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Today is a FREE taste of an Insight Politics article by writer Chris Trotter

Photo by dfbailey. The BFD.

Throwing the Fight

How determined is the Labour Government led by Jacinda Ardern to win the 2023 general election? Looking down the track and noting the size of the oncoming train, who could blame Ardern and her colleagues for bequeathing National and its inexperienced new leader inflation, recession, rising unemployment and simmering racial tensions? After all, even when everything was going its way, Ardern’s Government couldn’t seem to get anything done. Subtract the six-to-seven months of Covid-19 ‘success’ in 2020, and its extraordinary electoral harvest, and what has Labour actually achieved? Having sown the wind, Ardern’s best strategy, surely, is to cut and run – leaving Christopher Luxon and National to reap the whirlwind she has raised.

The shrewder heads among Labour’s team must surely by now have noticed the growing volume and rapidity of the NZ Initiative’s drumbeat. The attacks on Adrian Orr’s stewardship of the Reserve Bank is only the beginning of a full-scale ideological counter-attack against this Government’s lamentable deviations from the true path of neoliberal orthodoxy. Veterans of the first great neoliberal offensive of the 1980s – most notably Dr Bryce Wilkinson – show every sign of understanding how vital it is to restore that orthodoxy before somebody in New Zealand politics learns how to politically operationalise Modern Monetary Theory.

The pressure on Luxon to knock inflation for six by plunging New Zealand into a deep recession, lifting unemployment and imposing a swingeing programme of fiscal austerity will be enormous. Indeed, he almost certainly faces being squeezed in a political pincer movement. On one side, the NZ Initiative and its media surrogates. On the other David Seymour and ACT. And, on the evidence to date, it would be drawing a very long bow to suggest that Luxon has either the intellectual resources, or the emotional resilience, to withstand such pressure. Gifted the Treasury benches by a Labour Party unwilling to wear the odium of a hardline economic agenda, Luxon will have little choice but to wear it for them.

Labour’s highly divisive “co-governance” agenda could make matters even worse for National. Anticipating defeat, Ardern’s Government might be tempted to set in motion all manner of co-governance initiatives – the more controversial the better. The purpose of such a push would be: 1) To further raise expectations among Maori – especially the rangatahi; and 2) To force National into applying the ‘colonialist’ handbrake – thereby making itself the target of Maori (and ‘progressive’ Pakeha) fury. The option of not applying the handbrake offers no appreciable advantage to National. That would merely make it the target of right-wing fury.

Exploiting the co-governance issue in this way would provide Labour with a powerful, future-oriented political narrative. Rather than being tossed out of office for its incompetence, Labour would insist that its fall was the tragic consequence of ‘colonisation’s’ last stand. National and Act would be painted as the agents of a morally bankrupt white supremacist agenda. Rather than embrace He Puapua’s blueprint for a bi-cultural Aotearoa, the right-wing parties would be accused of siding with the ageing reactionaries of ‘Old New Zealand’. Thanks to this shameless application of political jiu-jitsu, Labour would not only consolidate its position as the champion of the tangata whenua, but would also identify itself as the natural ally of every other cultural minority – as well, of course, as the ultra-woke under-25s.

In shaping New Zealand’s political timber in this fashion, Labour would enjoy the considerable advantage of working with – not against – the grain. In stark contrast to the ‘Establishment’ of earlier decades, which strongly disapproved of Labour, the Establishment of 2023-26, a formation including the judiciary, the senior public service, academia, organised labour, most of the news media and, probably, a significant chunk of the national security apparatus, would be working both overtly and covertly to hasten Labour’s return to power. Even the business community would hesitate before taking up a political position antagonistic to the beliefs of their younger and browner customers. An austerity-driven National-ACT government could expect to be the more-or-less constant target of leakers and whistle-blowers – making coherent policy delivery increasingly difficult.

If Labour does end up ‘throwing’ the 2023 fight, it will be interesting to see what happens to the Greens. The bitter divisions evident within the ranks of the Green Party at its recent AGM may already have doomed it to electoral oblivion. Certainly, it is difficult to see many male Green voters remaining loyal to a party so willing to institutionalise the virulent misandry of its female and trans-gender activists. Would James Shaw remain a member? Would Chloe Swarbrick? Losing parliamentary representation might lead to a reassertion of the Greens’ more moderate elements. Equally likely, however, is that the bitterness of the internecine conflicts currently plaguing the Greens would be intensified. In such circumstances, it is easy to see Labour presenting itself as an altogether more congenial berth for climate change warriors.

There seems little doubt that a loss in 2023 would result in the almost immediate departure of Jacinda Ardern. But who would succeed her? Grant Robertson may not relish another stint in Opposition. What about Chris Hipkins? The third of the trio who served as advisors to Helen Clark in the early 2000s, and who have dominated the party since 2017, may not have what it takes to lead the radically re-oriented Labour Party envisaged here. A more likely contender would be Michael Wood. His determination to advance the Fair Pay Agreements legislation marked him out as someone well-suited to a post-neoliberal Labour Party. Paired with a strong Maori co-leader – Nanaia Mahuta? Kiritapu Allan? – Wood could easily be presented as the standard-bearer of Labour’s re-engagement with ‘democratic-socialism’ at its ‘intersection’ with He Puapua.

There are some battles it is disadvantageous to win. Looking at 2023 from Labour’s perspective, it is easy to see why the Left’s strategists might see next year’s election as a case in point. Defeat offers the hope of rejuvenation and reorientation in ways victory in 2023 does not.

One does, however, feel sorry for the Kiwis who will be forced to live through the tumultuous years that loom ahead. By the time the country’s electoral politics sort themselves out, voters may have good cause to recite the punchline of Hilaire Belloc’s cautionary poem “Jim” about a boy who ran away from his nurse and was eaten by a lion.

And always keep a-hold of Nurse

For fear of finding something worse.

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