Change-maker, or change-faker?

What the New Zealand election reveals about the ‘politics of change’

Quentin Grafton

Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Australia, The Pacific, The World

25 October 2017

Not all change is positive, but in many western countries voters are opting for hope and possibility rather than tried and tired, Quentin Grafton writes.

Despite the drama of New Zealand First Party leader Winston Peters playing kingmaker following the country’s recent election, and despite Peters’ claims that he only made up his mind 15 minutes before the announcement, his decision to go with Labour and its freshly-minted leader Jacinda Ardern was a no-brainer.

In Labour, Peters was almost certainly likely to get a better deal. Labour under Ardern is seen as the Party of Change, and their party platforms (to reduce immigration and be more interventionist in the economy) were more closely aligned.

The ‘Jacindamania’ which swept the country when she became the Labour leader on 1 August, when her party was polling at just 25 per cent, lifted Labour’s vote at the election to 37 per cent. With the support of the Green Party that won 6 per cent of the vote and New Zealand First that received 7 per cent, she now governs with 63 seats. This is more than enough to go to the next election, so long as New Zealand First stays in the Coalition and the Greens continue to maintain supply and confidence.

The election was a clear case of a swing for change and against ‘business as usual’. This is not to say that those who voted for the Green Party want the same as those who voted for New Zealand First, or Labour. But a new government is what Kiwi voters wanted, and it is what they will get.

More on this: What explains Australia and New Zealand’s leadership divergence?

The Ardern-led government will likely play a bigger role in the economy than previous National governments, and will aim to give more of a hand up or handout to disadvantaged Kiwis. Adern’s promised policies include a phased removal of university fees, a substantial reduction in immigration intake, a strong commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and a pro-active policy to increase the supply of affordable housing.

So what does this mean for Australia and the rest of the world? Much more than you think from a country that has a population smaller than Sydney.

New Zealand is now one of a series of countries that have opted over the past couple of years for fresh-faced leaders. They include: 45 year-old Justin Trudeau of Canada; the stunning win of 39 year-old Emmanuel Macron who was elected President of France in May with twice the vote of his rival; and, most recently, this month’s Austrian Election which is likely to result in 31 year-old Sebastien Kurz becoming the world’s youngest elected head of government.

Even in countries where incumbents have managed to cling to power, such as in the UK with Prime Minister Theresa May or in Germany with Chancellor Angela Merkel, recent elections have diminished them. It is highly unlikely that either will be their respective party leaders at their next general elections.

Donald Trump, aged 71, had never held political office and thus became the de facto candidate of change in the US presidential election. He rode to power because both the style and policies he offered were (and have proven to be) a radical departure from business as usual. More than anything, though, Trump’s victory shows that not all change is for the better.

The key question is, why do so many voters want change? The situation is different in every country, but the Zeitgeist for many in western democracies is a real dissatisfaction with the direction their countries are heading.

This is especially true of the ‘climate change generation’, people like Ardern, who grew up in the shadow of the first report in 1990 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that highlighted the risks of greenhouse gas emissions.

The younger generation are also worried about getting or keeping a job. These fears are heightened by higher rates of immigration and the economic disruptions from ‘digitalisation’. The young and the poor have also witnessed a rapid rise in asset prices over the past few years from which they have not benefitted, and which has meant growing wealth inequality.

More on this: Turnbull and Corbyn: the rise of anti-politicians?

In sum, the change voters want is for government that cares more and that explicitly puts their interests, and their future, ahead of corporate or vested interests. They do not want business as usual.

Change is inevitable, including in politics. But separating what is actual change from the ‘politics of change’ can often be difficult. Many politicians pretend to offer something different, but in reality deliver the same old, same old.

Australia is a world leader in the politics of change. Labor replaced Kevin Rudd in June 2010 with Julia Gillard so as to increase its chances at the 2010 election, then switched back to Kevin Rudd so as to revive its fortunes in the 2013 election.

The Liberals have copied from Labor’s playbook. They removed Prime Minister Tony Abbott in September 2015, opting to go with the fresher face of Malcolm Turnbull to avoid what seemed, at the time, an increasingly likely defeat to Labor. Despite an initial bounce in the polls, support for the Turnbull-led government declined, in part because people did not witness the change they wanted from their new Prime Minister. In the end, the Turnbull government barely scraped by with an election victory in July 2016. It has continuously been behind in the polls since September 2016.

Ardern, Trudeau, and Macron are all ‘change-makers’. Whether they achieve what they promised, and whether such change actually delivers better outcomes for their people, will determine their political longevity and how history will judge them.

The parties and politicians who simply ‘refinish the paint of an old car’ while the worn-out engine remains the same, are ‘change-fakers’. Voters in France, and now New Zealand, decided to buy a new model and take it for a spin. Australians, and especially younger Aussie voters, will do likewise. Given half the chance, many will vote for real and beneficial change and leave the change-fakers in their political junkyards.

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One Response

  1. John Gibson says:

    I think this analysis is misleading, and particularly linking the new Government in New Zealand with the idea that voters want change.

    According to the article:
    “The key question is, why do so many voters want change? The situation is different in every country, but the Zeitgeist for many in western democracies is a real dissatisfaction with the direction their countries are heading.”

    The final Roy Morgan poll before the NZ election had 62% of respondents saying that NZ was heading in the right direction and only 25% saying it was in the wrong direction. Similarly, the analysis by respected political scientist Claire Robinson was that the NZ election was a vote for the status quo:

    https://thespinoff.co.nz/politics/08-10-2017/election-2017-a-vote-for-the-status-quo/

    The change in government in NZ has more to do with the particularities of the MMP electoral system, and the fact that NZ is very liberal in who it lets vote, including those who have left to live elsewhere (which is why the Greens pick up an extra seat on specials).

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