The following column was first published on The BFD. It has since had a small amount of new material added.
We’re all familiar with the phrase “the worst of all possible worlds”. Well, I think we now know what that world looks like.
We have an all-powerful, increasingly authoritarian government that combines ideological zealotry with ineptitude, profligacy, laziness and contempt for democratic process – surely the most lethal confluence of malignant political forces in living memory.
We have an opposition that should be presenting itself as an alternative to Labour but instead has been busy disembowelling itself. Both Judith Collins and Simon Bridges placed their egos and ambitions ahead of the interests of the country. The primary blame lies with Collins for her clumsy and desperate last-resort survival ploy but Bridges cannot entirely escape culpability, having done little to hose down media speculation about a change of leadership – indeed, appearing at times to revel in it. The voters are likely to punish them, but tragically New Zealand will also pay for their hubris. As long as the National caucus remains fractured by leadership squabbles, Labour has a good chance of squeaking back into power in 2023 and completing its transformational, neo-Marxist agenda.
The smart money is on Christopher Luxon to take over the leadership of the National Party, but it will be a hospital pass. People who know Luxon speak highly of him, but running an international airline is no preparation for the brutal business of top-level politics – and especially not for dealing with destructive and mischievous elements in the media, who will set out to destabilise him from day one.
Speaking of the media, we have a new breed of political journalists whom no one can trust, who regard themselves as players rather than observers, and who treat politics as some sort of entertaining blood sport – one in which all participants risk being maimed with the exception of … the media, who are accountable to no one and are in the uniquely privileged position of ensuring they always come out as winners. I’m reminded of a British journalist’s memorable line about newspaper editorial writers: “They watch from the hills as the fighting rages, then come down and bayonet the wounded.”
That pretty much describes some of today’s Press Gallery journalists, such as Newshub’s political editor Tova O’Brien and her understudy Jenna Lynch, who have no skin in the game and can walk away unscathed from the carnage they helped to orchestrate. Newshub played a key role in National’s leadership crisis, constantly contriving opportunities to undermine the floundering opposition leader while leaving the prime minister – the person actually running the country – untouched within her media-enabled force field. Dirty politics? You have it right there – but don’t expect another book from Nicky Hager.
We have a rising political star in the person of David Seymour, whom voters clearly see as the most effective alternative to Jacinda Ardern, but who has no experience in government – in fact remains largely an unknown quantity – and who leads a party of absolute greenhorns. Theoretically there’s scope for an electoral arrangement between Act and National, on the assumption that they share at least some political values and might achieve together what they cannot do individually. But my guess is the same petty egos that have torn National apart would sabotage any such proposal. Sharing power and relinquishing control just isn’t in their DNA.
So there it is. Good luck trying to find something optimistic to latch onto in that lot.
Who’s to blame, then, if anyone? Mike Hosking this week fingered John Key as being responsible for the mess we’re in, and I don’t think he was being entirely flippant. If only Key hadn’t stood down, Hosking implied, New Zealand would still be basking in the sunlit uplands.
But I suspect Key regarded the prime ministership as just another box to be ticked off on the career path he had mapped out for himself, and once he tired of the job he could hardly be expected to stick around just for the sake of the country. After all, a bloke like Key likes to quit while he’s ahead.
No, if you want to trace New Zealand’s parlous situation back to its origin, the trail leads inexorably to Winston Raymond Peters. Remember the 2017 election? With just 7 percent of the vote, Peters held the balance of power and exercised it by anointing Ardern as prime minister when, morally, National had earned the right to govern with 44 per cent of the vote to Labour’s 38 per cent.
Had the New Zealand First leader done the honourable thing in 2017, Bill English would have remained prime minister and might have turned out to be a good one. Not only had he done much of the heavy lifting behind the scenes in the Key government, but he had a social conscience that marked him as a politician in the mould of National Party liberals from the Holyoake era – National’s golden age, when it won four consecutive terms.
But Peters gifted Labour with a glittering prize that they didn’t expect and hadn’t earned, and the rest is history. Ardern’s initially assured handling of the Christchurch mosque massacres, the Whakaari-White Island eruption and the Covid-19 crisis won her a cult-like following both at home and abroad – so much so that voters rewarded her with a decisive majority that conferred virtually absolute power, something never envisaged by the architects of the voting system.
Since then, other events have served only to consolidate Ardern’s power. Covid-19 provided a handy distraction from Labour’s agenda, pre-occupying the public and the media while Labour got on with the job of pursuing a programme of radical change that was mostly kept from the voters during the pandemic-dominated 2020 election campaign.
The media have been complicit in this process, for months on end treating the pandemic as if it was the only story of any consequence and ignoring, or at the very least playing down, elements of the government’s agenda that might cause public disquiet. Covid-19 has forced almost everything else off the news pages and the evening bulletins, allowing Labour’s activists to get on with their project virtually unhindered.
Peters, ironically, found himself ousted from Parliament, the voters finally having had enough of his decades of chicanery, so perhaps there’s some justice after all. But with the NZ First leader again hovering balefully around the periphery of politics, no one should forget his ignoble role in all this.