To appreciate the state of political play as 2024 gets underway, try imagining two very different New Zealanders.
The first already collects, or isn’t far away from collecting, his New Zealand superannuation. That makes him old enough to remember the New Zealand that existed before 1984. He recalls Rob Muldoon vividly. Likewise, the country that shut down for the weekend and whose corner dairies advertised something called “spare bread”.
It’s not that he necessarily preferred “old” New Zealand. If you were female, Māori or gay it was no bed of roses. But, having lived in a society with radically different priorities, he knows that a group of determined men and women can, indeed, change the world. Or, if necessary, change it back.
Our second New Zealander is young, female and brown. Given that Rob Muldoon died before she was born, he might as well be Alexander the Great. This young woman’s entire life has been lived under the grim rubric of neoliberalism. She has never known a powerful trade union movement or widespread public ownership or the difficulties in getting a really good cup of coffee.
On the other hand, she has grown up being told (and believing) that girls can do anything and that Te Tiriti o Waitangi is the founding document of Aotearoa. If someone asks for her pronouns, she offers them up without a second thought. Her fondest dream is to one day have a place of her own. Boomers leave her feeling confused and angry – not least on account of the way they vote.
These two, the boomer and the millennial, are not the only pieces on the political board; there are plenty of others, But, their inability to project themselves into each other’s life-experiences is fast becoming the determining dynamic of contemporary New Zealand politics.
In many respects, the tension between the boomers and the millennials is a straightforward manifestation of the perennial struggle between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters: the future doing battle with the past. The picture is complicated, however, by considerations of race and gender. National, Act and NZ First are more likely to be supported by males than females while the reverse is true of Labour, the Greens and Te Pati Māori. Racially, the Left skews brown, the Right, white.
Fifty years ago, considerations of race and gender would have been overshadowed by the issues of class. But neoliberalism’s success in dismantling the institutional mainstays of working-class power (the trade unions and the Labour Party) has left the poor and the poorly-educated politically unprotected.
Those who have not given up on politics altogether (a significant number) are prey to opportunistic populists. Consequently, the elites and their professional enablers no longer face any serious political challengers. Electorally-speaking, the class issues no longer count for very much.
With working people essentially demobilised and the millennials having scant reason to believe in their own historical agency, bemused boomers find themselves still exercising decisive political influence.
The three parties for which most of them voted are now the three parties of the coalition government.
But, National, Act and NZ First have a problem. “Old New Zealand” may have levered them into office but very few, if any, of the institutions the new coalition government must now rely upon to implement its policies are at all disposed to do so – except under duress. Indeed, there are those within the public service who have already leaked privileged information to the news media, working with political journalists whose commitment to impartiality is … questionable.
Fifty years ago, the reforming Labour government of Norman Kirk faced a similarly uncooperative bureaucracy. Twelve consecutive years of National Party rule had produced a deeply conservative public service which, using the tactics satirised so brilliantly in the BBC series Yes Minister, did everything possible to thwart what it considered to be Labour’s dangerously radical agenda. Fifty years later, with dangerous radicalism having completed its long march through the institutions, it is the turn of conservative reformers to face the entrenched resistance of a “progressive” status quo.
The coalition government’s dilemma is complicated by the fact that, just as it was in the 1970s, the generational tide is flowing strongly in the direction of change. The government headed by Christopher Luxon, like the National government headed by Rob Muldoon, has committed itself to turning back the tide.
Luxon’s job will be made much harder, however, by the ideological incompatibility of the coalition’s policies with the bureaucracy’s values. He should be reminded that, as New Zealand’s economic situation worsened in the early 1980s and Muldoon persisted in ignoring the advice of his Reserve Bank and Treasury officials, the latter began laying the groundwork for the bureaucratic coup d’état that ushered in the neoliberal revolution.
Luxon is further hindered by the fact that generationally and ideologically, many members of his own caucus – Nicola Willis, Erica Standford, Chris Bishop (and quite possibly Luxon himself) – feel more at home among the people resisting the coalition’s policies than they do with the people promoting them. Already, on the vexed issue of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, there are signs that National’s limited commitment to Act’s treaty revisionism is beginning to wobble. Hardly surprising, really. Asking liberal GenXers to implement a conservative boomer program is a bit like asking vegans to run a butcher’s shop!
The coalition government’s predicament is further complicated by the fact that the mainstream media is even more committed to “Young New Zealand’s” progressive agenda than the state bureaucracy.
With Gen-Xers firmly ensconced in senior editorial positions, conservative voices struggle to be heard. This is as true of the publicly owned media as it is of private publishers and broadcasters. True, there are exceptions; Sean Plunket’s The Platform springs to mind. But these internet-based efforts struggle to compete with taxpayer-funded players like RNZ or TVNZ.
There is something qualitatively different about an interview conducted with a conservative political player on Morning Report and/or One News – something that says, “this is serious. This matters.” Certainly, ideas received by a mass audience count for more than the same ideas shared with a handful of supporters listening to a penny-ante podcast.
A conservative coalition government more determined to secure its messages at least equal time would already have cleaned out the boards of the state broadcasters and replaced them with more sympathetic (not to say obedient) servants. It may yet happen if RNZ and TVNZ refuse to relinquish their current roles as joint leaders of the resistance.
It’s a tough job that Luxon faces. And although he and his colleagues are in the prime of their lives, those whose agenda they were elected to fulfil, the voters who want to “take back their country”, are coming to the end of theirs.
The energy for taking on the “gummint” – plentiful in the boomers’ youth – is not so abundant in their 60s and 70s. Although historically-speaking, reactionary movements may trace their origins to old men with too much wealth and power to lose, they are almost always carried to power by political legions of young and fanatical followers, marching behind charismatic “men of action”.
Does that sound like Winston Peters? Maybe once. What about David Seymour as the Kiwi Caesar? Hard to imagine. It’s what lends New Zealand’s conservative backlash a disconcerting quality of not being entirely serious – like those Trump-supporting “militia men” who report for duty with beer-bellies that speak more of booze and fast-food than they do of making America great again.
Christopher Luxon became Prime Minister because far too many younger voters either declined – or simply forgot – to vote, and the angry and disillusioned boomers turned out en masse. Paradoxically, the cultural and economic consequences of young New Zealand’s 2023 no-show will, almost certainly, provoke a record turnout in 2026.
And that is only right and proper. For, as the Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) put it, in that favourite of so many baby boom college students, The Prophet: You may give [your children] your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. ■
Chris Trotter has more than 30 years’ experience as a political commentator. He is the owner of the Bowalley Road blog ■