2 December 2020 05:23 PM

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MOHAN J.DUTTA | 20 OCTOBER, 2020

Good Morning To A Politics of Progressive Transformations in Aotearoa New Zealand

The New Zealand success story


In 2018, when my family and I had made a decision to relocate to Aotearoa New Zealand from Singapore, it was the country’s justice-based framework for organizing society, politics, and economics that had attracted us. Writing this piece on October 17, 2020, on the night of the announcement of the results of New Zealand’s general election to decide the configuration of the 53rd New Zealand Parliament, that decision in 2018 is firmly reinforced.

The Jacinda Ardern-led center-Left Labour party has secured 49% of the party vote, an unprecedented number since New Zealand’s adoption of a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system since 1996.

Describing the win, stated Ardern that it is the party’s greatest “show of support in at least 50 years.”

In what is one of the strongest presence of Labour in the New Zealand parliament, with projected 64 seats, is complemented by the Left-based Green party securing 7.6% of the party vote and the Auckland electorate, giving them ten seats. This electoral configuration delivers the mandate to a strong Left platform for implementing sustainable transformative policies.

The Labour tsunami is largely driven by Ardern’s star power, her strong popularity across Aotearoa New Zealand driven by a form of leadership rooted in kindness and compassion.

Two key moments, both crises, have emerged as the defining moments in Ardern’s and more broadly, Labour’s leadership.

On March 15, 2019, when an Islamophobic white supremacist terrorist attacked mosques and killed Muslims, a large percentage of them immigrants, the Prime Minister rose up to what is one of the most gut wrenching moments in modern New Zealand history, to deliver a model of crisis response anchored in empathy for those that were targeted, care for Muslims and ethnic minority communities, and strong denunciation of the hateful ideology of White supremacy. She led the Christchurch call, a global template for regulating hate on digital media.

Her model of leadership, at a time where we are dished out Trump’s support for White supremacists, stood out as a global model of secular and inclusive governance anchored in social and political justice.

New Zealand had only started healing from the aftermath of the Christchurch terror attack when the first case of COVID-19 landed on its shores. Since that first case to the current scenario of having reached practically zero community spread (at the time of revising the article, there has been one new case of community spread detected on October 18), the Prime Minister and her team have demonstrated once again the effectiveness of a response rooted in science, clear communication, empathy, and social support for those likely to be most affected by the pandemic.

The finance minister Grant Robertson had actively committed to delivering an alternative to the neoliberal model in securing basic economic support for individuals and households impacted by the crisis.

That people residing in New Zealand have been largely safe and have felt largely protected through a strong safety net is a key element of the widespread support for Labour. Some former National Party (center-right) supporters that have voted for Labour this year and I have had the opportunity to have spoken with have shared how grateful they are for the strong support programs delivered by Labour.

These two very important aspects of success of a Labour-led response in the 2017-2020 term need to be placed alongside some vital questions regarding the Party’s track record with reducing inequality, reducing homelessness, eliminating child poverty, and delivering a transformative economic development framework that is responsive to the climate crisis.

For instance, although there have been small changes to low income segments, there have been no transformative changes in how New Zealand addresses poverty. The child poverty indicators have seen small changes, with the pandemic likely to further impact these indicators negatively. Housing prices have continued to rise, with the poor facing significant ongoing challenges with housing.

The coalition partnership with New Zealand First, a right-leaning socially conservative party, has often been cited as the reason for the limited success of the transformational agenda promised by the Labour-led government. One of the strengths of Ardern-led Labour is its effectiveness in speaking to a Center, which is likely another reason for the strong results in the 2020 election. This strategy of speaking to the Center has likely shaped strategies that are risk averse and limited in their transformative potential.

The coming weeks will be vital for the roadmap for progressive politics here in Aotearoa New Zealand. The conversations between Labour, the Greens and Māori Party will be an important element of this progressive agenda.

Consider for instance the wealth tax that is a part of the Green policy agenda that seeks to tax net wealth above one million. Those with net wealth worth more than $1 million would be asked to contribute a small amount to fund social support for all New Zealanders. In her campaign debates and interviews, when pushed by the center-right National Party, Ardern has ruled out implementing the wealth tax.

Exactly what and how much is negotiated between Labour and the Greens will be vital to the policy frameworks for the next three terms. In an interview with Radio New Zealand, the well-respected activist and former Green Member of Parliament Dr. Sue Bradford suggested that it would be strategically more effective for the Greens to sit in opposition, holding the Labour-led government to account on important policy decisions.

The New Zealand Māori party has one seat in the Parliament, and this, along with the Māori caucus in Labour will be vital to building and sustaining a framework for addressing the entrenched inequalities experienced by Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. For instance, how the incoming Labour government responds to the Māori struggle led by Save Our Unique Landscape (SOUL) group at Ihumātao for sovereignty over disputed land in the backdrop of a private construction project to build homes will be an important indicator of the party’s commitment to progressive politics.

That Labour has the majority in the Parliament implies that the party could govern without a coalition partner.

In her post-election speech, Ardern noted the commitment of Labour to strengthening economic development, addressing the poverty crisis, and developing a climate responsive economy. The party now has a mandate to accelerate, she said. She noted, “We will be a party that governs for every New Zealander."

Exactly how transformative the Labour-led government will be in building and actually implementing the key commitments will be vital for Aotearoa New Zealand in the coming years.

The wellbeing budget introduced by the Labour-led coalition is a good starting point for creating an alternative framework for economic development that challenges the neoliberal reforms that were introduced by Labour in the 1980s. How far New Zealand goes in centering wellbeing, in addressing poverty, hunger, homelessness, income inequality and worker exploitation will be the key ingredients in measuring its progressive possibilities.

Also, anchoring the conversation on politics, economics, and social wellbeing in kindness is a good rhetorical register. To be truly transformative, this conversation on kindness has to be aligned with conversations on social, economic, and political justice. How resources are distributed and who participates in these decision-making processes will be two key elements in the transformative work ahead. In post-COVID Aotearoa New Zealand, the strong mandate for Labour suggests an opening for transformative policies that will stick over the long term and that will create the basis for conversations with transformations elsewhere in the globe.

How Aotearoa New Zealand relates to the world will be another important measure of its progressive politics. What will a progressive foreign policy look like in relationship to Israeli settler colonialism? What will a progressive foreign policy look like in engaging with an increasingly autocratic and communal India? Within Aotearoa New Zealand, how will Labour’s commitment to promoting inclusivity translate into how it addresses Hindutva-based diaspora groups seeding a politics of hate?

This morning, Aotearoa New Zealand wakes up to a new dawn.

There is much hope here, and much possibility for transformations that this electoral mandate offers. I sense a palpable sense of excitement among my activist friends and in the community spaces where I work.

I have great hopes because I have seen glimpses of a justice-based transformational framework for doing politics here in Aotearoa New Zealand.

That I was able to go out and participate in this electoral process without any restrictions is owing to the highly successful response of the Labour-led government to COVID-19. The coming years in Aotearoa New Zealand is going to need the work of centering justice in building post-COVID-19 transformations.

The strong electoral response to Labour in Aotearoa New Zealand demonstrates the possibilities for building transformative progressive politics when it offers actual alternatives that improve the wellbeing of people. There is much appetite for progressive politics, especially among the large number of people reeling under the effects of relentless neoliberalism, when done with heart.

Mohan J. Dutta Dean's Chair Professor,Te Kunenga Ki Pūrehuroa/ Massey University, New Zealand.

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