Bryce Edwards: Serious populist discontent is bubbling up in New Zealand

Bryce Edwards: Serious populist discontent is bubbling up in New Zealand

Two-thirds of the country think that “New Zealand’s economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful”. They also believe that “New Zealand needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful”. These are just two of a handful of stunning new survey results released today that indicates the high level of discontent and anti-establishment feeling that exists in the country at the moment.

The IPSOS research company carries out an annual survey about populism and discontent around the world, and this year they have included New Zealand for the first time, with the results for this country released this afternoon in the report: Populism global survey: New Zealand results

This landmark survey report provides valuable insights into just how angry the country currently is – especially with economic and political elites, or “the Establishment”. The responses illustrate that New Zealand is far from immune from the global rising populist mood across the political spectrum. And it shows that some demographics – particularly lower socio-economic groups, and Māori – are particularly discontented in New Zealand.

Anti-Establishment views dominate

The following are some of the key political beliefs uncovered by the survey:

“New Zealand needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful” – 66% of New Zealanders agree with this statement (and 16% disagree). This compares to a global survey average of 63%. In New Zealand, the demographics who are more inclined to agree are Māori (82%), leftwing voters (79%), those on “low incomes” (77%), and those aged 65+ (72%).

“New Zealand’s economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful” – 65% agree with this statement (17% disagree). The global figure is 67%. Demographics more inclined to agree are leftwing voters (84%), Māori (79%), low incomes (73%), and those aged 18-34 (71%).

“The political and economic elite don’t care about hard-working people” – 63% agree with this statement (19% disagree). The global figure is 67%. Demographics more inclined to agree are leftwing voters (76%), Māori (76%), those on “medium income” (70%), and “low income” (68%).

“New Zealand is in decline” – 60% agree with this statement (18% disagree). The global figure is 58%. The demographic more inclined to agree is Māori (66%). Left and right voters agree in similar proportions (61% and 59%).

“The main divide in our society is between ordinary citizens and the political and economic elite” – 60% agree with this statement (and 20% disagree). The global figure is 67%. Demographics more inclined to agree are Māori (78%), leftwing voters (74%), “low income” (69%), “medium income” (65%), and aged 16-34 (65%).

“New Zealand society is broken” – 58% agree with this statement (and 23% disagree). The global figure is 57%. Demographics more inclined to agree are Māori (67%), Low income (66%), and the unemployed (65%). Left and right voters agree in similar proportions (59% and 58%).

“Experts in this country don’t understand the lives of people like me” – 56% agree with this statement (and 20% disagree). The global figure is 62%. Demographics more inclined to agree are Māori (73%), “low income” (66%), and leftwing voters (63%).

“Traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me” – 55% agree with this statement (and 18% disagree). The global figure is 64%. Demographics more inclined to agree are: Māori (69%), Low income (63%), Aged 18-34 (60%), and leftwing voters (63%).

Anti-Establishment feeling is rising across the political spectrum

The IPSOS survey results show the very clear existence of anti-establishment and anti-elite beliefs. It seems that New Zealanders are very inclined towards being angry at the country’s economic and political leaders, blaming them for the state of the nation. Political scientists refer to this with the term “populism”, which relates to both leftwing and rightwing opposition to elites.

Certainly, both left and right are similarly discontented on most questions about the state of the country in the survey. Evidence of this in the survey can be found by looking at the voting histories of the respondents. Those supporting the parties of the left (in Opposition in the current Parliament) and those supporting the parties of the right (in Government at the moment) are equally likely, according to the survey, to view New Zealand as being in decline and broken.

There are, however, some differences in their responses to the questions. Leftwing respondents were more likely to agree with the statements that suggest the country is being run by the wealthy, and that working people are being disenfranchised and exploited. Rightwing voters, by contrast, were more likely to agree with the need for a “strong leader willing to break the rules” (60% of the right agree, vs 50% of the left). Interestingly, the other groups particularly favourable towards a rule-breaking strong leader are Māori (73%) and those on low incomes (66%).

Rising Kiwi populist revolt

This rise of populist discontent is related to declining trust and faith in political and public institutions. Throughout the Western world, citizens have been losing faith in many of the key parts of democracy over recent decades. This anger with elites then sped up following the global financial crisis of 2008, with special concerns about economic inequality and vested interests. Discontent fuelled radical political movements and figures around the world – from Brexit in the UK to Donald Trump’s election in the US, as well as fostering a growth in radical critiques of society relating to movements like Black Lives Matter, MeToo, and heightened concerns about other issues relating to gender, ethnicity and sexuality.

Arguably, since the Covid pandemic, distrust in politicians, the media, and other elites has increased again. In explaining this, some analysts point to the failure of governments to deliver what the public expects of them, together with the many “polycrises” plaguing countries like New Zealand (climate change, cost-of-living crisis, infrastructure deficits, transport problems, etc). Concerns about elites becoming preoccupied with culture wars and identity politics are also pinpointed as alienating the public.

Others point to causes like social media, misinformation, and conspiracy theories. These are the favoured explanations of Newsroom’s Marc Daalder who writes about the IPSOS survey results today, saying “These are shocking numbers” – see: New Zealand broken and in decline, Kiwis say

Daalder quotes academic Paul Spoonley, who co-runs the anti-extremism research centre He Whenua Taurikura set up by the Labour Government, who says that Covid temporarily produced greater social cohesion in 2020, but then caused fractiousness: “That unravelled, quite spectacularly, in 2021 and 2022. If we jump to the 2023 report, what we found is those high levels of social cohesion and I would suggest trust, particularly trust in government, had literally evaporated over the previous two years. The key indicator of that was the protests that were occurring around New Zealand, most notably in Wellington.”

Daalder has published a second article today, saying that the populist survey results also “reflect a prevailing sense of disenfranchisement. The egalitarian, progressive, future-looking New Zealand is a thing of the past” – see: New Zealand’s crisis of confidence (paywalled)

He points also to survey research showing that the public doesn’t think very highly of the main two political leaders – both Christopher Luxon and Chris Hipkins have negative favourability ratings at the moment, and looking at the preferred prime minister polls it’s clear that “a majority of respondents would prefer someone other than Luxon or Hipkins to lead the country”. In terms of the two leaders, Daalder says “People view them as out of touch, steeped in business-speak or Wellington bureaucracy and unable to relate to everyday people’s lives.”

Understanding the plummeting public trust

New Zealand’s declining trust and positivity about public institutions and democracy is in line with rising populism and anti-establishment thinking everywhere in the world. For example, this week the Economist magazine has a feature: America’s trust in its institutions has collapsed (paywalled)

The magazine details the “startling” decline of American trust in several national institutions and connects it with the growing political polarisation in that country: “Having some institutions that Democrats trust more (journalism, higher education, science) and others that Republicans trust more (religion, the armed forces and the police) is a matter of concern, particularly for the institutions themselves. The problem is even starker when the workforces of such institutions become increasingly homogenous, something that has happened in predominantly progressive higher education as well as in the predominantly conservative military services.”

Similar research is required about the extent to which this is occurring here. And this week, retired district court judge David Harvey published a lengthy essay on why he believes trust is declining in New Zealand – see: Institutional Erosion – The Erosion of Trust and Confidence in Public InstitutionsThis makes some similar arguments to the Economist.

Political scientist Grant Duncan is also researching the impact of growing distrust in New Zealand. Last week he published his argument for why declining trust could be healthy, pointing out that it’s good for the population to have scepticism about elites and leaders – see: Don’t trust politicians? That may not be such a bad thing

Duncan’s conclusion is a message to those who answer surveys about trust: “if you distrust politicians, you’re not alone. Telling surveyors that you don’t trust politicians is a gentle and valid form of political resistance. Politicians should pay heed, reflect on their own behaviour, and then take practical steps to deliver better public services – in other words, do a better job.”

Politicians and governments are certainly going to have to get used to the public’s declining trust, as it will have an impact on many elements of what they do. For example, last week the Government Statistician Mark Sowden explained how last year’s census was partly blighted by the rising number of people who refused to participate due to their “anti-government” feelings. The number of “hard refusals” rose in the census process from 6000 in 2018 to 20,000 in 2023, with an escalating proportion of those refusing to participate citing mistrust and anti-government reasons – see Laura Walters’ Lack of trust in Govt drives ‘hard refusals’ to census

New Zealanders want a stronger, more activist government

Today’s IPSOS survey report doesn’t just illustrate widespread discontent, but in a positive sense, it also points to what the public wants the government to do. In particular, they want more money spent by the state in many key areas. Below are the proportions of people who want increased spending by government in particular areas:

  • Healthcare: 83% (and 4% want lower spending)
  • Public safety: 74% (4% lower)
  • Education: 71% (5% lower)
  • Infrastructure: 67% (8% lower)
  • Reducing poverty and social inequality: 65% (9% lower)
  • Creating jobs: 55% (7% lower)
  • Defense and national security: 28% (25% want it lower; 43% want it kept at its current level)

However, while many want more spending, they don’t seem to want higher taxes to pay for the cost of it. Respondents were asked: “Do you agree or disagree that the government should increase taxes to pay for any additional public spending?” The answers showed a strong preference against increased taxes:

  • Agree: 21%
  • Neither agree nor disagree: 16%
  • Disagree: 60%
  • Not sure: 4%

It’s also interesting, but not surprising, that the answers to this last question differed significantly for left and right voters. While 28% of leftwing voters agreed that the government should increase taxes, only 17% of rightwing voters favoured this.

One aspect of populism that is normally salient is immigration – which is certainly a significant debate in many other Western nations at the moment. Yet here in New Zealand, the IPSOS survey suggests that anti-immigration sentiment is very low. When given the statement “New Zealand would be stronger if we stopped immigration”, only 23% agreed with this, which compares to the global average of 43% for the equivalent question. Similarly, only 29% of New Zealanders agree with the statement “Immigrants take jobs away from real New Zealanders”, whereas globally the average is 42%.

Therefore, although serious discontent is bubbling away – especially on the left and amongst low-income and Māori – it’s not necessarily the same type of populism that is so heavily impacting much of the rest of the West. Nonetheless, it would be wise for elites, policymakers, and citizens in general to be aware of the truly significant warning sign that well over half of New Zealanders feel the country is in decline and our society is broken.

Dr Bryce Edwards

Political Analyst in Residence, Director of the Democracy Project, School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington

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)