A FREE taste of an Insight Politics article by writer Chris Trotter

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Who Wants 20 Years of Woke?

Eighteen years, nearly two decades, with just one change of government. A New Zealander born shortly before the 1999 general election would have been getting ready to cast their first vote in the election of 2017. From birth to adulthood, they would have known just three prime ministers – Helen Clark for nine years, John Key for eight years, and the unlucky Bill English for just 10 months. Across those 18 years, the fundamental institutions of the New Zealand state and the management of its economy remained essentially unchanged. The period 1999–2017 will go down in New Zealand history as one of remarkable stability and consensus. Not something that could be said of the six years that followed.

There were, of course, different emphases and different priorities, depending on which party was in office – Helen Clark’s Labour, or John Key’s National – but sudden and jarring lurches to left or right were not a feature of either government. Seldom has the Italian social scientist Vilfredo Pareto’s description of capitalist democracy as a means of organising “an orderly circulation of elites” been so aptly applied. Truly it could be said of these 18 years that “the more things changed, the more they stayed the same”.

For many New Zealanders, this high degree of consensus among New Zealand’s rulers – and potential rulers – was very far from being a good thing. Churches, trade unions and other non-governmental organisations, whose activities brought them into close contact with those languishing on the bottom rungs of New Zealand’s societal ladder, were loud in their condemnation of both the Clark and Key governments’ failure to maintain the essential infrastructure of social and economic stability. Most particularly, they condemned the failure of both governments to ensure the construction of sufficient houses and apartments to accommodate securely not only beneficiaries and the working poor, but also those young, middle-class first-home-buyers forced to watch house prices soar beyond reach.

Had the Clark and Key governments made the rapidly dwindling housing supply their first priority and organised the state’s resources to address it, then many of the even more desperate problems that have grown out of the insufficiency and unaffordability of housing would likely not have arisen, or, at least, grown more slowly. Inadequately rooted communities deteriorate with frightening rapidity towards domestic instability and substance abuse, lawlessness and violence. The failure of New Zealand’s elites to appreciate fully the extreme social dangers associated with their unhealthy obsession with real estate led directly to the political anomalies of 2017–2023.

Winston Peters’s populist instincts (along with a fair amount of utu) led him to defy the political tradition (which he had helped to fashion) of minor parties giving their support to whichever major party had received a plurality of the party vote. With 44 per cent of the party vote, National was widely expected to be NZ First’s coalition partner. Peters confounded these expectations, however, on account of what he saw as the elites’ failure to preserve a measure of social justice commensurate with their responsibility to preserve social cohesion. New Zealand capitalism, he said, had left far too many people behind.

Peters’s problem, which very soon became clear to him, was that the political and bureaucratic elites he had empowered were simply not up to the job that he (and the rest of the country) expected of them. Helen Clark and Michael Cullen knew how to run a country, Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson did not. Worse still, Peters was shocked to discover that Ardern’s Labour Party had allowed itself to be made the generational prey of ideologies either unknown or unacceptable to both the Right and the Left elites that had preceded them.

On the vexed issues of race and gender, the beliefs that had animated the elites of the Baby-Boom generation were fast giving way to those of younger New Zealanders: the generations whose members were now, like Ardern, arriving at the top.

Nowhere was the gulf between the values of the Baby-Boom elites and the beliefs of their successors more vividly displayed than in the He Puapua Report. Commissioned in secret by the Labour Cabinet to provide Ardern’s Government with a road-map to full compliance with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, He Puapua presented recommendations that would have made the ministers of Helen Clark’s and John Key’s cabinets blanch with horror and order their immediate suppression. Nothing less than a constitutional transformation was proposed – a revolution from above that would have made the neoliberal revolution of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson look like child’s play.

When John Key gave the go-ahead, in April 2010, for then-Maori Party’s co-leader Pita Sharples to sign the UN Declaration in New York, he had no idea it would produce something like He Puapua. It was a declaration, nothing more, and New Zealand was under no legal obligation to do any more than pay it occasional lip-service. Clark, who as PM refused to sign the declaration, knew a great deal more about the long-term plans of Maori nationalists than the National leader. Not for nothing had she overturned the Court of Appeal’s decision in relation to the seabed and foreshore. Clark understood the irretrievable loss of constitutional and social cohesion that was bound to follow the courts’ revision of the Waitangi Treaty. Key did not.

The younger generations now taking their place among the nation’s elites are much less afraid of unleashing constitutional and social upheavals than their predecessors. It is probable that, like the neoliberal revolutionaries of 1984–1993, they see very little about the status-quo that is worth preserving. If Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson could usher in an economic revolution, then why shouldn’t they unleash an even bigger cultural revolution? Those who struggle to understand the present Labour Government’s hostility towards the Bill of Rights’s guarantee of Freedom of Expression, need only consider what sort of laws will be necessary to silence those who still believe that constitutional change must, in all cases, be validated democratically, by the people, in a referendum.

As New Zealand approaches another opportunity to secure “an orderly circulation of elites”, its people should be very clear in their minds about which elites their votes are most likely to usher into the seats of power. The initial upheavals attendant upon Rogernomics and Ruthanasia settled into a status quo that endured for nearly 20 years. But the beliefs and values of Helen Clark’s and John Key’s Baby-Boom generation are most unlikely to be replicated in the political elites composed of Generations X, Y and Z.

But if these are the beliefs and values of the elites who are about to be circulated into power, then the transition is most unlikely to be orderly. Who wants 20 years of Woke?

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