A Tale of Two Parties

On 22 May 1942, a failed prime minister sat down to record what would become one of the most influential and celebrated political speeches in Australian history. The previous year Robert Menzies had dramatically resigned after Federal MPs vetoed his grandiose plan to leave Australia and sit in Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet. Menzies’ party, the United Australia Party, was on the brink of collapse. 

The humbled backbencher now depended on a weekly radio slot to keep his political career alive. But in a powerful oration, rich with meaning, Menzies redefined Australian politics for a generation.  As the political historian Judith Brett explains in her critically acclaimed book, Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People (1993), the speech was a brilliant response to growing class divisions and the rise of Labor. 

A conservative in the liberal tradition, Menzies argued for a politics based on home life rather than the workplace. His listeners were encouraged not to define themselves according to wealth or status, but to identify with certain moral qualities. After all, it was the ‘forgotten people’ working hard to pay the mortgage and raise a family, who were the backbone of the nation. And they were in danger of ‘being ground between the upper and nether millstones of a false class-war’.

By 1949, there were enough forgotten people in suburbia to return Menzies to government as leader of the new Liberal Party. He would go on to become Australia’s longest serving prime minister. Seventy-two years later, the Liberals remain a formidable political force. Menzies’ ideas are still a source of inspiration for the party of Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott. As Morrison put it in a 2018 speech, ‘It’s about what you’re for. Not just what you’re against.’

The Liberals’ 1949 victory coincided with the rise of another ‘centre-right’ party in Australasia. Just ten days earlier, the New Zealand National Party had also won power for the first time. Its leader was the aggressive Sidney Holland, a Christchurch businessman, who came to prominence as a right-wing activist in the 1930s. He famously denounced the social welfare policies of the First Labour Government as ‘applied lunacy’. 

Holland shared a basic outlook with Menzies. He believed in a ‘sturdy New Zealand philosophy of independence and self-reliance’ that elevated the individual above class. But despite his practical wisdom, Holland was no thinker. He did not have the imagination to do what Menzies had done for the Liberals. There was no grand historical narrative to explain the rise of National; no creation myth.

Rather, the National Party grew up believing that it was simply born to rule. Holland and his successor, Keith Holyoake, became symbols of power and not much else. They roundly defeated their opponents in election after election but, more often than not, the policies of National and Labour were indistinguishable. It was the archetype of ‘strong leadership’ that embedded National in the public mind.

Every successful National prime minister, from Holland to Key, has dominated politics through sheer force of personality. They are remembered not for legislation or policies but their ability to inspire confidence and keep the wheels of government turning. If there is an exception to that rule, it is the one leader whose legacy National would rather forget. 

Robert Muldoon is often regarded as one of the country’s worst prime ministers. He alone is blamed for the turmoil of the 1980s: rampant inflation, racial disharmony, violence during the Springboks’ tour, and the foreign exchange crisis of 1984.  The latter gave impetus to, if not a pretext for, the controversial reforms of the Fourth Labour Government. 

In the political lexicon of 21st century New Zealand, ‘Muldoonism’ is a byword for economic illiteracy and megalomania. To be compared to Muldoon is perhaps the most grievous insult one can make against a sitting prime minister. According to their critics, Helen Clark and John Key were both ‘like Muldoon’. The charge has even been made against Jacinda Ardern.

However, the caricature of Muldoon betrays a shallowness in New Zealand public life. He was a well-read, intelligent, and thoughtful man, who offered himself for analysis more than any other modern prime minister. A prolific writer, he was the author of five books and numerous articles, not to mention speeches. He was also a talkback radio host; his final public statement a heartfelt call to the now defunct Radio Pacific. 

In the 1970s, Muldoon defined the National Party both culturally and intellectually. He still does. The shift from economic nationalism to a market liberal orientation post-1984 has obscured the continuing influence of Muldoon’s political philosophy on New Zealand. His bestselling book, The Rise and Fall of a Young Turk (1974) was the most authoritative statement on the motivations and outlook of a National partisan in the 20th century.

Muldoon evoked the quintessential New Zealand dream. He imagined a country in which there was no poverty, Maori and Pākehā were equal, and anyone who worked hard could own a house. The people who inhabited it were like him; simple but fair-minded, and fiercely independent. The country Muldoon idealised was affluent, middle-class, and unashamedly Pākehā. It was built on values forged in blood and sweat – in the bush, on the farm, and at war. 

It was about equality of opportunity rather than outcome. Society would give you an education as far as you could go and look after you in hard times. The rest was up to individuals. But in sickness and health, the government had your back. Even if it were monocultural, Muldoon’s New Zealand was founded on a belief in equality between the races. Māori had fought and died alongside Pākehā in two world wars, now they played rugby and drank beer together. There was no need to complicate these relations further.

Only subversive radicals and incompetent politicians threatened to undermine Muldoon’s New Zealand. But it was the inexorable march of globalisation that proved fatal. In the mid-20th century, New Zealand was still a pastoral economy. Dairy, meat and wool made up 60% of export revenue during the 1960s, with most produce destined for the easy and lucrative British market. As a result, New Zealanders enjoyed the highest living standards in the world. 

It turned out to be a fool’s paradise. The sudden collapse of wool prices in 1966, and Britain’s decision to join the European Economic Community, exposed New Zealand to world-historical forces that no government can control. Farmers lost income, unemployment began to rise, and so did inflation. Muldoon was the only politician who knew what to do. Intellectually, he understood the need for diversification and competition. But he refused to sacrifice the egalitarian myth of post-war New Zealand. 

Muldoon fell back on the language of economism. Charts and tables were his go to as he made the case against free market policies. But it was a concern for ‘ordinary people’ that motivated him. He promised to make New Zealanders feel secure again. This rested on a simple yet contradictory notion that New Zealanders could have independence and freedom while also relying on the state for protection. Muldoon’s politics were an attempt to defy reality. For a time, he succeeded.

While commentators fixate on the political economy of Muldoonism, they overlook the cultural meaning behind it. The attitudes and values that Muldoon gave expression to are still deeply ingrained. Most of us want to believe that New Zealand is exceptionally humane and tranquil. We prefer not to see our worst attributes. It is much easier to deny racism, for example, than it is to confront our prejudices. 

And yet it is the betrayal of the egalitarian myth, or the failure to realise it, that most often leads to political change in New Zealand. The National Party must appeal to fairness if it is to win power again. Whether that means enjoying the fruits of your labour, or lending a hand, our nationhood depends on the belief that New Zealand is a modern day Arcadia in the South Pacific. 

Ironically, it is National’s most hated leader who understood this simple truth better than anyone else. The fact that no government has dared to cancel Muldoon’s universal pension scheme – audaciously called ‘National Superannuation’ in 1975 – is a monument to his success. The qualities he admired most were ‘genuine humanitarianism’ and ‘intelligent pragmatism’. His old party should embrace that legacy. 

Muldoon is the closest we have to a Menzies.

This opinion piece was first published by Victoria University’s The Democracy Project and is republished with permission.

The Muller Trap

A speech by Todd Muller at the Te Puna Rugby Club last June told voters everything they need to know about the New Zealand National Party. It was, arguably, the most coherent statement on political philosophy by a National leader in the MMP era. Interwoven with the usual platitudes about small business and family was a quaint, 19th century vision of ‘the self-made man’.

“My passion in politics is that all of us can choose our own paths and stand tall as New Zealanders in whatever we seek to do, fulfilling our own dreams and our own potentials,” Muller told the adoring crowd. He might have been pigeonholed as a ‘social conservative’ for his views on abortion and euthanisa but Muller’s outlook was inherently liberal. 

Everyone should have their basic human needs met, he clarified. But we are not all the same. And once given an opportunity to grow, individuals should go out into the world and compete. Tellingly, Muller did not see New Zealand under Labour as ‘internationally competitive’ or ‘agile’ enough to meet the challenges of the 21st century. 

Kindness, he said, was not enough. One must also be competent and bold. Here was a leader who embodied the spirit of his party’s founding fathers – names long forgotten, like Forbes and Hamilton. These were men who extolled the Protestant work ethic and opposed the corrupting influence of welfare. 

A thoroughly modern Catholic, Muller would never be accused of puritanism. But his speech was a reworking of the imagery, themes and arguments that have defined National for 85 years. Yet there was a palpable sense that Muller and his speechwriter, Matthew Hooton, were stuck in the past. 

Having tapped into a rich political tradition, they failed to adapt the language and thinking to new realities. This became clear when Muller gave a sermon and reaffirmed his belief in ‘New Zealand’s basic macroeconomic framework’. The articles of faith were low taxes, near-zero inflation, balanced budgets, and cheap labour. 

Muller’s political identity had congealed around the legacy of decades-old ‘neoliberal’ orthodoxy. He personified better than Simon Bridges, or even Judith Collins, the ideological cul-de-sac National found itself in. His dramatic resignation just one month later would have no impact on the party’s direction. National is yet to escape the Muller trap.

A quarter of the electorate might have shared Muller’s romanticisation of individuality, and the moral imperative behind it. However, most New Zealanders yearned for something else in 2020. Jacinda Ardern did what Bridges, Muller and Collins never could – refurbished the neoliberal state with a veneer of kindness and instilled new confidence in the status quo.

Her greatest accomplishment has been to give most New Zealanders a sense of security within the Mullerian ‘macroeconomic framework’. House prices are testament to this. While thousands sleep rough, and many others struggle to pay the rent, a narrow majority has seen its wealth and privilege entrenched under Labour, despite a global pandemic and the worst recession in living memory.  

Homeowners cannot be said to lack a social conscience. Whereas Sir John Key once persuaded New Zealanders there was no housing crisis,  Ardern has fulfilled a different psychological need. The Prime Minister’s compassion, and her belief that we are ‘making progress’, absolve the middle-class of responsibility. Having elected a kind government, they have done their part. The only thing left to do is acquire hard-earned capital gains. 

Unsurprisingly, the market has failed to provide social and economic security for those in the lower strata. Housing costs relative to income have soared in the past 20 years. While the average house price has quadrupled since 2000, household incomes have merely doubled. Leaving aside the Kiwi dream of homeownership, this unequal growth has made life incredibly hard for those on the margins.

A significant number of New Zealanders rely on government subsidies to pay their rent or mortgage. More than 370,000 received the Accommodation Supplement in 2020 at a cost of $2.6 billion. While having a roof over their heads, many still experience material hardship and financial stress. But that is to say nothing of the countless people now living in emergency accommodation or on the street. 

The most obvious solution is for the state to use its immense power and financial resources to develop low-cost housing on a massive scale. But doing so would almost certainly lead to a fall in house prices and, in effect, the transfer of wealth from existing homeowners to the unpropertied. That idea is anathema to right-minded centrists who believe there is virtue in doing nothing.

Thus, Labour has outdone National in its defence of the status quo. It might not have been obvious at the time, but Muller’s Te Puna speech was the perfect eulogy to Sir John’s National Party. Having failed to offer an alternative to Labour’s ‘kinder’ approach, at a time when so many feared for their livelihoods, National ceased to be relevant in the public mind. 

Judith Collins, or her successor, will need to be imaginative if they are to escape the Muller trap in 2023.

This opinion piece was first published by Victoria University’s The Democracy Project and is republished with permission.

Bloomfieldian Optimism – The Tragedy of Case M

In the United States, naive optimism was at the heart of the Trump Administration’s failed response to Covid-19. The same kind of wishful thinking may now characterise the Ardern Government. While the Prime Minister is adept at dealing with complexity, some of her officials are not. No one has given New Zealanders more cause for unfounded optimism in the last 12 months than Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Even after the World Health Organisation officially declared a pandemic, and local epidemiologists pleaded for action, the good doctor was on television to reassure New Zealanders that there was no community transmission here. 

Back then, a restrictive ‘case definition’ meant few New Zealanders met the criteria for a test, even if they had flu-like symptoms. The absence of evidence was presented as evidence of absence. Weeks later the Director-General of Health would advise the Cabinet that a narrow focus on international travellers meant it was likely some cases were missed. By then, the high risk of undetected community transmission necessitated a full nationwide lockdown. It is now clear that the experience did not fundamentally change the way New Zealanders live. Rather, we became a nation of Bloomfieldian optimists. 

And so it was last week. On Monday, the serene Dr Bloomfield recommended to Cabinet that Auckland return to Level 1. By Wednesday, life was back to normal again. The Director-General himself used the phrase ‘business as usual’ in his daily press conference. Aucklanders could look forward to a weekend of revelry and sports. Many would make the short trip to Hamilton for the iconic Six60 at Claudelands. Several thousand, including the Leader of the Opposition and a Cabinet minister, packed Spark Arena to see heavyweight champions Joseph Parker and Junior Fa duke it out. 

Once again, Jacinda Ardern could turn her attention to other matters of state. Social justice and environmentalism were finally back on the agenda. While Aucklanders returned to their schools and offices, the Prime Minister confirmed that the government would issue free toothbrushes to preschoolers in an effort to address the country’s oral health epidemic. Later in the week she unveiled a new plan to save the Māui dolphin. She also sat down for her first major television interview of the year with Newshub political editor Tova O’Brien.

After traversing the subjects of immigration and child poverty, the interview circled back to pandemic management. It was the anniversary of Covid-19 arriving on these shores. O’Brien quoted public health advice from 12 months ago dismissing the likelihood of a community outbreak in New Zealand. The statement had been issued after the country reported its first case on 28 February 2020.  ‘We got totally blindsided and underestimated Covid, didn’t we?’ It was a remark that Ardern clearly did not appreciate.

‘I think it would be really unfair to anyone to look back on statements made a year ago with all of this hindsight and make a judgement on that,’ she objected. ‘I think all of us, at some point, would have read, very early on in the outbreak, stories abroad and would never have anticipated the scale of what we’re up against.’ The Prime Minister also felt the need to defend her officials. ‘I’ve found the Ministry of Health and the people they work with completely dedicated to their jobs.’

The Prime Minister’s faith in the Director-General and the Ministry was rock solid. Indeed, she had carefully followed their advice from the beginning. But as the interview went to air, events were moving in an unforeseen direction.  Before the day was over, a 21 year old student at the Manukau Institute of Technology would be notified by the Auckland Regional Public Health Service that he had tested positive for the new B117 strain of Covid-19. Most concerningly, ‘Case M’ had gone to a gym while he awaited his result.

No one could have been more outraged by Case M’s disobedience than Ardern herself. Having flown back to Wellington for an emergency Cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister called a sensational Saturday night press conference to announce that Auckland would again return to Level 3. This time the lockdown measures were to be in place for seven days. With a scowl and sharp intake of breath, Ardern told the nation she was ‘frustrated’. The frustration soon turned to righteous anger.

‘We cannot exist in an environment where we set rules and they [are] breached consistently.’ It was a good telling off. Although Case M would bear the most criticism and scrutiny, his flouting of the rules were by no means discrete. At least two other members of the Papatoetoe High School cluster went to work while they were supposed to be isolating. Hence the emphasis on ‘consistently’. However, despite her public reprimand of Case M, there was a glaring inconsistency in the government’s message. 

Case M is the sibling of a ‘casual plus’ contact who thrice tested negative for the virus. According to the Ministry website, the family of casual plus contacts are not required to do anything. While it is true that Case M should have isolated when symptoms developed, the onset of these came as Auckland returned to Level 1. The government may have urged those with any known links to the Papatoetoe High School cluster to remain isolated and vigilant but, in the same breath, it told Aucklanders to go about ‘business as usual’. 

Bloomfield’s nonchalance to the possibility of hidden transmission was evident throughout last week. After all, he had allowed a return to Level 1 despite the fact that 11 close contacts were yet to be tested. He must have been confident. Even on Saturday night, Bloomfield was reassured by wastewater testing and dismissed the likelihood of ‘false-negatives’. However, the source of Case M’s infection was still unknown. Genomic sequencing confirmed that Case M was indeed part of the Papatoetoe High School cluster but an epidemiological link could not be found. It was not until Monday that the truth was revealed. 

Case M’s mother, who also tested positive on Saturday, confessed to going for a walk with one of the other infected households during the previous Level 3 lockdown. At the time, this may have seemed innocent enough. We do not know what advice the families received. But it appears that they were reluctant to disclose this walk to contact tracers over the weekend. Ardern’s wrath might have compelled them to do so in the end. However, it is doubtful this information would have averted a return to Level 3. 

Case M’s decision to go to the gym on Friday afternoon was almost certainly the trigger for another lockdown. We may ask what was going through the young man’s head? His earlier decision to get tested for Covid-19, in the knowledge that family members had socialised with infected individuals, must have given him a sense of foreboding. But recall that his sibling had tested negative for the virus three times already and there was no indication his mother had been infected yet. It is likely that Case M believed the risk was negligible. 

What did health professionals advise him? Was communication a factor? These are questions that may further help understand his actions. But we will never know. Whatever the reason, Case M is a lesson in human psychology. It demonstrates our low capacity to understand and evaluate risk. All of us are susceptible to cognitive biases that distort our thinking. Even the most intelligent and educated person can be a victim of faulty reasoning. This is especially true in business. But it has taken a global pandemic to reveal the true extent to which human beings are irrational and self-destructive. 

As the Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman explained in his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, most of our decisions are intuitive. We rely on past experience and mental short-cuts to inform us about the future. These inevitably lead to errors of judgement. One such tendency is for individuals to overestimate their ability to control a situation and downplay risk. It is called ‘optimism bias’. The result can be catastrophic, as we have seen throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Last year, New Zealanders had good reason to feel optimistic. But our victory was never permanent. 

Bloomfieldian optimism most likely encouraged Case M to believe he and his family were free of the virus. In truth, we have all suffered from a collective delusion that life in New Zealand can be ‘business as usual’ again. The latest outbreak is a tragedy of no individual’s making. If there is one lesson we can all learn from 2020, it is to hope for the best and plan for the worst. We should not depend on the government for that.

This opinion piece was first published by Victoria University’s The Democracy Project and is republished with permission.

The Queen’s Gambit

According to epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker, the decision to end the second Auckland lockdown after just three days was a ‘calculated risk’. The possibility of undetected community transmission cannot be ruled out. In the United States, modelling by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the virus is mostly spread by asymptomatic people. This means that the real infection rate could be much higher than the official count. For example, a study by researchers at the Australian National University estimated that up to 70,000 Australians were unknowingly infected.

While these findings are contested, the reality of hidden transmission is inescapable. But the Ardern Government is reluctant to acknowledge its existence. In January, the Ministry of Health finally admitted that there ‘probably’ had been undetected cases in the community last year. With the most recent Auckland outbreak, a relatively small number of tests has given public health officials confidence that the virus is once again under control. This must surely allow for the chance that some of the tests have returned false-negatives. However, according to Worldometer, the current rate of testing in New Zealand lags well behind Australia.

As the Prime Minister explained on Wednesday: ‘Just remember, of course, Level 2 is designed to have situations where we are contact tracing individuals who are casual or close contacts in the community’. It would appear that Jacinda Ardern is comfortable with the likelihood that the number of cases will increase under Level 2. This is at odds with her stance in 2020. Back then, the Prime Minister declared there would be ‘zero tolerance for [community] cases’. Lockdown measures were to be in place for at least a full infection cycle. The hardline response to the August outbreak reinforced her government’s precautionary approach. 

While the situation in August was more urgent, it is clear that Ardern sees the world differently now. What explains this change in outlook?

At the height of the epidemic, Ardern revealed herself to be a conviction politician. She made elimination into a moral crusade and inspired the ‘Team of Five Million’ to rally behind her. New Zealanders were willing to sacrifice their freedom to protect the old and immunocompromised. Her edict to ‘be kind’ became our national motto. The country united to defeat Covid-19, and won. Twice. It was a source of pride for Ardern. ‘Your efforts continue to set us apart,’ she told us in September. ‘You’re being adaptable, patient and determined – this has all been critical to our stamp-it-out approach.’

But that ‘stamp-it-out’ approach was not on display this past week. If it had been, the Ardern Government would have listened to the advice of experts like Professor Baker, who recommended mandatory mask use indoors and new rules for social distancing. Instead, the Cabinet preferred to work on the assumption that there is nothing more to stamp out. Behind this decision is a tacit understanding that the adaptability, patience and determination of New Zealanders may be wearing thin. 

If the virus does reappear in the community, public health officials will recommend a further lockdown. By then it could be too late to prevent a major outbreak. This must have been weighing on Ardern when she spoke of her ‘indescribable anxiety’ following Cabinet’s decision to end the second Auckland lockdown. Anxiety is a normal reaction to uncertainty and the fear of losing control. We have all experienced it. In psychology, most experts would agree that anxiety can be a good thing. The nationwide lockdown in March saved many lives but it would not have happened without collective fear. 

That fear has now subsided. It is only Ardern, her officials, and a few scientists, who lie awake at night. The rest of New Zealand very much sees the virus as someone else’s problem. Of course, everyone wants to keep it out. But the notion of another major outbreak is generally dismissed as fear-mongering. There is a restlessness to move on. Given so few cases, and the apparent success of containment, it makes sense that New Zealanders are prepared to accept greater risk. They have been encouraged by an illusion of control. Until now, the occasional border ‘leakage’ has been managed. 

Ardern’s personal anxiety has given way to this illusory sense of control. Her government is now more influenced by optimism than precaution. Ministers have a high degree of confidence in the future. Any community cases will be identified and isolated before there is a ‘superspreading’ event. The vaccination of border and quarantine staff will be effective. If, despite these successful measures, there is a new outbreak, it will be contained without the need for another nationwide lockdown. There must also be confidence that no New Zealanders will die of Covid-19 in the community this year.

There is good cause for optimism. New Zealand has led the Anglo-American world in its pandemic response. But we cannot know the future. Covid-19 is likely to be with us for many years. Thus far, New Zealand has relied on geography to protect itself. With the arrival of a vaccine it is hoped that we may soon reopen the border. Even then, it is plausible that the virus will continue to spread and new variants may grow resistant to the vaccine. In pursuing the elimination strategy last year, Ardern believed that life would soon return to normal. She did not anticipate a future of recurring lockdowns and no travel.

‘I will never be comfortable with Covid-19,’ Ardern reiterated on Wednesday. ‘But you do learn things’. It is the closest the Prime Minister has come to admitting that events may not be in her control after all. And yet, she has gambled on the best possible outcome. There can be no going back.

This opinion piece was first published by Victoria University’s The Democracy Project and is republished with permission.