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May 22, 2017 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Populist Reaction Unlikely

The political zeitgeist of the Western world today is undoubtedly populism, the ideology which favours a “pure people” over a “corrupt elite,” according to Political Scientist Cas Mudde. Populists have gained a number of victories recently. In the Brexit referendum in June last year Britain voted to “take back control” from what many saw as a hostile foreign elite in Brussels. Donald Trump won the American presidency by positioning himself as an outsider who would “clear the swamp” of Washington DC and prevent ostensibly corrupt elites from holding on to power — as seen in his tendency to call his Democrat opponent “Crooked Hillary.”

The extent to which populist politics will spread in the world is difficult to predict. Fears that populists would gain power in Europe early this year were soothed by the electoral defeat of Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen who led far-right parties in the Netherlands and France respectively. Yet uncertainty makes some New Zealand commentators question how far populism will impact this country’s politics, particularly in the upcoming general election in September.

Political Scientist Bryce Edwards wrote last year that New Zealand could experience a “popular revolt” due to declining levels of trust in Kiwi politicians, frustrations that the public are not getting what they vote for due to the “blandness and similarities” of the major parties, a crisis of economic inequality, and dissatisfaction with high levels of immigration. Some politicians have been characterised as populist by commentators and their colleagues in Parliament. NZ First leader Winston Peters has been “likened to Trump more than any other MP,” according to journalist Claire Trevett. Other political figures have embraced populism. Gareth Morgan, leader of the recently-formed Opportunities Party, compared himself to Trump when he launched his political project. But while populist ideas clearly appeal to some voters in this country, it appears the likelihood that populism will thrive in New Zealand is low.


Income Inequality

For populist leaders, inequality can be a powerful factor in gaining political support. Once the population begins to blame their unequal living standards on the “corrupt elite,” they place their faith in demagoguery. As the gap between rich and poor widens in New Zealand, voters may lash out both against what they see as a political Right vested in the interests of the rich, and a political Left, which, in its anxiety to be seen as less radical and more centrist, does little to stem rapidly rising inequality.

However, people who suffer most from economic inequalities are the least likely to vote. Philip Walker, a survey manager for Statistics New Zealand, said in 2014 that “people who feel they don’t have enough money to meet their daily needs are also less likely to vote.” Even though inequality can often cause voters to reject established political elites, as seen in France this year, the record levels of low turnout during elections in New Zealand makes it unlikely that voters would become inspired by any radical new populist movement at the moment.



However, populism thrives on public animosity towards immigration. In the United States in recent years there was little desire among lawmakers to radically reduce immigration levels. Republicans understood that a steady supply of cheap labour was essential to their business-owning supporters, and Democrats often equated opposition to the free movement of people with racism and ultra-nationalism. US voters who opposed immigration began to feel as if they had no political choice in this matter, until Donald Trump gave them a chance to “build a wall” along the Mexican border.

Uneasiness over immigration is growing in New Zealand, with immigrants coming to be seen as burdensome for urban infrastructure and an already over-stretched housing market. In what Duncan Garner has labelled an “expensive addiction,” New Zealand’s immigration levels have reached a high of 70,000 immigrants entering the country per year, meaning that the country’s total population will reach five million in 2019, according to some estimates. 

Despite this, unhappiness among the electorate over immigration is unlikely to spur populism in New Zealand. Voters have a choice over immigration issues in the upcoming election: they can side with the currently pro-immigration National Government, which believes migrants are good for economic growth, or they can support Labour, which recently announced it will cut immigration by the “tens of thousands” if elected in September.

According to a recent Newshub Reid Research poll, just over half of New Zealanders favoured reducing immigration. Despite bitterness over this issue, anti-immigrant parties are just not popular enough to encourage populist ideas to enter our mainstream politics.


State Sovereignty

Populism takes state sovereignty seriously. The 52% of British voters who chose to leave the EU did so partly because they felt that their country’s sovereignty was being undermined by an unelected group of Belgian bureaucrats. They voted to “Take Back Control,” as the main Leave campaign slogan put it.

Anxiety that New Zealand’s national sovereignty is being eroded arose over the National Government’s decision to join the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade agreement with nearly a dozen countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Critics of the TPP believe that it undermines parliamentary sovereignty by allowing international corporations to sue the government if it takes any action that challenges the corporations’ interests.

Anger over the TPP is winding down however, partly because President Trump announced that the US will no longer be part of the Partnership. If voters wanted to “take back control” in New Zealand, they would find it difficult to argue that parliamentary sovereignty is being eroded when the TPP itself is being undermined.



The theme of the “pure people” against the “corrupt elite” is a fundamentally populist principle, but New Zealand politics has so little corruption that a populist backlash against dishonest lawmakers is unlikely. The Corruption Perceptions Index ranked the country 90 points out of 100 this year, same as Denmark — often seen as the benchmark for quality of life and good governance. When politicians are found to be unethical, like Judith Collins’ meetings with her husband’s company Oravida during a state-funded tour overseas in 2013, they are often immediately reprimanded (Collins was forced to resign her Cabinet position).

But populism is as much about countering perceived corruption as it is about countering actual corruption. The UK was perceived by Brexit supporters as being controlled by dishonest elites in Westminster and Brussels, yet it placed tenth on the Corruption Perceptions Index.

Part of the reason of this perception of corruption is that news media in the UK and US are viewed as a stooge of the lawmakers, doing little more than public relations work. Donald Trump railed against what he saw as the “fake news” media bubble, where newspapers and television networks were supposedly biased towards liberals and unfairly antagonistic towards conservative politicians.

However, there are few people who claim that the major newspapers and media outlets in New Zealand have a bias towards any one political party or movement. There are political blogs and some opinion columnists who often favour certain political parties and stances, but the media organisations report events honestly without favour to any particular group.


Establishment Politics

Populist leaders are more effective if they are seen to have nothing to do with the political establishment. Figures like Donald Trump, who had no political experience prior to his election, and France’s Marine Le Pen (who, despite being part of the Le Pen family political dynasty, was always on the fringe of mainstream French politics), became trusted by large numbers of voters who saw them as the polar opposite to the career politicians who they despised.

New Zealand’s own “populist” leaders are still seen as part of the establishment that they themselves criticise. Winston Peters, for example, despite being described by former Prime Minister John Key as “the Nigel Farage of New Zealand” (Britain’s UKIP party leader and one of the staunchest supporters of Brexit), is no political outsider, having served as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs in two different governments between 1996 and 2008. A political veteran, Peters has been an MP since 1978, when Green Party co-leader James Shaw was five years of age. Peters does not have the benefit of being a political outsider, which is the hallmark of successful populist leadership.

Successful populist movements require leadership from a demagogue who holds the establishment with contempt, but New Zealand’s apparently populist leaders are either of the establishment, or too unpopular to come close to parliament. For example, Gareth Morgan, who sees himself as a version of President Trump, is unlikely to enter parliament. One Newshub poll in March found that the Opportunities Party, polling at 0.8%, is well under the 5% threshold. Populist leaders gain support from members of the public who are politically alienated. The issues which affect them are important to address, and parties would be wise to take note of them in the upcoming election. But for now, a populist backlash will not characterise New Zealand politics as it has all over the Western world.


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