Populism on the rise again – an opportunity for ACT?

Note: this post originally appeared on ‘Douglas to Dancing’, a blog I maintained from 2007-9 on the ACT New Zealand political party. The blog was an extension of the thesis I wrote about the Act Party in 2007, From Douglas to Dancing: explaining the lack of success of ACT New Zealand and evaluating its future prospects (PDF).

Populism seems to be on the rise again in New Zealand politics. Today we had Helen Clark declaring a virtual war on tagging with draconian, yet ineffective policies to deal with spray-paint vandalism. The chances of this sort of policy, which includes banning the sale of spray-paint to youths under 18, actually working hover slightly above nil. But it’s a popular policy to push to the electorate:

1. Tagging is a bane of the (mostly white) middle class. It gets people riled in a way that banging on about “sustainability” never will. Tagging is emotional, as it gets to the heart of “my home, my castle” principle.

2. It makes Labour look “tough”.

3. It’s easy for the TV people to cover and easy for the TV viewers to digest. Kill the taggers (no not literally), nice and simple.

Of course, despite the rhetoric it’s simply another property crime. But it’s a very visible one for the population at large (unless you’re burgled, you never see the mess caused). Hence the decision by Labour to “run with it” as an issue in election year.

The other populist issue to surface over the last week or so, albeit in a less prominent manner, is the politics of race. This week’s cover story in the Listener (“Why Brits see NZ as a ‘philistine hellhole'”) discussed how New Zealand officialdom prefers to accentuate Polynesian culture over its European heritage, with a case in point being Te Papa museum which reportedly holds it European art collection in a non-public basement.

And last week, we saw John Key “hongi” Tame Iti and link hands with Mrs. Harawira. As Chris Trotter wrote in his column in this week’s Independent Financial Review (not online), this does not go down well with National voters. They are centrist, but only to a point. It was Don Brash who regained their votes from other right-wing parties. And foremost among these was ACT.

As I discussed in Chapter Two of my dissertation, I am somewhat sceptical of the case made that National is wholly to blame for the decline in support for ACT at the 2005 election. But what I did note was that ACT’s vote caved in immediately after Brash’s Orewa Speech on what he called “the dangerous drift towards racial separatism”.

This strongly suggests that ACT supporters were mostly avid fans of the call for “One Law for All”. As we know, Don Brash took over this cause – but since his departure this topic has disappeared from the political agenda. Now Key is eager to embrace the likes of Iti at Waitangi, all in the name of centrism (although as has been pointed out, Iti’s Tuhoe tribe was never even a signatory to the Treaty of Waitangi). And ACT leader Rodney Hide does not want to touch the issue of race. When I quizzed him on this, he said “I want to paint a picture that’s more positive for the country than grumpy and I think the “One Law for All” and such things are quite a grumpy side of New Zealand politics”, although he did add that there is a “requirement that people be treated equally” buried in his Regulatory Responsibility Bill. But for all intents and purposes, Hide wants to be a centrist as well, at least on race.

But there is an opportunity to capture votes with race. Like tagging, it is a populist issue. It’s an emotive issue. It’s primed by people’s everyday “experiences” of powhiri, karakia and taniwha. I’ve no doubt that “One Law for All” is dead. But here’s a suggestion. If Hide wants to be positive, ACT could launch a campaign for New Zealanders to be proud of its international links, including European ancestry. A campaign that would be a practical application of the Listener story. A catchy slogan or two (try “we’ve got nothing to be ashamed of”), a few full page newspaper ads and ACT could strike the proverbial chord.

This would not be something that out of the blue: ACT has in the past stressed its roots in the Enlightenment and has often looked abroad for policy advice and tactics, such as in the visit by Rodney Hide and Heather Roy to the Free Democrats (FDP) in Germany and the Progressive Democrats in Ireland in October 2006. In a campaign, ACT could also point out New Zealand’s slide down the OECD league tables, particularly compared with Australia. The message could be that New Zealand should look to these other countries for clues to its own success.

The following was included in Murray McCully’s first e-mail newsletter for the year. McCully couches his criticism in Key-approved “timewasting” language, but the dog-whistling to race is clear:

Our Productive Public Service Wondering why the size and cost of the public service is blowing through the roof? Well, a small indication may be discerned from emails, thoughtfully leaked to the worldwide headquarters of mccully.co by frustrated public servants in recent weeks, outlining the lengthy process by which Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) chief executive Brendan Boyle was to be farewelled by that department and welcomed into the same role at Internal Affairs. Staff of LINZ received a memo advising that on 4 February “LINZ manuhiri” would “gather at 9.15 am at DIA for welcome at 9.30 am. The Internal Affairs Office is across Lambton Quay from LINZ,” the memo helpfully informed.

The programme then provided for: “Department of Internal Affairs Tangata whenua (staff) welcome Brendan and LINZ staff. Speeches (Whaikoreo) and waiata (songs) in Te Reo. number of waiata practice sessions.” These are listed as being from 12.30 to 1.30 on the 18th, 23rd and 25th of January. Then there’s the “rehearsal for the Powhirischeduled from noon to 2.00pm on Tuesday 29th”. “If you intend going to the welcome, attendance at these is recommended,” staff are advised.

But, dear taxpayers, never fear. The nation’s public servants are ever sensitive to the prospect that large numbers of highly paid public servants might be diverted from their important duties. The note advises:
“Due to a limit of 60 LINZ people that can be accommodated at Internal Affairs, would you please register attendance..” Isn’t that reassuring?


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