Bryce Edwards: The Liberal Vs Conservative anguish over the direction of NZ politics

Bryce Edwards: The Liberal Vs Conservative anguish over the direction of NZ politics

With the new conservative government well into its first 100 days, there’s been rising anguish from liberals about what all this means. As they come to terms with the various repeals and reforms, political commentator Liam Hehir suggests that liberal New Zealand is currently going through the “classic five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance”.

Anthropologist Anne Salmond is probably in the “bargaining” stage, worrying about the polarising impetus of the new government and New Zealand’s political system. She’s concerned that the public will get too polarised and disorientated by all the change: “Voters are also confused and conflicted, looking for clear-cut choices (left vs right; Māori vs Pākehā) or someone to blame (biased media or business lobbyists, ‘woke’ intellectuals or neo-liberal think tanks, take your pick)” – see: In praise of the middle ground.

Salmond wants to see the new Government being more inclusive and consultative with the Opposition and the public. Her answer is the use of “citizens’ assemblies, in which a representative range of New Zealanders explore key issues and arrive at recommendations by consensus – rather like debates on marae”.

Perhaps at the “depression” stage (or maybe even “anger” stage) is TVNZ’s Chief Correspondent John Campbell who seems to want to lead the fightback against the conservative parties in government. He’s written a lengthy and thoughtful “2023 in review” essay, which paints a picture of the administration as a populist one that will be extremely damaging to the country – see: Are we on the cusp of something new or something old?

Campbell worries that the new Government is taking New Zealand away from inclusivity and progress towards division and reaction. Like Salmond, he blames the parties in the new government for being polarising and divisive. And he describes the government as being underpinned by a very reactionary populism, and he provides the following definition: “Populism is a style of politics that manipulates and exacerbates identity cleavages for political gain.” This is a threat, he suggests, to democracy and social cohesion.

It’s the new government’s orientation to Māori that Campbell is most focused on, together with Prime Minister Christopher Luxon’s stated intention to govern in favour of “all” when he’s really “operating from a position of blinkered privilege” in favour of other privileged groups.

Some conservatives have challenged Campbell’s analysis. Journalist Karl du Fresne objects especially to Campbell’s apparent misuse of “his position as a high-profile journalist” in “petulantly and very publicly railing against a government that his fellow New Zealanders voted for” – see: An epic display of dummy-spitting.

Du Fresne highlights that there is something of a powerful liberal resistance building to the new Government: “the government has a problem. It owns two powerful media organisations, TVNZ and RNZ, that are essentially hostile to it and will function as centres of resistance to its policies. Democratically speaking, this is intolerable.”

An even more interesting analysis of this is put forward by conservative political commentator Liam Hehir in his paywalled Patreon column, Contra John Campbell (paywalled).

He says that liberals like Campbell shouldn’t be too worried about the National-led Government bulldozing all the liberal accomplishments of the last government, because the resistance of all the liberal institutions – especially in Wellington – will be able to effectively slow down and possibly defeat the Government’s progress.

Hehir uses the increasingly popular concept of “The Blob” – vested interests within the liberal and public service establishment – to explain how the National-led administration will be thwarted: “While the initial energy from the new administration has been surprisingly vigorous, it is unrealistic to expect this momentum to be sustained. It’s simply not possible to have a liberal news media, a liberal entertainment sector, a liberal bureaucracy, and liberal universities, then anticipate that a liberal-conservative government can readily impose a conservative or populist agenda over any kind of duration. If the government has to fight against the blob every step of the way, the blob will eventually prevail, because it simply has more staying power than elected politicians do.”

Using the five stages of grief concept, Hehir argues that John Campbell and Anne Salmond represent the “depression” stage of grief, and says that such liberals are losing faith in democracy, becoming increasingly elitist in their analysis and solutions to the problem of their opponents getting voted into power.

Hehir also challenges the notion that in “re-balancing” the state’s orientation to the use of English and te reo Māori, or their shift away from culturalist approaches to delivery for Māori, the conservative parties are being hostile to Māori.

Instead, he believes that such changes – introduced by a Cabinet that has the most Māori ministers in history – will be widely welcomed alongside a new focus on improving material outcomes for the public: “we can probably intuit a sense of decolonisation fatigue from voters. The previous government prioritised cultural reforms and that represents a disproportionate share of what the last government visibly did, especially compared to economic reforms which never really eventuated. In a year that saw real economic hardship, a desire on the part of the public for a more balanced approach that also addresses economic concerns.”

Similarly, in The Post, Max Rashbrooke cautions fellow liberals against being overly pessimistic about the rollback of Labour’s more liberal reforms. He even warns against too much emphasis on the oft-stated argument that Luxon’s government is “the most right-wing government since the 1990s” – “although true, this simply implies that Luxon is more right-wing than John Key – hardly a very high bar”. See: How we progress by reaction and counter-reaction (paywalled).

Rashbrooke argues that the current backlash against liberal reforms is merely to be expected: “Governments always push against their predecessors, and Jacinda Ardern’s administration was – in intent if not in delivery – more left-wing than Helen Clark’s one. Recent attempts at co-governance and devolution to Māori, however half-hearted, have surpassed anything Clark initiated; and so the backlash is stronger.”

A bit like Hehir, Rashbrooke views the “ebb and flow” or re-balancing of public debate on Treaty issues as predictable and even understandable: “Opposition to co-governance and Māori political structures may stem partly from racism, but many New Zealanders are simply unsettled by change or unclear on the concepts. This is hardly surprising, given the last government’s notorious reluctance to actually define or defend co-governance.”

The Herald’s Fran O’Sullivan argues in the weekend that Luxon will need to be particularly adept in his leadership in 2024 to deal “with the mounting backlash to policies negotiated by National’s coalition partners such as Treaty issues (Act) and the culture wars (New Zealand First)” – see: Christopher Luxon needs to embrace chairman’s role (paywalled).

To get New Zealand through the economic rocky times of 2024 and start transforming infrastructure and productivity, Luxon will need to be an extremely skilled leader according to O’Sullivan. And he can’t rely on being charismatic like former PMs like David Lange or Jacinda Ardern, but “the fact Luxon is not a charismatic leader is a political asset. He can’t rely on passion or glib one-liners. It means he has to concentrate and deliver on the challenges at hand.”

O’Sullivan says Luxon will be equipped to do this with the help of his “kitchen cabinet” of Nicola Willis, Chris Bishop, Simeon Brown and Paul Goldsmith.

Finally, John Campbell has been suggested by some as the right person to be TVNZ’s next political editor, following on from the news that Jessica Mutch McKay has resigned to become a lobbyist for the ANZ bank – see Shayne Currie’s Political editor Jessica Mutch McKay quits TVNZ for top ANZ bank corporate role (paywalled).

Poaching Mutch McKay is a great win for the ANZ, which is the country’s largest bank, and is chaired by former Prime Minister John Key. She comes in as the “head of government relations and corporate responsibility” at a crucial time when banks are under especially strong public scrutiny and the possibility of greater regulation.

Shayne Currie reports: “Mutch McKay’s new role will see her play a critical role in ANZ’s relationship with the new coalition government. She is set to help play a leading role in presenting and communicating the bank’s position on proposed policies and other legislation that will impact the business and wider banking industry.”

Her new boss is long-time top lobbyist Peter Parussini who is reported as saying “Jessica has a very strong understanding of the issues facing business and the banking industry”. The article suggests that Mutch McKay has been employed in the lobbying role because after being the top press gallery journalist, she is “well-connected and well-respected across government and the media and communications industries.”

But it doesn’t necessarily mean we will no longer get Mutch McKay’s political analysis. The New Zealand media has a particular penchant for using corporate lobbyists as political commentators, and it might not be long before she is helping shape public opinion in this role. After all, her lobbyist boss Peter Parussini is also well connected at the corporate level of media, having been head of corporate affairs at TVNZ, and recently on the Board of Governors for Radio New Zealand. So, Mutch McKay’s political influence as a lobbyist will continue to be huge in New Zealand public life.


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 (