The Socialist Ardernative
New Zealand politics has thrown up some wonderful invective over the years. A favourite of mine originated with the Labour PM David Lange. Asked his reaction to the appointment of his own former Finance Minister, the creative Roger Douglas, as an economic advisor to Poland, emerging from the grip of the Soviet Bloc, Lange responded: ‘I would have thought that the Poles had suffered enough.’ Vintage Lange in its wit. But again typical of him, short on wisdom.
On the other side of the aisle, the National PM Robert ‘Piggy’ Muldoon, was asked how Lange compared with Bob Hawke. Piggy rejected any comparison, ridiculing Lange. ‘He’s as shallow as a bird bath,’ quipped Muldoon, who had once appeared in an Auckland nightclub as the Narrator in the Rocky Horror Show. A more devastating denunciation of a political opponent would be hard to find.
The current New Zealand PM, Labour’s Jacinda Ardern, is the youngest in the country’s history, and confronts far less invective but a considerable degree of scepticism about her ability to govern.
Ardern is both energetic and astute, and brings to the job a level of humility seldom seen in this country. She’s even been known to answer her own office phone. To date, her most difficult media encounters have involved slobbering Australian tabloid journalists, more focussed on her appearance and impending parenthood than her considerable political talents. The new NZ PM spent time in British Labour PM Tony Blair’s administration. and campaigned hard on several occasions before she entered Parliament, first on the party list system and then as Member for Mt Albert. She is a politician of conviction, having at least been partially inspired to enter politics by the sight of children going barefoot. Remarkably, the sight of London children in the East End is what inspired the great British post-war PM, Clem Attlee to enter public life. Ardern broke with her family’s Mormon church on the basis of differences on certain social issues. She has an ambitious program, focusing primarily on social issues. Ironically, her government’s first major challenge has involved the threat of industrial action by nurses in the public health system.
NZ Labour was in the doldrums prior to the onset of the September 2017 general election. A lacklustre leader in Andrew Little stood aside and Ardern stepped up. In a vigorous campaign, Ardern made Labour competitive again. And while they trailed National in the final vote, the perennial political trader Winston Peters of New Zealand First delivered a minority Labour government, with the Greens.
The National governments (2008-2017) of John Key and Bill English had left New Zealand in sound economic order. The growth rate runs at some 3.9 per cent and unemployment currently stands at 4.5 per cent. The economy motors along, but there is an understanding, in Auckland in particular, that the most important cities after the New Zealand business capital happen to be Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. The strength of the economic relationship with Australia is critical to New Zealand prosperity. Closer Economic Relations (CER), beginning with the Fraser government in 1977 and crystallising with the Hawke government in a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement in 1983, was of unquestioned value to Australia, but it transformed the New Zealand economy from access to a small and narrow market to one six to seven times larger than its national economy.
The economic relationship between Australia and New Zealand remains mutually productive. However, the strategic relationship has been in doubt ever since the Lange government broke the trilateralism of the Anzus alliance in 1984 over visits by nuclear warships.
While New Zealand military personnel have served of recent years in Afghanistan and the Middle East, and are of first class calibre, their capability has declined. The New Zealand air force for example, has had no effective combat capability since it scrapped the aging Skyhawks which had been sold to them by the Australian Navy a generation ago. Their P-3 reconnaissance aircraft should be replaced by the newer P-8’s, which are going into service now with the American, Indian, and Australian militaries. Indeed, given the challenges in both the South Pacific and southern oceans, there’s a greater need for closer security cooperation between Canberra and Wellington. This point was made eloquently in a recent Australian Strategic Policy Institute report on New Zealand, Australia and the Anzus alliance. It underlined a potential danger emerging from the fact that Australia spends 17 times more on defence than does New Zealand, where governments of both persuasions have relied on the simple fact that any security threat to their country would first require an Australian response, backed by the US. This is as close to a free ride on national security as it is possible to achieve. The real danger, noted ASPI acidly, was that New Zealand may become ‘a Western ally with Chinese characteristics.’
Reinforcing this concern is the fact of New Zealand’s diplomatic silences where China is concerned, on issues such as China’s militarisation of the South China Sea. It will be interesting to see how many Russian diplomats, if any, are eventually expelled from Wellington in the aftermath of the Kremlin’s latest atrocity. None so far.
Wellington has always struck me as being what Hobart would be if our founders had decided that it should be the new federal capital in 1901. Its most distinguishing feature, aside from the ‘Beehive’ parliamentary precinct, is its airport where winds test the skills of airline pilots from around the world.
But the city of Queenstown is surely a brilliant gem in the known universe. A vintage steamer on the lake, early snow on the mountains, along with its overwhelming greenery from botanical gardens to golf courses, suggests Zurich in the spring. And it is true. New Zealand has not taken down the scenery from the Lord of the Rings movies. It is often breathtaking, and accompanied by warm and generous welcomes from people everywhere in the world from Lyon to Luzon. Rugby aside (and perhaps now cricket) this is a neighbour worth knowing better.