So I’ve written about global terrorist events, Trump and European politics over the last year, and now it’s time to focus on something closer to home – the impending general election in New Zealand on Saturday. Many have described it as a ‘too close to call’ election, and much like a heated All Blacks v Wallabies test match (back when the Wallabies were good), it seems to be putting the country on edge.
I haven’t lived in New Zealand for over 10 years, so I don’t profess to really understand where the country is at right now on a first hand basis, nor can I offer insightful analysis on every policy and political argument put forward in this race. I fly in and out of my home country and holiday there in beautiful surrounds - a bubble-like experience compared to what much of the country is going through. Yes I talk to my family and friends – but while many are facing the effects of a housing crisis, none are poverty stricken or really hard done by. I also read the New Zealand Herald daily and I talk to people both rural and urban, but many of those sit in the upper end of the socio-economic range.
Photo - Wix
So this blog post is not going to be an expert opinion, rather it’s looking at the optics of the election from where I sit – that is, across the Tasman in Australia. Indeed, the New Zealand election has made headlines here for many reasons, including the obvious facts surrounding the rapid rise of Opposition Leader Jacinda Ardern and her fondness for whiskey, dabbling as a DJ and her 37 years of age.
This election has something sexy and exciting to it almost – it would make a good Mills & Boon story if it were a romance novel. Take Ardern, the newly appointed leader of the progressive Labour Party, who emerged from relative nowhere with an engaging, upbeat and warm personality together with snapshots of her spinning records on a podium at a music festival.
That in itself attracts people’s attention – hell, it attracted my attention. And that’s not even thinking about her formidable career success – kicking career goals with a certain joie de vivre many professional women look up to with pure respect and admiration. And then there are Labour’s policies – policies which are left wing, historically progressive and aiming to right all the social wrongs New Zealand society is facing. Poverty, the environment, homelessness and housing affordability. All the big-ticket items that those people on struggle street identify with. But the devil is in the detail, and with her lack of experience in really leading and in government, does she have what it takes? When you strip away her infectious personality, is there enough substance? Or does substance even matter these days?
The interesting thing is, that Ardern seems to be attracting a lot of ‘champagne socialist’ supporters too – or at least that’s how my husband described me, when I suggested she might be right about a thing or two.
New Zealand isn’t a particularly political place – like its inhabitants, politics is a pretty laid back beast over there despite being the first country to give women the vote, and I grew up amongst a politically apathetic peer group. None of my peers spent hours volunteering for their preferred political party or instigating political debate around the dinner table. Many inherited political views from our parents – rightly or wrongly.
Yet a lot of people do front up to vote – call it habit perhaps, rather than passion. While New Zealand has a relatively high voter turnout compared to other OECD countries, it has a disproportionately low youth turnout compared to other age groups. This is not that dissimilar to other democracies internationally. But what this election seems to be doing is rallying support amongst the youth.
Why? Because the main opponents are the incumbent National government, led by Bill English, and formerly the very popular John Key. National's 9 years in power have delivered strong economic growth and a successful navigation through the global financial crisis. Their argument is why change from a good stable government with a proven economic track record? However, immigration has increased, house prices have sky-rocketed, transport and infrastructure are under severe and increasing pressure with little money spent on servicing the demands of a growing society. The income equality gap in New Zealand is also high and increasing.
In opposition is the left wing, progressive Labour Party, led by Ardern. She is charismatic and has been compared in popularity stakes to Justin Trudeau. So in simplistic terms, the election is a case of the cool, young intellectual chick against the boring, older, stable finance dude. Bring a leader who has the image and connects to the young together with a band of young people who want to buy a house but can’t afford one – and there you have a groundswell of rising support.
The rapid ascension of Ardern's popularity, and in turn, the rapid rise in the polls of Labour has been fascinating. Like so many other elections and referendums in the world recently, no one could have seen this tight race coming. Might John Key not have resigned had he been able to look into his crystal ball and foreseen this?
But one thing we do know from recent history (Brexit, the US election) is that polls are utterly unreliable. Politics is both entirely unpredictable in these turbulent times, and seems to be more driven by personality than ever.
Ardern is clearly no Trump in terms of her policy, intellect or character, but in herself she has had a massive effect on the voter base. Ardern connects with the people who are most disgruntled with the way the country is heading. So what I see is an infectious personality combined with a connection with a mass of discontented constituents and the smell of change. She has tapped into what they are feeling – that they are being left behind, which is exactly what Trump tapped into.
Moreover, Ardern has that youthful, hopeful and energising star power like Trudeau or Macron and is smart. But is it enough in a country with such a strong support base like the rural community who are traditional National supporters, or the 40 years plus age group, who generally don’t seem to be swayed by this new spirit? A 70 year old recently confessed it would be difficult to see a 37 year old – younger than I am – running the country.
So I’m not sure whether her new supporters are just dazzled by this new wave of politician breathing fresh air into Wellington, and don’t really have much understanding of exactly how her policies will work. Certainly there is much detail to come on tax policies. Or maybe they do understand and believe that she is the ticket. Essentially, Labour espouses a more egalitarian society - where education is free, housing is accessible and the environment takes precedence. For its constituents, strong economic growth, a budget surplus and emerging unscathed from financial crises don’t mean much to some people if the income gap is getting bigger and bigger.
In strong opposition to Ardern is arguably the backbone of the New Zealand economy – the farmers. Traditionally staunch supporters of the incumbent National party, the rural / urban divide seems to be amplified in the lead up to this election, with farmers understandably angry at her proposed water tax.
Regardless of where one sits on the political spectrum, and whether voters decide on the party or the personality, the entry of Ardern into this election has made politics look alive and worth caring about again. Just how a decent All Black test that’s not a whitewash against the opposition is good for the game of rugby, this close election can only be good for politics and voter engagement.
After years of a productive and stable National government, there are still real issues facing the young and people in a lower socio-economic status, so even if National hold onto power, this breath of fresh Arden air might just be the ticket to rouse everyone from their sleeping political state and vote.
And unlike an All Black World Cup loss, the country won't collapse overnight if a particular party wins - the sun will still rise the next day. And if Ardern can form a government, the National base must remember that New Zealand politics has always stayed fairly centrist so a slight deviation to the left is not going to spell a huge impact on the state of the nation.