The first of the weekend’s elections is on Saturday, in Australia’s near neighbor New Zealand. There’s been a reasonable amount of coverage for it here – here’s a recent ABC report – and you can read my preview from three years ago if you need to get up to speed on the background.
Four parties cleared the 5% threshold for proportional seats in parliament last time: the National Party led the field with 56, followed by Labour 46, New Zealand First nine and the Greens eight. The latter two both backed Labour, and Labour leader Jacinda Ardern became prime minister. Unless the polls are badly wrong, she will be returned for a second term.
There are again set to be four parties above the 5% mark, but NZ First is not one of them: its support has collapsed to something like half that. Instead, the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers (ACT), which won just a single constituency seat last time, is polling at maybe seven or eight per cent, which would win it around ten seats.
You might notice I haven’t given any label for where the parties stand ideologically. Some are easy: National is centre-right, Labour is centre-left, the Greens are Greens. But NZ First and ACT pose difficulties.
In many respects NZ First looks like a conventional far-right party, akin to Australia’s One Nation. I have no problem describing it that way, but many commentators are reluctant to follow suit – whether because its leader, Winston Peters, is part-Māori, or because his support shifts blithely between the two major parties, or for some other reason.
ACT, by contrast, looks a lot like a European liberal or centrist party; socially progressive and economically free-market. But the fact that its vote has gone up as NZ First’s has gone down might clue you in that something else is going on – as might the occasional use of that dreaded word “populist”.
Philosophically, the two seem to be opposites, but there is evidently a section of the electorate that regards them as alternatives. Both are on the “right”: not in any sense that can be defined by policy positions, but as a sort of tribal identification. Peters is paying the price for supporting Labour (just as he did on a previous occasion, when his party dropped out of parliament in 2008); ACT might support euthanasia and same-sex marriage, but at least they won’t do that.
In a fascinating piece last week at the Conversation, Grant Duncan looked at where ACT’s support is coming from:
ACT supporters’ values are largely diametrically opposed to those upheld by Green supporters, as might be expected of a libertarian party that stands for individualism and deregulation. …
As ACT leader since 2014, Seymour has steered the party back towards free-market liberalism. But there is still an element of right-wing populist thinking among ACT’s supporters.
Sizeable minorities of them agree with conspiracy theories about COVID-19 (25%) and hope Donald Trump is re-elected in November (32%) — more than among National supporters who stood at about 20% on both points.
One is irresistibly reminded of Germany, where Greens and liberals have failed to work together despite (or maybe because of) the fact that their policy positions and social base look superficially similar. In New Zealand also, ACT is competing in the same policy space with the Greens but is doing so from a position of tribal identification that represents them as the enemy. (Australia’s Liberal Democratic Party, which veers between trying to be like ACT and going full-strength Trumpist, has the same problem.)
For the moment, none of this is likely to matter much in New Zealand. Labour will win a majority, either on its own or with the assistance of the Greens, and Ardern will be safe for another term. Depending on how badly National does, it may stick with its new leader, Judith Collins (its fifth in four years), or head off yet again in a new direction.
But at some point, those who think of themselves as free-market liberals are going to have to make some hard decisions about who the real enemy is.