OPINION: Revolutionary laws repealed, language initiatives reversed, authorities disestablished, even the climate crisis denied. As 2023 wraps, writes John Campbell, is the coalition government leading Aotearoa forward – or backward?

Who are we?

And where are we heading?

It occurred to me, as I started this “2023 in review” over and over again, trying to tidy into words a long and unruly year that began with Jacinda Ardern as Prime Minister, saw the job passed, like a relay baton, into the hands of Chris Hipkins, then onto Christopher Luxon, who was propelled over the finish line by two men who appear to stand for less than they stand against, that I have no idea what the answers to those questions are.

Of course, five million people won’t ever see themselves in the same way.

But this isn’t about multitudes, the rich and complex tapestry of diversity, or pluralism, it’s about division.

Christopher Luxon promised us he would “deliver for all New Zealanders”. But as one year ends and another begins, “all” doesn’t feel like quite the right word.

We feel at risk of becoming less than we aspire to be. Of succumbing to what Barack Obama called the politics of “fear and resentment and retrenchment”.

Where are we heading?

And who will we be when we get there?

All language is learned

I do understand that nobody likes a Grinch.

Some of you will be reading this on holiday.

Many of us, not all because the world needs the fuel of our labour, will have stopped, or slowed. Those lovely, famous lines from The End of the Golden Weather, when dad has finished for Christmas, and he “comes home early, springing without the weight of the year. A fortnight to go before he shoulders the next load of days”.

Yes.

Part of the weightlessness of these days is that politics, too, stops. Parliament does not sit. Our Prime Minister vanishes (briefly) into his or her personal life. Some of us don’t even talk about politics, for fear of disturbing the peace.

But the peace has been disturbed.

If you haven’t noticed that it may be because the kind of resentment populism ACT and New Zealand First are increasingly experimenting with isn’t happening at your expense.

Let me explain.

I’m in the Wairarapa. I’ve come down here to see my Mum. We’ve had fish and chips in the garden at the Lake Ferry pub (my favourite place in the world to eat f and c, with its view across Cook Strait to the Kaikōura Ranges, and the coastal road that winds east, through Ngawi to Cape Palliser, where the Pacific doesn’t only feel like an ocean, but the beginning of infinity). And I travelled here on roads now under the control of the New Zealand Transport Agency because the government thought it was a priority to relegate the name Waka Kotahi.

Why?

Christopher Luxon says he was told by people on the campaign trail that they didn’t know the difference between Waka Kotahi, Te Pūkenga and Te Whatu Ora.

But all language is learned.

A confusing sign - apparently

How did those people know what a cat was, or the moon, or mum, or any of those first, special words we learn as infants and toddlers? Because a grown-up cared enough to tell them.

We routinely use language that assumes understanding. MBIE, the OCR, EBITDA. How many of the people who accosted Christopher Luxon about Waka Kotahi understand, exactly, what Treasury does? Or the difference between the Solicitor-General and the Attorney-General?

But power speaks the language it chooses. And we nod.

The politics of resentment, this rising meanness, affirms one language and regards another as a kind of threat. And in doing so, it casts shadows not light.

Look at the coalition agreement National signed with New Zealand First. In it, National agreed to “ensure all public service departments have their primary name in English, except for those specifically related to Māori.”

Why?

And how is that echoed in other coalition priorities?

And what do those choices tell us about the meaning of Christopher Luxon’s “all”.

The biggest cheer

Winston Peters, of course, would say I was being “woke”.

He said it in Parliament, on December 12th, when he was Acting Prime Minister, and answering questions from the co-leaders of Te Pāti Māori.

He said it when he was soft-launching New Zealand First’s campaign, back in March.

Winston Peters campaigned against the "woke"

“The biggest cheer”, Glenn McConnell wrote, “followed his criticism of “Air New Zealand’s waka in the sky”, the name ‘Te Whatu Ora’ and the Waka Kotahi/NZTA brand. ‘We will change all of the woke virtue signalling names of every government department back to English,’ he declared.”

Except, it’s not woke, is it? It’s a unique and precious language, grown here, spoken only here. It’s completely and utterly ours. I remember, in season two of Origins, when Scotty Morrison went to the Marquesas, and found words that echoed over centuries and 5500 kilometres of Pacific Ocean, and which told the story of how a new people and a new language came to be.

But let’s chuck that out and cheer. “The biggest cheer”. (Is that who we are now?)

Let’s trade that in because a few of us couldn’t recognise Māori names, or because our heads and hearts are too closed for the poetry of ‘waka rererangi’. (We prefer ‘aeroplane’. Coined, on the other side of the world in the late nineteenth century, and derived from French, Greek and Latin. That’s ours.)

I wrote about this after the coalition agreements were signed. The surprising amount of space given to things that felt reductive. The priorities that seemed small, regressive, and unhopeful. The strange, circling sense of a new colonialism.

I kept returning to the word “mean”.

Which is odd because our new Prime Minister keeps telling us he’s “ambitious for New Zealand.”

“Hugely ambitious.”

Christopher Luxon says that kind of thing so often it’s feels like CEO ardour, remembered, repeated. But it’s not always persuasive. Particularly when he’s being harried into the shadows by his coalition partners. Sometimes, it feels like the volume you deploy at a shareholders’ meeting after a slightly disappointing result. Or the way a small boy, walking home after dark, talks to himself in a deep, loud voice about having a black belt in kung fu.

Take a look at the PM’s media release announcing the coalition government’s 100-day plan.

It lists, in fourteen bullet points (Nicole McKee insisted on those), “hugely ambitious… actions”. But ten of the fourteen, TEN OF THE FOURTEEN, contain the words, repeal, ban, remove, stop or disestablish.

The world was watching

Maybe I’m being obtuse, but if anyone could point me to any actual “ambition” in, for example, “Repealing amendments to the Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products Act 1990 and regulations”, or “Introducing legislation to disestablish the Māori Health Authority”, that would be super useful. I’m here for ambition. It reminds me of when I was an astronaut.

And guess who those actions appear disproportionately likely to impact.

Māori.

“New Zealand smoking ban: Māori mourn loss of hard-won smoking reform”, the BBC headlined their story. “When New Zealand’s new government announced it was scrapping the country’s world-leading tobacco laws, it came as a particularly hard blow to Māori people.”

Look at what the BBC describes us as walking away from.

“The proposed policies – especially denicotisation and the so-called Smokefree generation – have never been implemented anywhere.”

Um, that sounds… what’s the word for it… ambitious.

And here’s why the world was watching us, “public health researchers considered New Zealand – a high-income country of just over five million people – an ideal setting to try and achieve tobacco ‘endgame’.”

At this point, the BBC exhales.

Pictured: Tobacco

“But New Zealanders in October voted in a change of government. The conservative coalition then said it intended to repeal the health laws to fund tax cuts – a policy blindside given the leading National party never once mentioned the Smokefree laws during campaigning. The new government also plans to dismantle the Māori Health Authority.”

“Also”. What a discretely pointed use of that word.

The same new government is “also” relegating te reo Māori.

The same new government “also” ignored a Cabinet Paper, leaked to Newshub and then the New Zealand Herald, that said repealing Fair Pay Agreements would “disproportionately impact women, Māori and Pasifika and young people”.

And on it goes.

Also plus also plus also.

The impact keeps falling on the same people. And it’s not us “all”.

Then there was Chippy

Twelve months ago, Jacinda Ardern was still Prime Minister. Then, on January 19th, she announced she was showing herself the door.

Slam.

Former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

I spoke to her, at length, in April.

By that time, of course, Chris Hipkins was Prime Minister.

Chippy. The nickname, the dirty dog sunglasses, sausage rolls, a home in Upper Hutt, the childhood photos. It all so perfectly evoked a nostalgic sense of brand Labour, or bland Labour, that it was as if an ad agency had dreamt him up.

The only thing missing, and I’m grateful to Christopher Luxon for the word, was “ambition”.

Chris Hipkins was up against Covid exhaustion, general exhaustion, the weather, a cost of living crisis, a sense, later articulated by the Auditor General, that large sums of money had been spent without adequate architecture, rigour, oversight and reward (“At several points, officials advised Ministers of risks to value for money… Ministers did not have enough information to be sure that decisions supported value for money”), the high wattage rhetorical energy of Christopher Luxon with his aspiration for us “all”, and the identity populism of ACT and New Zealand First.

Christpher Hipkins (aka Chippy)

So, Chippy needed to persuade us that he represented something more than just life after Jacinda Ardern. That he stood for something meaningful. But his caution felt like dilution. Or an absence. (Ghost Chips.) Who were the Labour Party in 2023? I’ve no idea. And if you’re a Labour supporter and your answer is “not National”, it wasn’t enough.

Labour won 50 percent of the vote in 2020, and 27 percent in 2023.

Yes, there were factors beyond their control. Huge factors. But governments can’t recuse themselves from governing. And leaders have to lead – more so when times are tough.

Where is Labour now?

Speaking to Audrey Young in The Herald, Chris Hipkins considered Labour’s crashing loss of support and concluded: “The general vibe of the campaign was that people were looking for a change and it wasn’t necessarily a policy-driven vibe. It’s just how people were feeling.”

Labour’s vote almost halved in three years and their leader is talking about “vibe”.

“People don’t vote on a left-right continuum. They vote on the vibe of the campaign”, Chris Hipkins declared.

I’m not suggesting a hair shirt – Labour should be taking stock not doing penance. But some acknowledgement that they arrived at an election campaign without an actual campaign, might be useful.

If you’re having a sausage sizzle and you don’t have any sausages, that’s not a vibe issue. It’s that the central ingredient isn’t there.

Audrey Young asked Chris Hipkins what sort of Leader of the Opposition he wants to be. He talked about “highlighting how we would do things differently, and charting a different course”, which echoes David Lange’s belief that if you want to be elected you have to look like a government in waiting.

But then Chris Hipkins said, “you won’t see much of that in the first few months, because we need to take stock and we need to the opportunity to reflect and refresh.”

Good God. The first few months? (Is Labour on sabbatical?) By that stage the Government will be insisting that everyone called Wiremu change their name to William.

Yes, now is the time for Labour to scrutinise the real ambitions of the new government. But more than that, now is the time to remind us that what we aspire to doesn’t exclude people, or diminish them, or single them out for populist blame attributions. Now is the time, surely, for Labour to remind us of the meaning of “all”.

Goodbye Freddy?

Ambition. The word the new Prime Minister uses, like a mantra.

We saw it, or its absence, on December 12th, when Shane Jones spoke in the House about “the hysteria surrounding climate change”.

“Hysteria.” Shanes Jones really said that.

Look, New Zealand First would do almost anything for a vote now. They’re as principled as a cigarette. But when Shane Jones stood there and thundered, “one of the great lies about climate change is that, yes, apparently, it’s a crisis”, it felt (how do I put this fairly and reasonably?) pathetic.

NZ First MP Shane Jones

It’s worth watching him say it. What’s most striking is how proud he appears as he decrees himself boss. It’s like he’s auditioning for the role of Jack in a Parliamentary production of Lord of the Flies. “I am the Minister of Resources”, he says. The “I” echoing. “I look forward to leading the debate, changing the law, enabling gas and oil exploration… to take place, yet again, in New Zealand.”

Sometimes things just damn themselves. Shane Jones uttered those words in the same week that COP28 reached an agreement that “signals the ‘beginning of the end’ of the fossil fuel era”.

And here’s where the coalition government looks like disparate parts. Because Climate Change Minister, Simon Watts, was actually at Cop28.

This is a “turning point”, he said, from Dubai. “That sets us a precedent for us to go forward now”.

Then Simon Watts said something that sounded not only ambitious but decent.

“We’ve taken that obligation of representing and advocating on behalf of the Pacific very strongly.”

“The real focus now is on implementation… we’re deadly serious about it.”

That was on December 14, two days after Shanes Jones had said: “We are not going to meet the 2030 dreamy, fairy-tale, aspirational figures that we’ll be freeing ourselves of fossil fuels as a source of generating energy.”

Shane Jones and Simon Watts have ministerial portfolios in the same government. And they said those things in the same week. And you can be forgiven for wondering whose words best embody the government’s position? And whether anyone in this coalition has a clue what they actually stand for on climate change? Or whether Shanes Jones is the government’s true voice? And Simon Watts is saying what the government doesn’t mean?

This, of course, is the same Shane Jones who (with Winston Peters) presided over the Provincial Growth Fund.

Let’s look back at what they stood for then.

“There is no doubt climate change poses a real danger to our regions”, said Winston Peters in August 2020, as he announced an investment “totalling more than $100 million… to protect against and mitigate the effects of climate change”.

And who was the climate warrior standing alongside him? You guessed it! Old mate! “This funding is on top of the $107.2 million we have already announced for six other regions in the past four weeks,” said a man called Shane Jones.

A particular favourite of mine is the announcement from April 2018 that the “Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) will invest $150,000 to investigate establishing Taranaki as an internationally recognised leader in clean energy technology”, because, wait for it, “‘change is coming and we need to start getting ready for it.’ Shane Jones said.”

And then, on December 12th 2023, the same Shane Jones pumped himself up like a condom full of gasoline, and decreed: “if there is a mineral, if there is a mining opportunity, and it’s impeded by a blind frog, goodbye Freddy”.

“Goodbye Freddy.” Is the guy who said that eight?

Get used to it. We’re entering an age of unenlightenment. As we will see, a feature of populist politics is attributing blame to things that don’t deserve it. Even Freddy.

Populism – the runaway train

None of this is new. But it alters how politics is done. It sharpens the edges of its impact. And it suggests that when Christopher Luxon says “all”, he’s operating from a position of blinkered privilege, or he’s looking the other way.

Almost everywhere we look now, populist politicians are retailing demagoguery and building rhetorical walls as fast as they can spit them out. Why? Because a divided population creates constituencies in the shadows.

American political sociologist Larry Diamond has so many strings to his bow I don’t really know where to start with him.

He holds (at least) two senior fellowships at Stanford University. He served for 32 years as founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy. At Stanford, “he is professor by courtesy of political science and sociology”, and his “research focuses on democratic trends and conditions around the world and on policies and reforms to defend and advance democracy.”

In 2017, he delivered a speech entitled, “When Does Populism Become a Threat to Democracy?”

In it, he argues, “all forms of populism – even “good” (progressive, democratically inspired) ones – harbour an intrinsic tendency to become a runaway train.”

Larry Diamond describes factors that increase populism’s risk to democracy. Two of them are populism’s propensity to be anti-pluralist (“populism becomes a danger to democracy when it rejects democratic pluralism”) and illiberal (“populism becomes a danger to democracy when it seeks to restrict the rights of political, racial, ethnic and other minorities”.)

Let’s go back to the coalition agreement National signed with New Zealand First:

– Legislate to make English an official language of New Zealand.

– Ensure all public service departments have their primary name in English, except for those specifically related to Māori.

– Require the public service departments and Crown Entities to communicate primarily in English – except those entities specifically related to Māori.

– Conduct a comprehensive review of all legislation (except when it is related to, or substantive to, existing full and final Treaty settlements) that includes “The Principles of the Treaty of Waitangi”

– Abolish the Māori Health Authority

– Confirm that the Coalition Government does not recognise the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as having any binding legal effect on New Zealand.

National signed that agreement. Whatever that is, it’s not ambitious. Whoever that’s repeatedly and explicitly signalling out, it’s not us “all”.

What next?

The problem with division is that it divides. Them and us leaves them and us. And then Larry Diamond’s “runaway train” starts moving.

Katherine Cramer is a is a professor in the political science department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

She became fascinated by political polarisation in the US state of Wisconsin, and by the growing support (in a state that had been reliably, but not vehemently, Democrat voting) for Scott Walker, a Republican governor with, what the London School of Economics called “populistic tendencies”.

Katherine Cramer’s book is called The Politics of Resentment.

In it, she considers how populism works by blaming certain groups for things that aren’t their fault: “people do not focus their blame on elite decision makers as they try to comprehend an economic recession”, for example. “Instead, they give their attention to fellow residents who they think are eating their share of the pie. These interpretations are encouraged, perhaps fomented, by political leaders who exploit these divisions for political gain.”

In New Zealand, that might, for example, be Māori.

Let’s look at National’s coalition agreement with ACT:

– Introduce a Treaty Principles Bill based on existing ACT policy and support it to a Select Committee as soon as practicable.

– Disestablish the Māori Health Authority

– Remove co-governance from the delivery of public services.

– Ensure government contracts are awarded based on value, without racial discrimination.

– Issue a Cabinet Office circular to all central government organisations that it is the Government’s expectation that public services should be prioritised on the basis of need, not race

– Examine the Māori and Pacific Admission Scheme (MAPAS) and Otago equivalent to determine if they are delivering desired outcomes.

What that implies, surely, is that a group of people with a seven years shorter life-expectancy, with disproportionately poorer outcomes in almost every measure, who lost land and language and sovereignty, who signed a Treaty that was repeatedly and egregiously breached, are getting something the rest of “us” are not.

It’s perverse. It’s not true. And, as the LSE defines it, it’s populism. (“Populism is a style of politics that manipulates and exacerbates identity cleavages for political gain.”)

And National signed up for that. In 2023.

Hope is a maiden speech

Christopher Luxon only became an MP in 2020. At the end of 2023 he became Prime Minister.

It is a remarkable trajectory. A story of ambition realised.

He is similarly “ambitious” for us. At least, that’s what he keeps saying, so very often he sounds like he’s calling race seven at Trentham and every horse has been named after an energy drink. “Ambition.” “Turbo-charge”. “Accelerate”. “Action”. “Action mode”. “Delivery.” He’s said them all since becoming Prime Minister, but what do they mean?

Does anyone, anywhere, really believe the government scrapping our “world-leading tobacco laws” was ambitious?

They’re funding tax cuts.

“We had an opportunity to lead the world”, said Associate Professor Andrew MacCormick, the NZ National Committee Chair of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.

That was ambitious.

Does anyone, anywhere, believe ACT’s obsession with the Treaty is ambitious?

Or New Zealand First’s obsession with English – and their extraordinary attempt to cast the most spoken language on the planet as some kind of victim?

Or Shanes Jones, and his advocacy for precisely the oil exploration the world is now finally turning against?

I’d completely despair. But on December 12th, the same day Shane Jones sounded his miserable surrender, Tim Costley and Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke gave their maiden speeches.

They’re lovely things, maiden speeches. Parliament’s equivalent of spring.

Each new MP sows their garden. This is where I’m from. This is why I’m here. This is what I hope to grow.

I sat at my desk and watched National’s new Ōtaki MP, Tim Costley, tell us who he is.

He spoke really well.

He used te reo Māori with genuine skill and feeling. (I phoned him to ask how fluently he spoke it, and he said he was still learning. Then he used a lovely line – “If you want to get closer to someone, you take a step towards them.”)

Yes.

National MP Tim Costley

Tim Costley isn’t abandoning the core aspirations that made him want to stand for National. He is clearly conservative. And he aspires to what he regards as meaningful in the framework available to a new, National backbencher.

But he made his politics sound decent. And he had a sense of “all”.

There were moments when he was overwhelmed, by the occasion, by memories of people lost, by a celebration of his mum, by love, and, in each of these moments, he reminded us that our politicians are as human as we are.

What matters, now, is the space we give to other humans.

These are angry, divided, tribal days. And populism will heighten that. Sharpen it. Exploit it for political gain.

Unless someone, a leader, for example, says “no”.

Later that day came Te Pāti Māori’s new Member for Hauraki-Waikato Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke. Twenty-one years old, Aotearoa’s youngest MP since 1853, and she filled Te Whare Paremata (Parliament) with what Moana Jackson might have called the light of her ancestors.

It was extraordinary to watch her. Her eloquence, her strength and power. Her mana.

Te Pāti Māori MP Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke

If we are ambitious, then isn’t it for young people like her? You don’t even have to agree with her (the nature of politics is that many people won’t), but surely, surely, a country that celebrates Māori youth when it runs with an oval ball, can see how brilliant and vital she is. She’s bi-lingual, confident, has a sense of self that shines like a star, and understands our history because she comes from deep within it.

And if we drive Māori back into the shadows, if we relegate the Māori language, if we attempt to further diminish a Treaty that we have spent almost two centuries violating, if we accept inequity and regard attempts to address it as provocative rather than just, then what choice will Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke have, but to rise up against all of that?

And then some of us who ought to know better will dismiss her, as “shrill” and “angry”. And the populist politics that drives us to exactly those kinds of divisions will have won.

What a terrible victory that would be.

Who are we?

In his own maiden speech, only three years ago, Christopher Luxon said something worth holding to: “It’s my absolute belief that New Zealand can do better, and when it does, New Zealanders will do better, too.”

Lead us there, Prime Minister.

All of us.

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