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A decent government

20 Oct 2023

| Author: Chris Trotter

It wasn’t all peace, love and mung beans in the early 1970s. Not in New Zealand, anyway. When the Norman Kirk-led Labour government barnstormed to power in 1972, social-conservatism was still the default setting of most New Zealanders, meaning that it was also the default-setting for most members of the Labour Party.

On the issues of abortion, homosexuality, drug-taking and pornography, Labour’s liberals constituted a tiny minority. Kirk himself, raised in the deeply conservative Salvation Army and married to a deeply conservative wife, was no particular friend of Labour’s liberals – at least not on the issues which, 50 years later, have more or less come to define the New Zealand Left.

In an early, and now long-forgotten, gesture to Labour’s conservative supporters – including the quasi-official Catholic weekly The Tablet, which had come out strongly for Labour in the run-up to the 1972 general election – Kirk and his conservative working-class allies saw to it that all incoming copies of the (then) scandalous Penthouse magazine were impounded at the border.

While Kirk remained prime minister, teenage boys would riffle through the newsagents’ top shelves in vain. A small gesture, which today’s Free Speech Union would doubtless condemn, but it sent a message of reassurance to a substantial fraction of Labour’s electoral base. This would be a decent Labour government.

Christopher Luxon would be wise to send out a similar message to the angry conservatives whose votes have propelled National, Act and NZ First into government. Something small, virtually costless, yet potent enough to reassure all those who went out of their usual way to make sure Labour lost. Something to show that their efforts have not been in vain. A gesture making it crystal clear that the balance of socio-cultural power has indeed shifted decisively away from the “progressives” who have wielded it for the past six years.

Something to dispel any lingering “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” fears that nothing’s going to change. There must be change. Luxon gets this, but his notion of change seems considerably less ambitious than the change envisaged by conservative voters inhabiting the political territory beyond National’s comfort zone. These voters are expecting a lot more than tenancy law reform, the repeal of Labour’s union-friendly legislation and tax cuts.

Luxon and his team cannot ignore these voters. Thirty-eight percent of the party vote in no way exempts National from responding to the needs of the 17% of New Zealanders who voted for Act and NZ First. If the dominant coalition partner attempts to do so, and if the smaller partners look the other way, then their supporters will leave them in search of firmer friends. Which is why Act and NZ First will not look the other way.

David Seymour has already openly repudiated the taboo forbidding “minor” parties from using the only effective leverage they possess – withdrawing confidence and supply. This in spite of the conventional wisdom insisting that forcing a new election in this way would lead to the guilty party’s certain destruction at the hands of an infuriated electorate.

Of course, the obvious answer to the conventionally wise is that since nobody has ever done such a thing, nobody can know for certain how the electorate will react. It is surely possible that a junior coalition partner, by taking such a firm stand on principle, might inspire the admiration of a sufficiently large chunk of the electorate to secure its return to the House of Representatives, quite possibly with more MPs than it had before, thus testing the wisdom of conventions invented by journalists.

As Luxon and his team of advisers and negotiators prepare for the release of the official count on 3 November, they cannot afford to indulge even the slightest notion that 38% confers veto powers on the National Party. Act and NZ First have every right to expect, and will demand, clear evidence that at least some of their key policies are to be included in the final coalition agreement.

National will leave out Act’s referendum on Te Tiriti o Waitangi and NZ First’s Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Labour-led government’s handling of the covid-19 pandemic (or something closely resembling them) at its peril. At a bare minimum, more than 347,000 New Zealanders voted for National’s coalition partners; ignoring them would not be wise.


New sheriff in town

The most important consideration for all three participants in the coalition negotiations to bear in mind is that the change most New Zealanders most want to see is a decisive change in the conduct of the political class, the public service and the news media.

The behaviour of all three over the course of the past six years has contributed to a growing sense of public uncertainty, even alarm, concerning their values and beliefs, and to what degree the institutions of the New Zealand state are any longer able – or willing – to challenge them.

It was precisely this uncertainty and alarm that lent such urgency to the clear majority of New Zealanders who rejected the prospect of another three years of Labour, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori.

Luxon needs to signal that he has heard them and that he most emphatically does not share the “progressive” values and beliefs of left-leaning politicians, bureaucrats and journalists. More importantly, he needs to let those same left-leaning politicians, bureaucrats and journalists know that there is a new sheriff in town.

It is a matter of some concern that the prime ministerelect failed miserably to recognise an ideal opportunity to demonstrate just how decisively the balance of socio-cultural power has shifted. When the Auckland War Memorial Museum, emulating the British Houses of Parliament, the Eiffel Tower and the Brandenburg Gate, caused itself to be lit up in the colours of the Israeli flag, the enemies of Israel, after attempting to physically prevent the illumination, demanded an apology from the museum authorities. This was immediately and rather abjectly given. It was as if nothing in New Zealand had changed. That was the moment Luxon could have – and should have – seized. Without delay, he should have released a statement urging the museum authorities to reject the demand for an apology.

Declaring his solidarity with the people of Israel (as the leaders of the USA, the UK, France and Germany have done) and condemning the horrific violence unleashed upon innocent civilians by Hamas on 7 October, Luxon should have described the blue and white illumination of the museum as a fitting acknowledgement of Israel’s grief.

He should then have further announced his strong expectation that the museum would also be illuminating itself in the green, red, black and white of the Palestinian flag as a declaration of solidarity and empathy with the bombed and besieged civilians of Gaza.

For those who had voted for his party and for the parties of the National-led coalition, a statement of this sort from Luxon would have signalled that the days of “progressive” vigilantism are over. That noisy minorities will no longer be permitted to dictate who should issue grovelling apologies to the country, and for what. That the setting of a nation’s moral tone is the prerogative of its elected leaders.

That was the message Norman Kirk sent to his conservative followers 50 years ago. Christopher Luxon should, similarly, send a message that he, too, intends to lead a decent government. ■


Chris Trotter has more than 30 years’ experience as a political commentator. He is also the author of the Bowalley Rd blog ■

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