe the election in one word, he chose ‘growth’.
If one thing is clear from the first couple of months of 2017, it is that this year will not be about gently tinkering with fiscal policy – it will be about identity, about our visceral reactions to authoritarian and xenophobic policies, and about how we understand human rights. In other words, it will be about people. If the National Government is to secure a rare fourth term, it will need to stray from its mantra of ‘responsible economic management’ – and back into the realm of tangible political leadership.