[I wrote the following article for the Australian edition of 'The Spectator'. It was published in the issue of June 26.]
In his best-selling 1976 book The Passionless People, the late author and journalist Gordon McLauchlan characterised his fellow New Zealanders as “smiling zombies”: polite, cheerful and hard-working, but smug and compliant. It was cruel but not inaccurate.
It takes a lot to provoke New Zealanders politically. The last time it happened was in 1981, when a tour by the South African Springbok rugby team tore the country apart.
Since then, Kiwis have largely reverted to their default setting of complacency and passivity. Which makes it all the easier for Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government to push through an agenda of radical transformation quite unlike any the country has experienced before.
New Zealanders returning after a few years abroad might wonder whether they’ve blundered into a parallel universe. A government that is pitifully thin on ministerial ability and experience is busy re-inventing the wheel, and doing it at such speed that the public has barely had time to catch its breath. To quote one seasoned political observer: “It seems like a hostile takeover of our country is underway, and most people feel powerless to do anything about it.”
The most visible change might crudely be described as Maorification, much of it aggressively driven by activists of mixed Maori and European descent who appear to have disowned their problematical white colonial lineage. Self-identifying as Maori not only taps into a fashionable culture of grievance and victimism, but enables them to exercise power and influence that would otherwise not be available to them.
In the mainstream media, Maori place names, most of them previously unknown to the great majority of New Zealanders and unused even by people of Maori descent, have displaced the official names bestowed by British colonists – ignoring the inconvenient fact that New Zealand’s cities and towns are British, not Maori, creations.
The government has done its best to ensure continued media support for this ideological project by creating a $55 million slush fund supposedly created to support “public interest journalism” but available only to news organisations that commit themselves to the promotion of the so-called principles (never satisfactorily defined) of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi.
What has been framed as an idealistic commitment to the survival of journalism is, in other words, a cynical and opportunistic bid for control over the news media at a time when the industry is floundering. This is a government so shameless, or perhaps so convinced of its own untouchability, that it’s brazenly buying the media’s compliance.
Not that bribery is necessary. Turn on Radio New Zealand’s flagship news and current affairs programme and you’ll routinely hear virtue-signalling presenters making announcements in Maori, a language spoken fluently by only 1 per cent of the population.
Similarly, the country is routinely referred to by the media and political elites as Aotearoa, despite the name being of dubious authenticity. All this has happened with no public mandate, but encouraged by a government that seems determined to promote division between New Zealanders of Maori and European descent.
In local government, city and district councils have rushed to create exclusively Maori wards – an innovation made possible by an abrupt legislative change, despite being previously rejected when challenged in local referendums. Result: a previously colour-blind system has been changed to one where representation can be based on race.
The politics of race are equally evident at the national level, where the government proposes to establish a Maori Health Authority which will exist alongside a new national health agency and have power to veto its decisions.
Changes in the health sector reflect another dominant trend under Labour: a return to Big Government. In education and local government as well as health, power is being stripped from local administrators and placed in the hands of unwieldy central bureaucracies, remote from the people they supposedly serve.
In other radical changes, union power is being restored through a return to a discredited national pay agreements system, and proposed “hate speech” laws will place new restrictions on freedom of expression.
Meanwhile the government is showering money on pet causes such as cycling, announcing recently that it would commit $785 million to a second Auckland Harbour bridge that will be used only by cyclists and walkers. The plan was rightly ridiculed as humouring a small but vociferous minority of the affluent middle classes.
It didn’t go unnoticed that this indulgence was announced only days after nurses, with overwhelming public support, staged a national strike in support of pay claims that would have cost the government far less. It was a telling demonstration of Labour’s priorities.
So far, the smiling zombies – five million of them – have tacitly condoned all this radical transformation through their silence. This can partly be attributed to the still-potent Ardern Effect, the political fairy dust that a charismatic young prime minister scattered over the country following the 2019 Christchurch mosque massacres and again when the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
But it’s possible to sense a mounting pushback, particularly in those parts of the media – such as commercial radio – that haven’t been ideologically captured. Opposition to Labour’s agenda has been fuelled in recent weeks by concerns over a compulsory school history curriculum that will indoctrinate pupils with neo-Marxist theories of colonisation and white privilege; by the ascendancy of violent criminal gangs that the police seem unwilling or unable to challenge; and by the announcement of generous taxpayer subsidies for electric cars (another handout to the privileged middle class), with corresponding punitive taxes on diesel vehicles that will hit farmers and tradies – two groups that are crucial in propping up an economy severely hit by the downturn in international tourism.
Potentially even more damaging to Ardern’s government, because it hits ordinary people at a very basic level, is the shambolic incompetence of the Covid-19 vaccination programme, and the growing perception that the public has been continually fed falsehoods about the pandemic and the government’s response to it.
Ardern’s famous charisma is faltering and the earnest, imploring expression she wears whenever she faces the media, so effective in Christchurch two years ago, is wearing thin.
It’s widely assumed that she’s still unassailable, and her poll ratings appear to support that. But if Ardern has studied 20th century history, she’ll know that even Winston Churchill’s nation-saving leadership of Britain during the 1939-45 war wasn’t enough to guarantee re-election once the voters decided they’d had enough of him.