Parliament, now firmly into National’s third term in government, is well and truly stagnating. Debate within its chambers is becoming increasingly unruly and vitriolic under the stewardship of Speaker David Carter (a man who A: Never wanted the job to begin with and B: never bothered to work at earning the respect of either the Opposition or the Party that brought him into the role ), and parliamentary procedure remains so byzantine and outdated that only the most rabid of political obsessives can stomach more than the soundbites. Resultantly, it’s a sad truth that so many within New Zealand have surrendered all interest in the country’s lawmaking procedure. The recent walk-out following Key’s shameful comments during debate surrounding New Zealanders detained on Christmas Island only serves to illustrate how much our legislature has decayed.
This problem is made worse by the fact that since its election defeat in 2008, the Labour Party has suffered a crisis of self-confidence that has made it drop and swap leaders with a rapidness to rival Australia’s Prime Ministers. Andrew Little has made progress in bringing a sense of true oppositional spirit to his party, with his occasional moments of firebrand passion in the House, and inability to be swayed into supporting the Government’s questionable troop deployment to Iraq.
Unfortunately, these moments are rarely picked up on by the average New Zealander, while Labour’s policy moves such as the ditching of capital gains tax put them at risk of losing the much-needed will to fight National on economic issues.
The movement of Labour away from traditional leftist policy is made stranger by the rise of the traditional left, manifesting itself globally through the election (and subsequent re-election) of Syriza in Greece, the meteoric rise of Podemos in Spain, and the upswing of political engagement, especially among youth, surrounding Bernie Sanders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.
Even among the centre-left, we’ve seen recently the landslide victory of Canada’s Liberal Party put an end to Conservative Stephen Harper’s nine years as Prime Minister, during which he ran a government with striking similarities to Key’s in both policy and conduct.
So what’s missing? The rise of all the parties mentioned above tie their success not only to sound and appealing policy, but to charismatic and non-traditional leaders who are able to give out a sense of hope, renewal, and change. Listen to almost anything Canada’s new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said (“Many of you have worried that Canada has lost its compassionate and constructive voice in the world over the past 10 years . . .Well, I have a simple message for you: on behalf of 35 million Canadians, we’re back.”), and it becomes incredibly easy to see how he managed to break through a near-decade of status-quo-is-God governance from the Conservatives.
Returning to the starting point for this column, Parliament is stagnating, but political activism and engagement still survives. While Parliament deliberated on the inclusion of Red Peak in a referendum that everyone lost interest in around the time Laser Kiwi stopped being an option, Amnesty International sparked a public dialogue on how much we are doing to help refugees (who are, after all, fleeing a war into which the Prime Minister was extremely adamant to bring New Zealand ) with their Double the Quota Campaign. While the Prime Minister highlighted how dysfunctional the House has become by accomplishing the almost impossible feat of turning a debate on conditions facing New Zealand citizens abroad into accusing sexual assault victims of backing rapists, citizen’s action groups such as It’s Our Future organised nationwide demonstrations against the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
It is precisely this mood of citizen’s activism that the Labour Party must pick up if they are to win back power and work to remedy the many societal issues we’ve taken on since 2008. When it next comes time to elect a leader, the Party must regain its self-confidence to move past the “safe” choices in order to find someone who is fresh, young, and passionate to bring change to New Zealand. Look for example at the Greens — although by no means whatsoever a failure, the election of the ‘safe’ and comparatively centrist James Shaw as co-leader has yet to really inspire new voters into what has traditionally been one of the country’s most passionate parties.
For all his failures, both in policy and personally, John Key has managed to hold on to power by tapping into the current political mood that favours the anti-political; the candidate that, regardless of how much of a political insider they may be, is able to create the aura of being somehow different from what traditionally makes someone a politician. Key accomplishes this with his calculated forms of indifference and ineloquence . The opposition can do so with an appeal to youth, change, and much-needed political regeneration.