Not much ordinary business is likely to get done in the world’s parliaments for the immediate future. But New Zealand managed to get an important bill through last week, with the passage of legislation to remove abortion from the Crimes Act and guarantee the right to terminate a pregnancy in the first twenty weeks (broadly in line with the position in Australia’s states).
To my mind that’s a very good thing, although I don’t intend to argue the merits of it here. But it offers an opportunity to say something about the state of New Zealand politics, ahead of an election scheduled for September this year.
It’s appropriate this week because it’s just on 250 years since James Cook completed the circumnavigation of New Zealand – prior to sailing on to the “discovery” of eastern Australia – thus beginning the process of bringing the country into the European world.
More relevantly, perhaps, is the fact that at a time of crisis, when people are urgently seeking inspirational (or even just competent) leadership from their governments, many in Australia and elsewhere regard New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern as a model. Her response to the anti-Muslim terrorist attack in Christchurch a year ago won rave reviews from progressive opinion worldwide.
So let’s start by looking at the vote on the Abortion Legislation Bill. Here are the numbers on the third reading:
As you would expect, the centre-left (Labour) voted mostly in favor, and the centre-right (National) mostly against. The first of those tendencies was stronger than the second, which is why the bill passed. By the standards of the contemporary Anglosphere, New Zealand’s National Party is a moderate force.
The next obvious thing is the gender disparity. If it had just been up to the men, the bill would have failed, albeit very narrowly (one male National MP was absent). But the women voted more than two to one in favor.
That disparity, however, only shows up on the right. Labour’s MPs voted in favor to the same extent regardless of their gender. (So did the Greens, who were unanimous.) But National’s men were overwhelmingly against while its women split almost evenly. Even more striking is the far-right New Zealand First, which divided exactly on gender lines, its two women voting in favor and its seven men against.
Which raises a fairly obvious question: what is Labour, under a supposedly progressive leader, doing in coalition with NZ First? And why do the Greens, who as a minor party should have the luxury of sticking to principle, go along with it? (Labour and NZ First govern in coalition, with the Greens guaranteeing confidence and supply.)
It’s true that, just as National is a moderate centre-right party, NZ First is relatively moderate in the far right stakes. It shares many themes with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, including particularly its hostility to immigration, but under veteran leader Winston Peters it has been more successful in branding itself as in the vaguely populist middle of the ideological spectrum rather than out to one end.
In practice that means that the party is for sale to the highest bidder; it kept National in office from 1996 to 1998, and did the same for Labour from 2005 to 2008. The 2017 election, however, was the first time that Peters had successfully negotiated to engineer a change of government, despite the fact that National had outvoted the combined Labor-Greens total.
So if there is supposed to be a cordon sanitaire around the far right, Ardern is the one who broke it. Nor was there anything much to justify it other than the desire for power. New Zealand was not facing any sort of emergency; the incumbent National government under Bill English had done nothing to prompt the thought that it had to be removed at all costs.
National’s current leader, Simon Bridges, says he has learnt the lesson and promises not to deal with NZ First if it again emerges with the balance of power. Opinion polls show its support in decline, but not precipitously: while it is currently below the 5% threshold, it may well recover (as it has done in the past).
As I’ve said a number of times, no single strategy for dealing with the far right (or any other sort of extremists) can be guaranteed to work. Sometimes such parties can be tamed or neutered by being given a share of office; sometimes not. Perhaps Ardern did the right thing.
The problem, it seems to me, is not that no case can be made for her decision to deal with Peters, but that her supporters don’t seem to feel any need to make it. The issue is just ignored, as if her stature as a progressive icon would not survive contact with the grubby reality of pragmatic politics.
With democracy under siege worldwide, the need for heroes is real and understandable. But we also need some honest discussion about how they got there and what price they paid.