Bryce Edwards: The Influencers and ideas getting New Zealand politics “back on track”

Bryce Edwards: The Influencers and ideas getting New Zealand politics “back on track”

The role of lobbyists, interest groups and advocacy campaigners is in the spotlight a lot at the moment, especially with the new government forming, which always changes the dynamics of who has the ear of those in power. The ongoing question is whether certain campaigners and vested interests have an outsized or unexamined influence on public policy, government and society.

In this regard, it’s worth watching a TVNZ mini-documentary just realeased:Trick or Treaty? Indigenous rights, referendums and the Treaty of Waitangi. This argues that nefarious rightwing forces are at work in New Zealand to set back the political struggle for indigenous rights. In the same way, they argue, the wealthy and powerful prevented a “Yes” vote in Australia’s referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

Although the 25-minute documentary raises plenty of genuine questions about influential groups and forces in both Australia and New Zealand, it also makes plenty of questionable assumptions and isn’t really balanced journalism. It’s a good example of advocacy journalism. Although this sort of documentary will provoke further questions about media bias (especially since it’s state-funded), there’s no doubt that it has a useful role in debates and contributes to the conversation about Treaty issues.

However, in terms of discussing vested interests and lobbying it has a rather cartoonish and simplistically crude view of how politics works. Some might even see it as drifting into conspiracy theory type narratives. One of the researchers for the TVNZ documentary, Josh Drummond, who also appears in the documentary as an expert about the connections between rightwing lobby groups, has written a blog post setting out the conspiracy between organisations like the New Zealand Initiative, the Taxpayers Union, and “one giant neoliberal anthill organisation, called the Atlas Network” – see: A Simple Nullity.

Drummond explains that the modus operandi of such groups to influence public policy is “to write stultifyingly dull papers, create model legislation, get pet MPs and parties elected, and incessantly insert their messaging into the public consciousness via the media.” He suggests that the media should stop giving space to such political activists, or at least give more accurate disclaimers about them when they use them.

Coming from a completely different point of view, libertarian Damien Grant argued in the weekend that those on the political left need to start getting more serious about policy development and advocacy. He has written a column for Stuff celebrating that the new government is implementing much of the policy agenda that has been advocated for by groups that he’s associated with such as the New Zealand Initiative and the Taxpayers Union – see: Being in Opposition can be a gift, but it’s time which must be used wisely.

Grant’s column isn’t so much “a skite from the right” but a challenge to progressives to aspire to the same intellectual and lobbying prowess as the conservatives: “It’s a call to action for our progressive friends who are now looking at an extended spell in Opposition. Where is the initiative on the left? Where do the energised radicals go when the schools get sold and Landcorp broken up? The intellectual cupboard is looking bare.”

He rightly points out that not having your parties in power is a useful time to sort out what it is that you want to achieve: “The left have an opportunity to use this time to pause. To think what they want to achieve and what actual policies will get them there. To engage more widely than academics and performance-progressives who are more interested in looking good than doing good.”

It’s also true that the contemporary political left isn’t very good at building think tanks and interest groups that focus on policy, or having intellectual debates. This is arguably why the Jacinda Ardern government failed to carry out the transformation that it promised – it got into power and it didn’t really know what it sought to achieve or how it wanted to pursue its objectives, and hence it ended up with Kiwibuild, co-governance, and no real ideological underpinnings.

Matthew Hooton has recently asked whether under either Labour or National-led governments politicians want to take us in the direction of being more like the “Singapore of the South” or pursue the Scandinavian model. He has argued that it would be good to choose one or the other, and commit to delivering it rather than endlessly hash the delivery of very little.

In response to this, Boyd Swinburn, a health professor at the University of Auckland has written a letter to the Herald editor, challenging “Hooton to dedicate his next article to explaining why Scandinavian countries are always on top of the world rankings of social and economic indicators, like the Human Development Index and the Global Competitive Index, and why the US languishes much further down the rankings despite its size and wealth” – see: Letters: New Zealand ‘should model itself on best socio-economic countries in world’ (paywalled).

Hooton has replied on his Patreon blog, saying he’s OK with New Zealand trying to implement a Scandinavian model, including with much higher taxes, as long as it’s done competently: “I prefer ‘Singapore’ but would be quite happy with ‘Scandinavia’ if that were the consensus. The main thing is to choose one and get on with it rather than remain stuck in the middle as we have been since 1999” – see: Scandinavia of the South Pacific? (paywalled).

Hooton’s complaint is that whenever the political left has tried to implement the Scandinavian model under Labour governments, especially the 2020 one, they have “proved too incompetent, lazy, stupid, determined to win election at any ideological price, or a combination, to deliver.”

Like Damien Grant, he advocates that the left “spend 2024 and 2025 developing an intellectually rigorous Scandinavian model for the 2030s (not the 1960s) and then getting the best PR, advertising and social-media experts to sell if for them in 2026.” But he warns that the left need to make sure the substance of such policies drive the development, “rather than the PR people coming in first”, which is what happens at the moment in politics.

Labour leader Chris Hipkins appears to be open to such advice at the moment. In an interview with Stuff political editor Luke Malpass he explains that while in government the Labour Party became removed from the communities it wanted to serve, and he now wants to use the time in opposition to reconnect, as well as engage with new ideas – see: Chris Hipkins on Christmas ham and the year that was (paywalled).

Hipkins says that Labour will now “make the most of its time in opposition, listen and recalibrate”, and that he’s already focused on what policies will be required for the 2026 election. He admits that although he came in as leader this year and got rid of lots of distracting policies and agendas, it wasn’t enough, and he failed to “do the second part of that, which was defining what the core labour stuff was”. He says the party’s campaign still felt too much like that of Jacinda Ardern’s. He says he’s now reading Denis Welch’s new book “We Need to Talk About Norman” about Labour’s last real working class leader, Norman Kirk.

In another interview, Hipkins tells RNZ’s Craig McCulloch that the reasons for the loss of the election can’t easily be pinpointed, and he’s not aware of anything his party could have done differently to have won. Instead, he conveys the change of government as being more about fate, saying “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose… The tide comes in and the tide goes out” – see: ‘Sometimes you lose’ – Chris Hipkins reflects on 2023.

McCulloch suggests that this lack of precision “makes the task of rebuilding and repositioning for 2026 all the more difficult”, and if Labour is going to simply wait for voters to change their minds then Hipkins might be waiting a long time. He also challenges whether Hipkins can credibly sell any new policies such as a capital gain or wealth tax, having been so personally opposed to such tax reform during the election.

The new National Government has also been rather wishy-washy in their first few weeks in charge according to RNZ’s Tim Watkin. He looks at what they’ve done so far and suggests much of it is akin to “virtue signalling”, sloganeering, and derides one example of where National has stated it is “promising to continue a commitment to consider a concept” – see: National-Led Government’s ‘Back On Track’ promise somewhere down the track.

Watkin suggests that the new government will need to do more than just repeal things, and will actually need to deliver real change: “This National-led government’s big promise, its point of difference from the previous lot, was delivery. But if the 100 Day Plan has done nothing else, it has suggested the current lot are going to struggle just as much as the last… But – back to the 100 Day Plan – most of the promises involve large globs of smoke, mirrors and spin. Lots of promises to do something later. It looks like National’s promise to get the country back on track will be a wee way down the track.”

Finally, one of the (largely unsignalled) policies that the new Government appears to be particularly strong on so far, is pulling New Zealand into a formal defence alliance with some of the Five Eyes countries, especially with the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters, talking about signing up to Aukus.

This is something that former National and Act leader Don Brash is staunchly opposed to, and he’s written a must-read column for the Herald on why New Zealand has “absolutely no need for a military alliance with anybody” and “we probably don’t need to waste many scarce resources on defence at all – Fiji is not about to attack us” – see: Why on earth would we join Aukus in any form? (paywalled).

Brash argues that a war between the US and China is almost inevitable, and is largely due to America seeking to maintain its geopolitical dominance. He points out that when America has gone to war recently – whether in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan – it’s been an absolute tragedy for all involved. So why would New Zealand want to get dragged into such a conflict, especially when China virtually poses no threat to us or others, but is instead a good trading partner?

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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 for free under a Creative Commons copyright-free license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project (https://democracyproject.nz)