Bryce Edwards: It’s true that New Zealand has lost its mojo

Bryce Edwards: It’s true that New Zealand has lost its mojo

Christopher Luxon was caught on microphone this week telling farmers, “We have lost the plot, and we have to get our mojo back”. He stressed the negativity pervading the country.

Notably, there haven’t been any significant attempts to refute his claims – probably because most people, including the Labour Government, realise it’s true. However, it’s far from clear that Luxon and his National Party have a handle on why New Zealand is in decline, or how this might be turned around.

The 2023 Winter of Discontent

There is a noticeable gloominess around at the moment. Among opinion leaders and the public, the dominant sentiment is things are going wrong, the country is broken, and mediocrity pervades national life.

This gloom is new. At this point in the lead-up to the last general election in 2020, New Zealanders were buoyant. The country had just beaten the first wave of Covid, and there was a sense that the Government was about to rebuild New Zealand better, addressing all the problems that had been plaguing society. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s catchcries of “We’re all in this together” and “Be Kind” resonated widely.

Polling showed people were highly content. Roy Morgan asked the public in May of that year, “Generally speaking, do you feel that things in NZ are heading in the right direction or would you say things are seriously heading in the wrong direction?”. Those answering positively amounted to 76 percent, and those who thought the country was on the wrong track were only 17 percent.

Fast forward to May of this year, and those believing the country is headed in the right direction had plummeted to only 34.5 percent – dropping for the third month in a row. The gloomy had become the majority, with 54.5 percent saying New Zealand is on the wrong track.

This decline has been going on for well over a year – you have to go back to January 2022 to find polling in which the majority were positive about the direction of the country.

It’s not only the Roy Morgan poll either. Labour’s pollsters, Talbot Mills, also ask people the same basic question. And their last poll in May said 42 percent felt New Zealand is on the wrong track, surpassed by 49 percent who say otherwise.

Polycrisis and permacrisis

The terms “polycrisis” and “permacrisis” are increasingly being used to denote that everything seems to be going wrong at the same time. Leftwing blogger Martyn Bradbury says we have entered a “season of entropy” in which everything has stalled or is going backwards: “Child poverty stats have frozen, public health and public education are in crisis, there is a cost of living crisis, a housing crisis, a poverty crisis and an environmental crisis.” And he points to the Human Rights Commission’s research which shows “New Zealand is failing on every social and economic human rights metric” – failing to deliver “adequate rights to education, health, housing, and work”.

Certainly the Labour Government has not delivered many of its core promises. Even under new management, rightwing commentator Matthew Hooton recently wrote that Chris Hipkins’ administration is “the same Chez Fawlty Towers that brought us — or didn’t — KiwiBuild, the billion trees, Auckland light rail, the war against child poverty and inequality, $1.9 billion for mental health, Covid vaccines from the front of the queue and a ‘nuclear-free moment’ on climate change.”

And the bad news continues to roll in. Yesterday it was announced that the New Zealand economy has officially moved into a recession. It’s a very shallow recession, but some economists are warning it will get worse.

These economic conditions are creating pain and unhappiness – which was reflected last month in New Zealand being “a big climber” in the global Annual Misery Index. Whereas last year New Zealand was ranked low in terms of misery – 151st place out of 156 countries – this year we had leaped up to 104th place. The index, which is calculated by economists at Johns Hopkins University, calculates misery based on unemployment, inflation, economic growth and bank lending rates.

A sense of rising misery will also be apparent to anyone reading the endless news about the education and health systems failing. And two weeks ago Te Hiringa Mahara, the Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission, reported that the number of antidepressants dispensed to the public over the last five years has gone up by about a fifth. For children and teenagers, the increase has been 53 percent.

We are also a more fractured society now. Polling out in December of last year showed 64 percent of the public thought that New Zealand society is becoming more divided, while only 16 percent thought NZ has become more united.

Political polarisation, declining public trust in authority, and reduced cohesiveness led Sir Peter Gluckman to call this week for a debate on how to bolster the political system to help deal with the decline.

The political process has become dysfunctional

Oliver Hartwich wrote in The Australian recently about how New Zealand has descended over recent decades into “mediocrity”, pointing to declines in healthcare, education, housing, investment, etc. He blames poor political leadership and slothful policy-making processes: “regardless of how pressing the challenges are, the immediate response is always to do nothing. Grudgingly followed by a working group. Then garnished with small armies of consultants. Eventually culminating in planning delays and finished with a grand centralisation plan – and even then, rounded off with a botched implementation, a few decades later.”

Similarly, Matthew Hooton wrote last month about how the political system no longer channels sufficient policy innovation and dynamism – which means parties of both left and right have suffered from ideological exhaustion, drift and blandness. He says: “No matter how many reports are published by left-wing think tanks, there will be no comprehensive capital gains or wealth tax. Likewise, the New Zealand Initiative or Taxpayers’ Union can generate policy ideas, but National can’t listen.”

The real winners from the current political system, according to Hooton, are the professional-managerial class who run the system in Wellington: “The Wellington bureaucracy grows unrelentingly, with Wellington’s so-called professional-managerial class doing very well. Oppositions kick up a fuss, but no government dare ask exactly what all the new agencies, policy advisers and human resources and public relations staff do, in case the answer demands they be sacked.”

This was the focus last month of a landmark essay in the Listener by Danyl McLauchlan, titled “State of inertia”, in which various explanations are proposed for why New Zealand is broken and in decline. A large part of the problem, according to McLauchlan, is that politics has been hollowed out and devoid of real public participation. Instead of the public being at the heart of the political process, they have been replaced by vested interests and opportunistic political professionals.

Lobbyists and organised sectoral interests are a key part of the problem, according to McLauchlan. They urgently need to be better regulated, as they have helped powerful interests dominate the political process. He paints a picture in which the powerful have captured the state, leading to wealth being transferred to themselves and other members of the professional-managerial class of bureaucrats, at the expense of the collective good.

The public service gets a particularly strong critique from McLauchlan, as it has become preoccupied with itself – constantly rebranding, restructuring, renaming, creating new entities and reports – and less focused on the needs of the public: “Slowly, over time, the attention of the state drifts away from the public and towards implementing conceptual frameworks, hosting conferences, building websites and apps, delivering mega-IT projects (or, not infrequently, spending the money, but not delivering the websites, apps or IT projects). With marketing and public relations, internal communications, legal analysis, business and management consultants, attending meetings and sending emails become the primary vocations. All of this highly credentialled and well-remunerated work – some fraction of which is doubt- less worthwhile – takes priority over the more pedestrian chore of delivering public services.”

McLauchlan has a particularly gloomy conclusion to his essay. Here’s part of it: “How does the Great Drift end? I’ve lived in Wellington for two decades. It’s a nice place that gets a little less nice every year. It has fallen apart gradually. Now, there’s sewage bubbling up through cracks in the streets, streetlights falling onto the footpaths. The public transport system is broken. It’s still nice in various ways, but it’s not a place I’d recommend anyone move to. Aucklanders have a slightly different litany of complaints: floods, ram raids, the prospect of endless rates increases to maintain crumbling infra- structure. My prophecy is, as Auckland and Wellington, so the nation. The capital and super city are the avant-garde of sclerosis and decay: the rest of the country will follow.”

Can politicians revive New Zealand’s mojo?

Christopher Luxon has inadvertently put New Zealand’s discontent and lost mojo onto the public agenda in the lead-up to the election. But does he or any other politician have answers to these problems?

New Zealanders don’t seem to think so. National’s polling is still remarkably low, especially given that the public gloom should really be lending itself to a popular opposition. Instead, National is stalled at about 35 percent in the polls, and Luxon is notably low in the preferred PM polls.

Voters seem to have lost confidence in both National and Labour. Recent polls have put their combined support at about 69 percent – a historic low. As Matthew Hooton has pointed out, this shows just how angry voters are at the moment.

Hopefully, in the lead-up to voting, we will have more debate about how to fix New Zealand. General elections are always a good time to ponder the state of the nation and its direction. What’s working and what’s not? And why not? How can it be fixed? Which politicians have the best answers for fixing the problems?

The eventual electoral winners might well prove to be those politicians who can best harness the gloom and discontent Zeitgeist. But they will also need answers. And, so far, that is something that eludes both major parties, because it’s not just New Zealand that has lost its mojo, but the entire political class and system.


Dr Bryce Edwards is the Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.