Jack Vowles: Stop the panic – we’ve been here before

Jack Vowles: Stop the panic – we’ve been here before

New Zealand is said to be suffering from ‘serious populist discontent’. An IPSOS MORI survey has reported that we have an increasing preference for strong leaders, think that the economy is rigged toward the rich and powerful, and political elites are ignoring ‘hard-working people’.  The data is from February this year.  There is no earlier IPSOS data to compare it with, but the inference is clear. We are on a downward track towards dangerous populism and authoritarianism.

The New Zealand Election Study (NZES) has been in the field during much the same period, collecting post-election opinion. We have been asking similar questions over the past thirty years, asking people to agree or disagree with the following statements. This data can provide a useful longer-term perspective.

‘Most members of Parliament are out of touch with the rest of the country’.  The percentage agreeing is up since 2020 – 51 per cent  in 2023 compared to 43 per cent in 2020. But looking further back, agreement has ranged in the low to mid-forties since about 2005, but in 2002 it was at about 49 per cent. In 1993, the first year we asked the question, it was 60 per cent.

‘People like me don’t have any say over what the government does’. 45 per cent agree this year, up from 40 per cent in 2020.  But in 2011 48 per cent agreed with the statement, and in 1993, 63 per cent.

‘The New Zealand Government is largely run by big interests’.  51 percent agreed in 2023, up from 36 per cent in 2020. But the 2020 number was unusually low. Normally agreement has tracked up and down around 40 per cent since 2002.  In 1993, 60 percent agreed. There is a slight tendency for agreement with this statement to be higher under National governments, but there may be no causal connection.

‘A few strong leaders could make this country better than all the laws and talk’.  51 per cent agreed with this statement in 2023, up from 43 per cent in 2020. But since 1996 agreement with this authoritarian position has normally tracked well over 50 per cent, dropping down from 56 per cent in 2011 to the low point of 43 per cent in 2020. 2023 is a reversal of the trend, but we have been there before.

How satisfied are you with the way democracy works in New Zealand? Those very or fairly satisfied: in 2023, 69 per cent.  Down from 73 per cent in 2020. But 69 per cent is still higher than all the previous numbers except those from 1996. Normally, those who are satisfied have tracked at about 65 per cent.  Those not satisfied in 2023 were 25 per cent.

Public attitudes to ‘the system’ improved after MMP was adopted.  They have been flat to marginally improving over the last thirty years, and 2023 is a bit of a setback. But we have been there before, and not too far in the past.

As we argued in our 2017 election book A Populist Exception (ANU Press 2020), there are populist and authoritarian strands in our political culture that have a long history, but most people with those orientations hold them moderately. A certain degree of dissatisfaction with politics is endemic in a democracy, and in moderation it is a good thing. We should value a critical public that is demanding more from those who govern it.

In times of stress, we can expect  both populism and authoritarianism to come out a little more strongly than normal. But there is no need to panic.  We have been here before.

Jack Vowles leads the New Zealand Election Study. Its much delayed book on the 2020 election will be out soon. He is Professor of Comparative Politics at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington