Chris Trotter: To remain the same, New Zealand must change

Most Kiwis understand that without the welfare state, including programmes like Working For Families, their standard of ...
Dean Kozanic

Most Kiwis understand that without the welfare state, including programmes like Working For Families, their standard of living would plummet. Then Prime Minister Helen Clark at Westfield Mall in 2006.

OPINION: New Zealanders require a lot of persuading to embrace change. It's a bitter truth for radicals of every stripe to swallow, but New Zealand is an inherently conservative country. Understanding the reasons why Kiwis are so anxious for things to stay the same is, therefore, the essential first lesson for those seeking to change them.

The most important driver of conservative attitudes is having something to lose. That's why the cliche, "there's nothing more dangerous than a person with nothing left to lose", is wrong. The most dangerous people in the world are not the dispossessed, but those who believe their possessions are about to be taken from them.

The defining emotion of human-beings who have lost everything is despair. The emotions that define those who believe they are about to be dispossessed are fear and rage – very often murderous rage. It's the reason why revolutions almost always descend into civil wars.

Herein lies the paradox for the change-makers. Their best chance of radically reforming society comes when those teetering on the edge of poverty – or even of becoming appreciably less affluent – convince themselves that they're on the point of falling. It is among those most anxious about slipping down the social hierarchy that the promise of a particular kind of change resonates most strongly.

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The political movement and/or party that comes up with a programme of change which reassures the economically and socially vulnerable that their lives will stay the same is onto a winner.

One of the quirky aspects of New Zealand's political culture is the degree to which its citizens factor in the contribution their country's 80-year-old welfare state to the personal calculation of their overall well-being. Most Kiwis understand that without state-provided and (mostly) state-funded health care and education, their standard of living would plummet.

The quantum of income required to fund a child's private education, and pay the insurance premiums required to guarantee comprehensive private health coverage, is only available to a very fortunate minority of New Zealand households – and the rest of the country knows it.

It is this reliance on the welfare state that explains why New Zealand's conservative party – National – always does best when it guarantees to look after the core components of the welfare state. Health, education, and, more recently, Working for Families, constitute the foundations upon which the moderately affluent have constructed both a comfortable lifestyle and (which is probably more important politically-speaking) a comforting metric of their social status.

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Also expected of National, as the designated driver of New Zealand's economy, is a housing market capable of satisfying every New Zealander with a proven track record of hard work and thrift (both of which presuppose a buoyant labour market). Indeed, the National Party once fetishised home ownership as the key constituent of what it described, proudly, as New Zealand's "property-owning democracy". Nothing demonstrated more conclusively National's understanding that the more people had to lose, the more likely they were to vote conservatively.

If proof is needed, it is there in the electoral record. Between 1950 and 1990, National was in office for 28 years: their Labour rivals, for 12.

Notwithstanding its failure to occupy the Treasury Benches for even half of the 40 years between 1950 and 1990, Labour had every reason to feel proud of its achievements. The status quo that National felt bound to defend, on pain of losing office, was the work of its socialist opponents – not itself.

Electorally, the meaning of this arrangement was clear. If National, the conservative guarantor, failed to defend the economic and social institutions brought into being between 1935 and 1949, then their principal architect, the Labour Party, would act with radical dispatch to keep them functioning. Or, to put it more bluntly: only uncompromising reform has preserved the status quo.

The drama and confusion which has characterised the past 30 years of New Zealand's political history are the product of the failure of both National and Labour to adequately defend the core generators of the New Zealand electorate's economic, social and political security.

The neoliberal project, introduced by Labour's Roger Douglas, ostensibly as a means of reconstituting the economic foundations of ordinary New Zealanders' security, has, since 1984, only succeeded in producing a state of affairs very closely approximating the opposite. Neither Helen Clark's Labour-led Government, nor the National-led Government of John Key and Bill English, have proved equal to the task of rebuilding a properly functioning welfare state.

The cumulative effect of this 20-year failure to keep strong a generalised faith in the possibility of a better future, has been to set up an election – this election – in which victory will be claimed by the political leader who convinces a majority of New Zealanders that if they want their country to remain the same, then everything will have to change.

 - Stuff

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