Bryce Edwards: Move over culture wars, New Zealand’s post-virus election will be about economics

Bryce Edwards: Move over culture wars, New Zealand’s post-virus election will be about economics

When New Zealand holds its post-virus general election later this year, the country will go through a fiercely ideological debate about economics and resources.

On 19 September, New Zealanders are scheduled to go to the polls. By then, the country is likely to have eliminated Covid-19, providing an enormous boost for Jacinda Ardern’s government, which is blitzing the immediate health crisis.

However, at the election New Zealanders will also be evaluating the contrasting left-and rightwing prescriptions for dealing with a severe economic depression. And that could see a fiercely-ideological election debate based around economics and resources.

Currently, the treasury is forecasting unemployment could go as high as 26%. Regardless of whether this worst-case scenario comes to pass, there will be extreme economic dislocation and suffering. Politicians will need to provide voters with a compelling vision, backed by detailed policies, for rebuilding the country.

Recreating the old order won’t be good enough. After all, the looming depression will come on top of huge pre-existing problems of inequality, poverty, a housing affordability crisis, and a creaking welfare state.

If Labour is to embody the spirit of the times, it will embrace radical new economic policies. This means proposing new progressive income taxes, a wealth tax, a universal basic income, a massive state housing programme, and an overhaul of the public health system. And that’s just for starters.

If National is to keep to its conservative impulses, then it will campaign on being “better economic managers”, cutting regulations, reducing taxes on business, and generally letting the private sector lead the recovery.

However, it’s unlikely that a traditional austerity sales pitch will be welcome in 2020. The landscape has changed dramatically, with traditional rightwing economic prescriptions now jettisoned by governments of all colours. Instead of a small state being the answer, the crisis has required huge state intervention. As a number of economists have noted, we’re all socialists now.

The state has even bailed out of the most rightwing voice in New Zealand politics – the Taxpayers Union. For this neoliberal lobby group to apply for, and be given, $60,000 of subsidies in order to keep operating is testament to the fact that the old order of pro-market politics has died.

National will have to do better than recycle policies from the neoliberal era. In fact, to be truly competitive it is very likely, come September, they will be proposing their own big-spending statist economic interventions. On issues such as infrastructure, National has the potential to be an even bigger party of government than Labour.

Policies such as a universal basic income – once relegated to the political fringes – could even be adopted by the right.

For the immediate future, politics is going to be all about economics. In that sense it will mark the return of the traditional left-right politics that dominated the 20th century, before social issues gained the ascendancy. Since the 1960s, politics in countries like New Zealand have become less about economics (or what political scientists call “materialist concerns”) and more about post-materialist issues.

These non-economic issues – debates on everything from nuclear weapons, abortion, sexual politics, racism and environmentalism – never fitted easily into the traditional left-right spectrum.

Important debates raised by feminists, Māori nationalists, the peace movement, environmentalists and so forth also brought into play concepts such as culture wars, political correctness, identity politics, woke politics, and social liberalism. Alongside this, other non-materialist concerns around free speech, immigration, and religion have been central to understanding modern politics.

The importance of these strains of contemporary politics wax and wane, and at various times the culture wars have receded. When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, there was a concentration on more basic economic issues. On the left there was a spike of concern about workers’ rights, economic inequality, the welfare state, and so forth.

Such concerns underpinned much of the debate in New Zealand’s 2008, 2011 and 2014 elections. Then, with economic prosperity returning, post-materialist concerns came to the fore again. Issues like gender and ethnic inequality dominated, especially on the left. And climate change grew to become an overarching concern.

In the wake of Covid-19, post-materialist issues are likely to weaken once again, becoming overshadowed by more basic concerns about putting food on the table.

Labour and National, as the original left-right political parties, will be relatively well suited to this re-emerging debate on economic and resource issues.

But where will the minor parties fit in? Even before the coronavirus crisis, the minor parties were struggling for relevance. This situation has only been made worse, and some could even be finished off by the return to a more economic focus.

The Greens are unlikely to prosper, and may not even survive, as concerns about the environment take a back seat for voters dealing with an economic crisis.

The rightwing Act party, which has at times played a central role in the culture wars, especially on free speech issues, will have to reorientate towards its original radical pro-business programme.

The Māori party, currently out of Parliament, will have to prioritise being the voice of Māori at the bottom of the economic pile.

There is still one rising non-economic concern that provides an opportunity for a minor party: nationalism. According to a number of opinion polls we’re experiencing a surge of patriotism. People are celebrating New Zealand’s stand-out success in battling the virus. There’s one party that is uniquely equipped to surf that wave – Winston Peters’ New Zealand First.

Given National has ruled out building a government with Peters’ help, any surge of nationalist support for NZ First will make the re-election of the Labour-led Government much more likely, regardless of what happens in the economic debates.


Photo by Archives New Zealand on / CC BY

Originally published on The Guardian