IT WAS A muffled cheer. On 19 October 2017, it rose from behind a stiff oak door in New Zealand’s Parliament Buildings and drifted down narrow corridors decorated with stern-faced portraits of historical bearers of office. In a televised speech made at the Executive Wing (known as the Beehive), Winston Peters, the leader of New Zealand First, made the announcement the nation had been waiting for since the general election on 23 September: ‘That is why we chose a coalition government with…the Labour Party.’[i]
Change, Peters explained to the camera, had driven this decision; the cheer emanating from the Labour Party caucus room chorused that change. Yet, as I took in the announcement of a new government, a fresh start, I thought about the politics of another age, another place – the politics where change seemed always out of reach.
I WAKE EARLY. The light is weak. Window open, the air floats, dry and suffocating, into my room. This doesn’t feel like spring, but an unrecognisable season, at once clammy and turbulent – and so unwelcome. Outside, the view reveals thick fog wrapped around the stretch of dilapidated South London Victorian terraces where I live.
Yesterday, Thursday 9 April 1992, I voted for the first time.
Margaret Thatcher had resigned two years earlier. Now, under new leader John Major, the Conservative Party has won its fourth consecutive general election. But the Labour Party has led every political poll conducted during the past three years. After voting closed last night, BBC and ITV exit polls predicted small leads for Labour.
Perhaps it was the innocence of youth, or perhaps the naivety of the first-time voter, but I believed those predictions. I believed that the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system would deliver the shift in political thinking and management it promised.
But last night, watching the results come in on the news, that hope faded quickly. I retired to bed, my sleep weighed down by the realisation that the Conservatives’ rule would stretch into its eighteenth year.
THAT MUFFLED CHEER on the news in October 2017 indicated the workings of New Zealand’s mixed-member proportional (MMP) voting system. The Labour Party, led by Jacinda Ardern, learnt that they would form the next government at the same time as the rest of the nation. We had cast our votes a month before and waited ever since for this news, because under MMP a government’s formation can take weeks to emerge. And finally, it was Peters, leader of the third-largest party, who delivered the announcement of the country’s new government – not Ardern, who would be its prime minister.
To outsiders, this might seem strange – even dysfunctional. That New Zealand’s 2017 election produced an outcome in which National won fifty-six seats in parliament and Labour forty-six and so, with no party holding an outright majority, the future government was in limbo: how impractical. That the nature of winning an election in New Zealand is rarely determined by which party receives the most votes, but rather by which party can best form alliances with others: how odd. In 2017, Labour – in spite of coming second – had the support of the Green Party and their eight parliamentary seats, reducing the deficit with National to just two seats. This meant that while Peters’ New Zealand First party commanded just nine parliamentary seats, or 7 per cent of the vote, it held the balance of power and could thus determine, through a series of intense and lengthy negotiations, the party with whom it would form a coalition government.
Yet, to New Zealanders, how these matters unfolded was cause for neither comment nor concern. Our first election under MMP was held in 1996. There have been eight governments since; each has come to power after much deliberation, conflict and accord. All have been coalitions. Even when the National Party won sixty of the 121 seats in the 2014 New Zealand Parliament, the returning Prime Minister, John Key, chose to build an administration with three other parties rather than govern alone:
It’s a magnificent result to be in a position where technically you can govern alone. But it can be a dangerous result for political parties who let that go to their head. Sometimes that can see them do things that can be interpreted as being arrogant.[ii]
MMP is a complex political system. In New Zealand, people can cast two votes: one for their constituency, one for a party. Any party that receives 5 per cent or more of the vote – irrespective of whether they win a constituency – is allocated parliamentary seats. The same applies to any party that fails to win 5 per cent or more of the party vote, but that does secure a seat to represent a constituency: it will also be allocated parliamentary seats. There are also seven Maori seats, and anyone who identifies as Maori is able to cast their vote for either a general or a Maori seat. Because of this proportionality, MMP means the number of seats in parliament can rise and fall according to which parties do – and do not – meet one or more of the system’s various thresholds. So, in 2017, the number of seats in parliament fell to 120: seventy-one seats were filled by electorate MPs, and forty-nine by party-list MPs.
For New Zealanders, this complexity delivers change. Although National and Labour remain – as they were before 1996 – the two largest parties in our democracy, MMP has widened representation. Most parliaments since 1996 have been composed of eight different parties. For most voters, their vote counts – either for their candidate or their party – and their chosen party represents their interests in the legislature. The resulting coalitions mean that the majority of seats held by the government aligns with the majority of votes cast. The Ardern coalition government has sixty-three seats in parliament, which correlates to the 51 per cent of the electorate vote they won.
In New Zealand, this seems fair. As does the shift in the political conscience of politicians MMP has augured. For governments to work, politicians must reach across party lines to seek broad support for their policies. In effect, MMP has forced our politicians to share power and leaders to work with others to find a governing and legislative consensus based upon a majority of votes cast. Peters cites this as an example of how MMP provides ‘order, not chaos’.[iii]
IN TRUTH, I feel let down by England’s first-past-the-post parliamentary democracy long before I cast my virgin vote in 1992. This is partly because, throughout the 1980s – the period of my political awakening – elections deliver majority governments from a minority of votes. In 1983, the Conservative government is returned to power with just 30 per cent of eligible votes. In fact, they receive over 680,000 fewer votes than in the previous election in 1979. Yet because the UK voting system is based on plurality (the election of a candidate with the most votes in each constituency) and not proportionality, the Conservatives win sixty more seats in 1983. Although Labour and the SDP-Liberal Alliance together win 53 per cent of votes cast, this translates into them securing 165 fewer seats than the Conservatives. Where, I wonder, is the Conservatives’ legitimacy to introduce a program of reform?
My cynicism – my belief that as a young person living under the British parliamentary system, I have no voice – is compounded by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who, able to wield exclusive power under first-past-the-post, holds a political ideology and approach to governance without sympathy for the 70 per cent who did not vote for her:
To me consensus seems to be – the process of abandoning all belief, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects.[iv]
Raised in a small Midlands town, I witness the devastating impact of Thatcher’s intolerant, closed-minded leadership: her government’s inflexible monetary policies hike exchange rates and raise inflation to 22 per cent and unemployment to three million. As the country suffers through the worst economic depression since the Second World War, factories close across the Midlands, including the one that employs my father. When he is forced onto the dole, we go hungry: cardboard lines holes in our shoes, our clothes are bought for pence at local fayres and our house is perpetually unwarmed by the coal we can no longer afford.
Even when the economy improves and my father finds factory work again, our town – so reliant upon the mining industry – succumbs to the negative effects of Thatcher’s combative approach to the 1984–85 miners’ strike. From enacting a countrywide mobilisation of the police force and giving them the power to arrest and enforce travel bans upon protesting miners, to secretly using MI5 to monitor union leaders and removing benefits that give food, clothing and heating to the children of striking miners, her policies are reactionary and divisive. Most of my uncles and the fathers of those I go to school with work down the mines. Here are men who, in protesting for better wages and working conditions, are locked out of their workplaces, and gather on picket lines around makeshift fires during the winter.
Though they eventually return to work, it is a brief respite. Soon, the government closes all but six mines, swathing my community in early redundancy payments that do little but consign a generation of middle-aged men with no work experience beyond the coalface to perpetual unemployment.
Bearing witness to this enforces upon me the value of education as a means of salvation and escape. In 1990, I accept an offer to study at the University of London. Little do I realise, as I leave my hometown for good, that the promise of a future as a degree-educated employee is soon to be assaulted by a government freezing student grants and introducing tertiary loans.
AFTER FEWER THAN two years in office, the Ardern coalition government has introduced its own radical change, and nowhere more so than in education. The government is formed from three parties: Labour, New Zealand First and Green. Labour and Green are on the political left, while New Zealand First is on the right. Traditional reasoning might argue that the unwieldy alliance of parties at opposite ends of the political spectrum shouldn’t be stable enough to govern or legislate. Yet, in education – and elsewhere – the consensus politics of MMP prevails. New Zealand First’s education policy, which states that ‘Education will be treated as an investment, not as expenditure’, has found common ground with Labour’s plans to reinstate free tertiary education: the Coalition is introducing a first-year fees-free policy that will expand to achieve completely costless university study by 2024.[vi][v]
This seismic shift in education has occurred because of the coalition agreement between Labour and New Zealand First to develop an ‘enduring thirty-year approach to education’.[vii] This has resulted in other equally transformational changes: ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’, a 1983 reform decentralising schools and turning them into businesses largely independent of Ministry of Education edicts, is gone. This is welcome, not least because one of its unintended but most devastating consequences has been the relinquishing of a mandatory anti-bullying program in favour of schools’ independent, ad hoc alternatives; this has resulted in New Zealand schools having the second-highest rates of extreme bullying in the OECD.[viii]
Many other antiquated and inequitable approaches to education have been scrapped. These include National Standards, an inflexible system of testing that targets those aged five and older; unregulated private charter schools; and the widespread practice of schools levying ‘voluntary’ financial contributions from parents to offset funding cuts. In 2019, an OECD report discovered that this has led to New Zealand parents contributing almost 20 per cent of school funding, almost double the OECD average.[ix] This practice inevitably favoured schools in wealthy suburbs and disadvantaged those in poorer neighbourhoods.
Perhaps the most radical and meaningful education initiative undertaken has not been one of reform, but of redress. In 2017, the highest teaching salary was three-quarters of the average household income.[x] In June 2019, the government agreed on a $1.5 billion pay settlement for teachers and principals that will substantially raise these workers’ salaries by July 2021.[xi] Acknowledging that teachers are overworked, this wage agreement includes an accord to bring the Ministry of Education and teaching unions together to formulate policies that can ease workloads and promote wellbeing. Recently, the government also raised the pay of kindergarten teachers to equal that of their primary school peers.
AT FIFTEEN, MY feelings of exclusion are compounded by the introduction of Section 28. This clause in the UK’s 1988 Local Government Act states that a local authority ‘shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or…promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. Its intention is to further demonise members of the LGBT+ community like me. At the 1987 Conservative Party conference, Thatcher proclaimed:
Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught they have an inalienable right to be gay. All those children are being cheated of a sound start in life. Yes, cheated.[xii]
I feel cheated. Beyond the fact that Section 28 is ‘the first anti-gay legislation to be introduced in the UK in 100 years’, there’s no political consensus for it.[xiii] The Labour and Alliance parties – who, combined, won over 53 per cent of the votes cast at the 1987 election – oppose Section 28. Yet it becomes law because, under first-past-the-post, the Conservatives’ minority of votes gives them a 102-seat majority in the House of Commons.
Section 28’s use of legally contentious language such as ‘promote’ means that a sense of invisibility, a heavy burden, follows me through my remaining school years. I never see or hear people like me validated by lessons, learning materials or teachers. The fear generated at school becomes so pervasive it extends to removing novels that include same-sex relationships, such as Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (Pandora, 1985), from the library.
My sense of exclusion doesn’t end when I finish school; I carry it with me to London. An election is still two years away and I possess no other political agency, no other way to counter a state-sponsored attempt to make me invisible, than to protest. So, on a summer’s day in 1990, I arrive in Hyde Park for my first Pride march. I join 100,000 others in powerful protest as we stride through central London, across the River Thames to Brixton’s Brockwell Park. There the landscape dazzles with a carnival, and fireworks are explosions of difference in a dimming sky.
IN TERMS OF environmental policy, the 2017 appointment of Green politician James Shaw as New Zealand’s Minister for Climate Change immediately underscored the Ardern government’s consensus-building boldness. As the first Green MP to hold this portfolio, Shaw has introduced the Climate Action Plan, establishing a Zero Carbon Act committing New Zealand to ending emissions by 2050, and a Climate Commission to advise and hold the government to account for the economic and social transformation needed to achieve this.[xiv] This work has been achieved because of the harmony between Green and Labour environmental policies – the latter’s election manifesto prioritises economic change by fusing climate change action to fiscal and agricultural policies to ensure a ‘transitioning away from our reliance on fossil fuels to a high-tech, low-carbon economy’.[xv]
The government has also stopped issuing offshore oil and gas exploration permits, phased out single-use plastic-bags and tackled water pollution. With agriculture being New Zealand’s largest industry and exporter, the previous decade saw intensive dairy farming pollute our waterways.[xvi] In 2017, Statistics New Zealand reported that 65 per cent of the country’s rivers had unsafe nitrogen concentrations, while Greenpeace found that 60 per cent of New Zealand’s monitored rivers were unsafe to swim in.[xvii][xviii] The government’s response, a Water Taskforce, unites multiple agencies – including the Ministry for the Environment, the Treasury and the Department of Conservation – around the Action for Healthy Waterways plan. These agencies will work together to limit agricultural land intensification, set high standards for water quality, protect wetlands and streams from pollution, and provide financial and administrative support to farmers to end damaging practices.
Meanwhile, a regional fuel tax for Auckland has led to a 7 per cent drop in fuel consumption and a corollary 9 per cent rise in public transport patronage. The $156 million raised is being invested in two light rail networks, new busways, citywide walking and cycling lanes, and fifteen new electric trains to keep up with demand.
Aligning the achievement of these measures with a political system of accord and consent, Ardern explained:
We’ve built a practical consensus across government that creates a plan for the next thirty years which provides the certainty industries need to get in front of the challenge.[xix]
‘YOU HAVE TAKEN advantage of your position to impose your will upon us to the point where you are now virtually a Dictator riding roughshod over anyone who opposes you,’ writes one Mr Jones, a member of the public, to Margaret Thatcher in March 1990.[xx] He’s enraged by the Community Charge, or poll tax: a charge designed to replace the previous rateable system, based on the value of a home, with a flat-rate charge to be paid by every household. It means those in low-wage employment pay the same as a CEO, aristocrat or millionaire.
Opposition isn’t confined to Mr Jones: opinion polls show that 78 per cent reject it.[xxi] All political parties except the Conservatives denounce it. A national network of Anti-Poll Tax Unions is established that will eventually fund the legal costs of the twenty million people summonsed for not paying the tax.
On the morning of 31 March 1990, a quarter of a million people gather in London’s Kennington Park for an Anti-Poll Tax protest. The sun warms us as we stride to Whitehall, our signs bearing powerful slogans: ‘Don’t Pay, Don’t Collect’, ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ and ‘Break the Tory Poll Tax’.
By the time we arrive at the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, there’s a palpable sense that we offer a unified call for equitable change. Yet, whether it’s the frustration felt at having lived for over eleven years under the rule of one party led by an often-intransigent leader, or the fact that the police, fearing for Thatcher’s safety, have stopped our march from progressing past Downing Street, there is also an undeniable tension in the air.
Acutely aware of the crowd’s turbulent energy, speakers such as Labour MP Tony Benn urge us to follow police orders and disperse.
Deflated, I return home to discover many of my fellow protestors have chosen confrontation, not resignation. The TV screen is alive with riot police and protestors clashing in Trafalgar Square, the air volatile with missiles and bottles. Smoke sears the square, just as it once rose from fires burning on the picket lines during the miners’ strike. There are mass injuries. Hundreds have been arrested.
Some will see this moment as the beginning of the end of the poll tax, and as proof that the first-past-the-post system permits change when it’s needed.
Yes, this demonstration and riot are major reasons for Thatcher’s resignation eight months later. Yes, after the 1992 Conservative election victory, John Major repeals the Community Charge in favour of the Council Tax. But the new legislation still bears the inequities of its predecessor: a single Council Tax band covers all homes valued above £320,000. This means that someone living in a £8,000,000 house in Chelsea pays the same as someone living in a £325,000 two-bedroom flat in Brixton.
This isn’t the fairness nor the dramatic change called for by those of us marching against the poll tax that bright day in March 1990.
ON 15 MARCH 2019, fifty-one people were killed and forty-nine injured in terrorist shootings at two mosques in Christchurch. New Zealand is a country of profound social divisions, not least between the immensely wealthy and those living in extreme poverty. But it’s also a country that has stood, repeatedly, atop the Social Progress Index, a key marker of which is a high tolerance of immigrants and religious diversity.[xxii] The 2013 New Zealand Census recognised 213 ethnic groups in the country.[xxiii] That a non-citizen could wreak mass murder and harm with the deliberate intent of creating social, religious and cultural division and harm remains shocking.
Sometimes, politics isn’t about implementing well-signalled policy, but responding to unexpected and horrific events. Nothing reflects the consensus nature of New Zealand’s political discourse and action more clearly than Ardern’s reaction to the Christchurch massacre. At 7.30 pm that evening, while New Zealanders were still in disarray, suffering shock, grief and uncertainty, Ardern addressed the nation with powerful, unifying language:
It is clear that this is one of New Zealand’s darkest days. Clearly what has happened here is an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence. Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting may be migrants to New Zealand, they may even be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us.[xxiv]
The next day, meeting with the Muslim community in Christchurch, Ardern’s call was again one of unity and concord:
I am here today to bring with me the grief of all New Zealand. I am here to stand alongside you… We feel grief, we feel injustice, and we feel anger.[xxv]
Ardern wore a headscarf in solidarity with Muslim women, a powerful symbol of the harmony needed to begin navigating the aftermath of this attack.
On a policy level, Ardern’s actions strengthened her messages of humanity. Immediate gun law reform saw a firearms buyback scheme remove 10,000 military-style automatic and semi-automatic weapons from circulation.[xxvi] The Arms (Prohibited Firearms, Magazines, and Parts) Amendment Act established a firearms register and initiated a warning system for police to act against license holders of concern; it also prohibits visitors from purchasing guns.[xxvii] The power of Ardern’s bridge-building leadership at home extended beyond New Zealand’s borders: she convened the Christchurch Call to Action Summit in Paris in May 2019, where world leaders and tech bosses pledged to stop violent extremist content from spreading online. The subsequent swift cut-off of live streaming from an attempted attack on a synagogue that killed two in Halle, Germany, in October 2019 shows how rapidly change has occurred.[xxviii]
THERE’S LESS THAN a year to go before New Zealand’s next election, and MMP makes it difficult to predict an outcome. The advent of coalition government creates a shifting political landscape that remains in play until post-election discussions are complete. Sometimes, as in 2008 when John Key’s National coalition government took power, results swing on as little as 7,000 votes. All New Zealanders know is that whoever governs the country after 2020, the real winners will be consensus, not exclusion; order, not chaos.
[i] Chapman, G. (2017). Full video: NZ First leader Winston Peters announces next government. Newshub, 19 October. https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/election/2017/10/full-video-nz-first-leader-winston-peters-announces-next-government.html.
[ii] The MPs and leaders in their own words (2014). RNZ, 21 September. https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/political/255141/the-mps-and-leaders-in-their-own-words.
[iii] Peters: ‘Order not chaos – the politics of MMP’ (2008). Media release. Scoop, 15 April. http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PA0804/S00357.htm.
[iv] Thatcher, M. (1981). Sir Robert Menzies Lecture. Monash University, 6 October. https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/104712.
[v] New Zealand First (n.d.). About New Zealand First. https://www.nzfirst.org.nz/about.
[vi] Labour (n.d.). Making tertiary education & training affordable for all. https://www.labour.org.nz/tertiaryeducation.
[vii] Moir, J. (2018). Government to announce education reforms on a scale not seen since 1989. Stuff, 21 February. https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/101599735/government-to-announce-education-reforms-on-a-scale-not-seen-since-1989.
[viii] Daly, M. (2017). Kiwi students report second-highest rate of bullying in international study. Stuff, 20 April. https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/91728517/kiwi-students-report-secondhighest-rate-of-bullying-in-international-study.
[ix] Collins, S. (2019). OECD education update: How much are parents paying for schools? The New Zealand Herald, 10 September. https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12266440.
[x] Household income and housing-cost statistics: Year ended June 2017–corrected (2017). Stats NZ, 19 October. https://www.stats.govt.nz/information-releases/household-income-and-housing-cost-statistics-year-ended-june-2017.
[xi] Collins, S. (2019). Teachers accept p[ay deal – but principals reject it. The New Zealand Herald, 26 June. https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12243943.
[xii] What was Section 28? The history of the homophobic legislation 30 years on (2018). Pink News, 24 May. https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2018/05/24/what-was-section-28-homophobic-legislation-30-years-thatcher/
[xiv] Government announces climate action plan (2019). Media release. Ministry for the Environment, 3 August. https://www.mfe.govt.nz/news-events/government-announces-climate-action-plan.
[xv] Labour (n.d.). A healthy economy depends on a healthy environment. https://www.labour.org.nz/environment.
[xvi] Wright, T. (2017). Special report: How polluted are New Zealand’s rivers?. Newshub, 27 February. https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2017/02/special-report-how-polluted-are-new-zealand-s-rivers.html.
[xvii] River water quality: Nitrogen. (2019). Stats NZ, 18 April. https://www.stats.govt.nz/indicators/river-water-quality-nitrogen.
[xviii] Greenpeace NZ (2016). Save our New Zealand rivers from pollution. YouTube, 14 November. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQOm37Szgow.
[xix] Govt unveils ‘landmark’ plan to tackle climate change. Otago Daily Times, 8 May. https://www.odt.co.nz/news/national/govt-unveils-landmark-plan-tackle-climate-change.
[xx] Higham, N. (2016). National Archives: Thatcher’s poll tax miscalculation. BBC News, 30 December. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-38382416.
[xxi] Setterfield, R. (2018). Margaret Thatcher tax triggers riot. On This Day, 4 March. https://www.onthisday.com/articles/margaret-thatcher-tax-triggers-riot.
[xxii] Kenny, K. (2014). NZ most socially advanced country. Stuff, 3 April. http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/9900943/NZ7-most-socially-advanced-country.
[xxiii] Census 2013: More ethnicities than the world’s countries (2013). The New Zealand Herald, 11 December. https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11170288.
[xxiv] Jacinda Ardern condemns Christchurch mosque shootings – video. (2019). The Guardian, 15 March. https://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2019/mar/15/jacinda-ardern-condemns-christchurch-mosque-shootings-video.
[xxv] ‘Humanity. That’s all.’ Jacinda Ardern on the response to the Christchurch attacks. The Spinoff, 8 April. https://thespinoff.co.nz/politics/08-04-2019/humanity-thats-all-jacinda-ardern-on-the-response-to-the-christchurch-attacks/.
[xxvi] Ainge Roy, E. (2019). New Zealand gun buyback: Firearms returned after Christchurch attack. The Guardian, 12 August. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/12/new-zealand-gun-buyback-10000-firearms-returned-after-christchurch-attack.
[xxvii] Arms (Prohibited Firearms, Magazines, and Parts) Amendment Bill (Cwlth). http://www.legislation.govt.nz/bill/government/2019/0125/latest/whole.html.
[xxviii] Kenny, K. and Manch, T. (2019). Antisemitic, copycat shooter in Germany the first test for Christchurch Call. Stuff, 11 October. https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/christchurch-shooting/116472555/antisemitic-copycat-shooter-in-germany-the-first-test-for-christchurch-call.