Twenty-six days after a general election, and on the eve of the Labour Day holiday weekend, (21-23 October) Aotearoa (New Zealand) has a new Labour-led coalition government. New Zealand’s Labour Day public holiday was celebrated for the first time in 1900. The Liberal government of the day offered the new public holiday instead of acceding to labour movement demands for a lawful eight-hour working day. It is poignant that it was this weekend when we learned our wish to be rid of the outgoing National (Tory) government meant swallowing the rat of a coalition government with the nationalist New Zealand First party.
At 37, the Prime Minister elect Jacinda Ardern represents a generational change. She is a former president of the International Coalition of Socialist Youth, and in one of her first interviews she declared capitalism to be a failure. Winston Peters, leader of New Zealand First and likely deputy PM, described capitalism as a foe to many ordinary New Zealanders, in his speech announcing his choice of Labour for coalition partner.
New Zealand has a form of proportional representation called MMP (mixed member proportional), where numbers of MPs are allocated by share of the vote, and single parties are rarely able to govern alone. Labour and the Greens had been campaigning together throughout the election, but their combined share of the vote came to 43% (54 seats), short of the 61 seats required to form a government. The incumbent National Party was also unable to form a government with 56 seats, having seen almost all of their coalition partners gone from parliament. The populist, nationalist New Zealand First party therefore held the balance of power.
After many weeks of negotiations, a Labour-NZ First coalition government has formed, with the eco-left Green Party holding ministerial positions. Nine years of right-wing neo-liberal National Party rule has left Aotearoa New Zealand with appalling rates of child poverty, youth suicide, precarious employment, housing unaffordability and homelessness.
Diseases of poverty such as rheumatic fever and bronchiectasis occur at rates not seen elsewhere in the developed world, Māori and Pacifica are disproportionally affected. Unregulated dairy farming has contributed to massive environmental destruction. Rivers and waterways have become unswimmable due to agricultural pollution. Unregulated extraction of freshwater for overseas export by multinational bottled drinks manufacturers runs alongside rising concerns about local access to safe drinking water. A mass outbreak of bacterial gastroenteritis occurred in the town of Hastings after contamination of the water supply by agricultural runoff, making more than 5,000 people ill.
Leaving pretty much everything, apart from road building, to the free market, the National government has left New Zealand struggling with a huge infrastructure deficit. Auckland has nowhere near the housing or public transport it needs now, let alone to accommodate population growth. With an extreme low-wage economy, and a Ponzi type housing market, Auckland has become as unaffordable as cities like London, Sydney and Tokyo. Social housing stock has been sold off to the private sector, there is little security of tenure for tenants in private rentals, and rampant property speculation is encouraged through tax policy. Many families, even with parents working, are living in cars.
Marginal economic performance has been propped up by the outgoing government, using large scale immigration. This has set the scene for some nationalist anti-immigration rhetoric from most opposition parties. New Zealand First, with a frequently anti-Asian, anti-Chinese message, has called for a dramatic cut in the numbers of immigrants. The Labour Party also campaigned on a policy of reducing immigration, including a shameful moment when Labour’s housing spokesperson undertook an analysis of house sales by apparent ethnicity of surnames.
The Green Party had started the election campaign with a policy of criticising immigration numbers, before backtracking and apologising. Even Hone Harawira, leader of the Māori-left Mana Movement, jumped on the bandwagon calling for the re-introduction of the death penalty, but just for Chinese drug smugglers. However, a number of unions are doing good work supporting exploited migrant workers. The change in Labour leadership, just seven weeks from the election, had energised the campaign and resulted in a significant improvement in the Labour vote. Ardern has a likability factor, communicating her centre-left Keynesian agenda with warmth and empathy.
The NZ Labour Party still struggles to shake off the legacy of Rogernomics of the 1980s, when it was hijacked by an entryist right-wing neoliberal grouping. Since then it has been a centre-left party at best. With limited internal democracy, it is far from becoming the mass-movement we see in the UK Labour Party; there is no Corbyn waiting in the wings. The election saw a huge swing back to Labour in the Māori electorates (there is protected parliamentary representation for Māori), with the Māori Party losing all their seats and paying the price for supporting the National Party government. Hone Harawira, leader of the Mana Movement, a left-wing Māori political party, was unable to return to parliament, having lost membership, and a lot of his own personal mana, in 2014’s disastrous association with internet mogul Kim Dotcom.
The closest we have to a parliamentary left is the Green Party who campaigned on poverty as much as the environment during the election. Metiria Turei, the Māori co-leader of the Greens, was hounded out of political life during the campaign after disclosing that she had committed minor benefit fraud whilst a single parent 20 years earlier. Ardern refused to back Turei. What can we hope for from the incoming government?
There appears to be a genuine desire to address the housing crisis. Free tertiary education will be introduced over the coming years; the minimum wage and benefit supports to families and the elderly will be increased. Paid parental leave will increase. Ardern talks of a fairer deal for workers, and there is a goal of zero carbon emissions by 2050. On a social level, abortion is likely to be decriminalised, and there is talk of a referendum on legalising marijuana. Transport policy is expected to favour cycling and public transport at last.
Unfortunately, this will be accompanied by anti-immigrant rhetoric, and the concern about unaffordable housing will be focussed on reducing overseas-based buyers, rather than addressing rampant property speculation by locals and introducing a capital gains tax. The National Party, supported by the mainstream media, are likely to be feral in opposition. They are already creating a narrative that the election outcome is illegitimate and amounts to a coup.
Ardern has been accused, in the country’s largest newspaper, of causing the All Black rugby team to lose a game through the use of witchcraft. We can hope that this incoming government will take the worst edges off neo-liberalism, because the poorest in our country desperately need it. But we are a long way from having a solid left government, and much further from true political change.
* Māori for “hope”