On the 26th of October 2017 a new government took office in New Zealand. For the first time in nine years and three election terms, the National Party is out. The Labour Party is in — but with a little help from some old friends.
Labour is sharing government in a coalition with the populist, anti-immigrant NZ First Party. Labour’s Jacinda Ardern is Prime Minister, while NZ First leader, Winston Peters, is both Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister. The Green Party is also supporting the new coalition, but remains outside of Cabinet.
Labour’s long and winding road. Since the last Labour-led government ended in 2008, the Labour Party has been through four leaders and two appalling election results. In 2011 Labour received only 27% of votes against National’s 47%. In 2014 Labour’s support fell to 25%, while National again received 47%.
Throughout this period the National-led government tightened the screws on working people, introducing 90-day trial periods for new employees, selling off swathes of state houses and increasing its moral policing of beneficiaries, especially single mothers.
The Labour Party put up a token opposition to these policies, but also appealed to xenophobia, blaming rising house prices on home buyers with “Chinese-sounding names.”
Labour’s turn to the Greens. The Labour Party has never been a friend to rival progressive parties. In the early 1990s, Labour leaders stymied smaller parties by opposing proportional representation voting. In the 2000s, Labour generally turned a cold shoulder to the Greens.
After the defeats of 2011 and 2014, however, Labour was getting desperate. In May 2016, Labour leader Andrew Little took the novel step of signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the Greens. The two parties agreed “to work cooperatively to change the government in the 2017 election.”
In March 2017, Labour and the Greens followed this up with an economic policy agreement. In the new “Budget Responsibility Rules,” both parties jointly promised to govern with an operating surplus, reduce Crown debt, and limit “expenditure to within the recent historical range of spending.” Both Labour and the Greens have always been capitalist parties, but the new agreement made clear that they planned to manage capitalism on a strict budget.
But as the September 2017 election approached, polls continued to indicate Labour’s support flat-lining and a National Party sleepwalking to another victory. Perhaps many voters didn’t see any need for change when all the parties had much the same policies?
A jump to the Left? The Greens broke the impasse in July with the launch of their welfare policy, which included increases to all benefits. Greens co-leader Metiria Turei also promised to end the partial docking of benefits to women who refuse to name the father of their children and to scale back the welfare ministry’s intrusive questioning of beneficiaries. She pointed out that beneficiaries often had to lie about where they lived or who they were living with, out of fear that their benefits would be cut. Turei confessed that she had lied to social welfare about having rent-paying flatmates when she was a single mother in the 1990s.
There was a positive response to Turei’s speech from many working people, with women sharing similar stories about having to lie to social welfare. “I stand with Metiria” briefly became a popular slogan. Briefly, the Greens’ poll ratings rose to 15%, while Labour’s fell to 24%.
Labour responded by changing their leader yet again. New leader Jacinda Ardern was only 37 years old and had never been in government. Ardern had taken an exceptionally top-down career route to Parliament. She went from university to being employed as a researcher by NZ Labour Party leaders. Ardern later got a job in London in Tony Blair’s policy unit. Ahead of the 2008 NZ election, she was given a high ranking on the NZ Labour Party list, guaranteeing her a seat in Parliament.
In the final weeks of the 2017 election campaign, Labour came up with more surprises by issuing some new policy promises, such as a free first year of tertiary education for new students and increases to student allowances and mental health funding.
The sexist backlash. Sexism in NZ society reared its ugly head during the election. One target was Jacinda Ardern. Some media commentators expressed the ridiculous concern that if Ardern was elected Prime Minister, she might resign part-way through her term to have children.
However, far greater bigotry was directed to Metiria Turei, who is not only a woman but also Maori, and also a former single mother and beneficiary. Following Turei’s welfare speech, the corporate media mounted a vicious attack, aimed at pressuring her to resign. Articles and broadcasts condemned Turei for “fraud.” The state’s laws were sacrosanct, especially for beneficiaries, and anyone who lied to the state was a criminal.
Jacinda Ardern also turned against Turei by announcing that she would not be given a Cabinet position in the event of a new Labour-led government. The Green’s poll ratings slumped toward 5% as voters switched to Labour, whose ratings climbed into the 30s. Turei eventually resigned as Greens co-leader and as a list candidate. One apt newspaper cartoon portrayed Ardern as the saviour rising from the water, standing on the shoulders of Turei, drowning underneath the waterline.
The coalition games and NZ First. On 7 October, the official election results came in. The Greens had survived as a weakened parliamentary party with 6.3% of the vote and eight seats. Labour had 36.9% and 46 seats. National had maintained much of its support on 44.4% and 56 seats. The neo-liberal ACT Party had one electorate seat.
In the 120-seat Parliament, the remaining nine seats were taken by NZ First, with its 7.2% of the vote.
Any party that wished to be in government would need to strike a deal with NZ First.
NZ First is a populist party, which has carefully positioned itself to sit in the political centre of Parliament. It draws support from small business owners, pensioners and disaffected workers. NZ First decries the excesses of the free market. It also appeals to social conservatism and actively stirs up anti-immigrant bigotry.
Unlike other parties, NZ First hasn’t had any leadership changes. In fact, founder Winston Peters has been the party’s only leader in its 24 years of existence. Peters was briefly a National Party Minister in the early 1990s. NZ First formed a coalition government with National from 1996 to 1998, but later joined a minority Labour government from 2005 to 2008.
The National Party is out, but nationalism is in. Post-election 2017, the Labour Party set out to make a coalition with NZ First, with the Greens reduced to a “third wheel,” supporting the coalition but excluded from key negotiations and leadership positions. National offered NZ First a two-party coalition.
This time around, NZ First has opted to form a coalition with Labour. And this time around, there is some overlap between NZ First and Labour in their leading personnel: senior NZ First MP and Minister Shane Jones, who was recently a senior Labour MP.
More importantly, there is an overlap in policy between NZ First and Labour. Both parties have been stirring up anti-immigrant bigotry, especially against Chinese. The new coalition is promising to limit net immigration by 20-30,000 per year. Non-residents will also be banned from buying existing residential houses. However, the new rule will not apply to Australians.
In the past, NZ First has moderated its xenophobic rhetoric while in government. However, progressive people should not be complacent about the dangers of anti-immigrant parties. Since 2008, around the world, sections of the working class have been misled by new populist and nationalist movements. New economic downturns and wars are used by capitalist leaders to oppress people at home and abroad. And in NZ the corporate media is now whipping up anti-Chinese sentiment.
On international policies, the new coalition appears very similar to the previous National government. Ardern is still attempting to sign NZ up to the highly unpopular Trans Pacific Partnership and is also lining up behind the U.S. and Australia to isolate, or even attack, North Korea. Ardern has attracted some praise for offering to accept 150 refugees from Australia’s closed Manus Island detention centre. However, this is a repeat of a similar offer by the previous NZ government in 2015.
The Ardern government has also scaled back changes to domestic policies. For example, 90-day work trials will remain, although workers will now be able to appeal dismissals. The housing minister has promised to increase state housing stock and to end “large-scale state housing sell-offs.” However, Housing NZ will continue to sell houses “that are no longer fit for purpose” – which often means free-standing houses lived in by single women. Former state housing properties continue to be redeveloped for private profit by the Tamaki Regeneration Company in east Auckland.
The fightback continues. Working people who have been leading grassroots struggles over the past decade are not giving up the fight. On 10 December the protest group Save Our Unique Landscape (SOUL) led a march through central Auckland against the construction of private homes on sacred Maori land at Ihumatao in south Auckland. The protest was supported by state housing tenants from central and east Auckland and trade unionists.
Movements such as this must continue. And it is essential that working class leaders struggle against sexism, racism and anti-immigrant and anti-Maori scapegoating.