The encounter between Winston Peters and Jack Tame was emblematic of the entire 2023 election campaign. On one hand, the politician, striving to deliver his message to the voters. On the other, the state-funded journalist, striving to discredit both the politician and his message in the eyes of the voters. What’s wrong with this picture? That’s right, the journalist isn’t standing for election. What makes the picture even more disturbing, however, is the journalist’s attempt to dictate what the election should stand for.
What has become of the democratic hierarchy? The one that places the people’s elected representatives at the top? The one that shows power flowing down from Parliament to animate the vast machinery of government and administration? The one that shows that same power returning to and uplifting its ultimate source – the people? How has New Zealand ended up with a hierarchy in which power circulates continuously between Parliament, the state apparatus and back again? A technocratic hierarchy which, every three years, in order to keep the machinery of government running, siphons power from the people – but does not give it back.
Parliamentary candidates reporting from the electoral front lines describe an electorate seething with anger and frustration. The message from the voting public, delivered in poll after poll, is clear. They intend to reclaim their power by electing a Parliament committed to dismantling the technocratic hierarchy and returning the power to its rightful owners – them. Or, more simply, by throwing Labour out on its ear.
Not that Labour has yet worked out what the hell is going on. The veteran political activist, John Minto, described their predicament succinctly in a recent posting on The Daily Blog: “Labour are being punished for failure – a party in policy paralysis – unable to get out of its own way and get anything meaningful done.”
At the heart of that paralysis is Labour’s inability to acknowledge the fact of its own surrender to the technicians who run the machinery of government. In the process of transitioning from the democratic to the technocratic hierarchy, Labour’s relationship with its electoral base has become almost entirely extractive. Every three years, the party sucks up power from the poorest New Zealanders and then fails to return it.
The most important advantage National has over Labour (especially now that the private sector trade unions which formerly connected Labour to, and successfully mediated its relationship with, the party’s working-class base have become mere shadows of their former selves) is that the farming sector and the business community, twin foundations of National’s electoral success, operate outside the technocratic parameters of the state. Unlike Labour, which has essentially become the political handmaiden of the state apparatus and from whose ranks the party overwhelmingly draws its membership, National answers to economic and social forces operating outside the state.
The Greens and Act are simply more extreme iterations of Labour and National. The looming threat of anthropogenic global warming plays neatly into the Greens’ preference for a society in which the state not only takes the lead in managing climate change, but also just about every other aspect of human existence. In the Green utopia, the public and private sectors will gradually become indistinguishable. For the Greens, the present trend of corporations “going woke” is only the beginning of a fundamental social, economic and, ultimately, species transformation.
Act, by contrast, takes a militant stance against any further encroachment by the state and, if given the chance, will roll back most of the encroachments that have already taken place. In Act’s utopia, the ultimate goal of its sovereign, utilitymaximising citizens and non-taxpayers will be, in the words of the late Grover Norquist, “to shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub”. Act’s promise to slash 15,000 public sector jobs and a swathe of ministries is only the beginning of its wholesale slaughter of collectivist sacred cows.
NZ First’s mission in 2023 is to put a stop to the gradual dissolution of New Zealand as a distinct national and cultural entity. Initially a party dedicated to combatting what it saw as the twin evils of economic globalisation and mass immigration, NZ First has resolved itself into a political bulwark against any further “Maorification” of New Zealand society – most particularly the present government’s policy of co-governance. One suspects NZ First’s utopia would very closely resemble the late Austin Mitchell’s 1972 paean to Keith Holyoake’s New Zealand, The Half-Gallon, Quarter-Acre, Pavlova Paradise.
Te Pāti Māori’s goals are radically different from those of all the other parties. It favours neither the technocratic state apparatus, nor the market-driven private economy. Its goal is nothing less than the forging of a new Māori state, a federation of tribes and sub-tribes co-existing alongside an increasingly attenuated colonial state. This bifurcated, bi-cultural New Zealand would gradually grow into itself, steadily abandoning its dual institutions until its people, and the world, recognised simply, “Aotearoa”.
Labour’s effective merger with the state apparatus and its embrace of the technocratic hierarchy explains why so many New Zealanders are so angry with it. The extraordinary contrast between the Labour Party that championed the “team of five million” during covid – and was duly rewarded with 50.01% of the party vote in 2020 – and the Labour Party which suddenly clothed itself in the armour of state-sponsored authoritarianism in the months immediately following its extraordinary victory, could hardly have been sharper.
The fate of the tatterdemalion posse of protesters occupying Parliament grounds in March 2022, while in the view of many was well-deserved, nevertheless produced the sort of imagery which, 18 months later and having passed through the hands of skilful videographers and editors, is packing movie theatres in the run-up to election day. It spoke to a growing fear that the phone had been taken off the hook – not by the people, but by Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government and the state apparatus whose outré ideological predilections it was increasingly echoing.
And so, we return to the angry encounter last Sunday between Winston Peters and Jack Tame. The old New Zealand nationalist, with his populist prescriptions and his point-blank refusal to countenance co-governance, was confronted by a young man who, ideologically and culturally, personifies the antithesis of the nation Peters prioritises.
Irrespective of whether they are paid by the state or the private sector, Tame’s generation of journalists has imbibed the worldview of their state-funded educators to such a degree that those subscribing to Peters’ views are journalistically prosecuted as enemies of the “progressive” people the state now seems determined to manufacture. Indeed, it is worth noting that these younger journalists’ bosses, by signing-up to the extraordinary conditions of the state-provided Public Interest Journalism Fund, proved themselves equally willing to swallow the ideological Kool-Aid.
“Objectively” – as the Soviet-era Stalinists were fond of saying – this makes journalists like Tame and programs like the private sector’s Newshub Nation and the state’s Q+A, mouthpieces for a common political, economic and cultural program – a program more-or-less indistinguishable from that of the Labour and Green parties.
As that program bleeds into more and more of the nation’s institutions, including its private businesses, the frustration and anger of the majority who do not accept its propositions are already reaching dangerous levels.
There was a time when Peters’ threat to the editorial independence of TVNZ would have struck most New Zealanders as appalling. Today, far too many Kiwis will have watched the old campaigner menace the young progressive and muttered: “Good on you, Winston!” ■
Chris Trotter has more than 30 years’ experience as a political commentator and is the author of the Bowalley Road blog ■