The 2017 New Zealand General Election has concluded, the coalition negotiations are complete, the new government is Labour, New Zealand First, and the Greens.
The outcome is consistent with the general mood of the campaign. National relied on a majority of voters being satisfied with the status quo, but that didn’t pan out. The statistics tell us about growing inequality and intractable poverty – even as the wealthy and privileged continue to get ahead, the people being left behind would not have been excited by the idea of more of the same. National lost a few seats, but their core support remains solid. Instead, the sitting government was punished on the margins – the Maori Party was obliterated, and Peter Dunne is done.
Labour and the Greens campaigned on changing the government, appealed to those who have been left behind by National’s policies. It wasn’t entirely clear this would work – a lot of older folk have seen their net worth skyrocket along with the house price bubble, even if this isn’t disposable wealth because you need to keep a house to live in. But National has done enough odious deals to turn away a majority of voters – privatising state assets, raising superannuation, abusing welfare recipients, polluting rivers, exploiting conservation land, suppressing rail infrastructure, raising GST to cut taxes for the wealthy – the list goes on. It was not a slam dunk, but a chipping away at votes that eventually shaved off enough to deny them a majority.
But while a significant number of those voters turned to a resurgent Labour under Jacinda Ardern, unarguably a more energetic and charismatic leader than the previous Andrew Little, the election left neither National nor the Labour/Greens with enough seats to govern alone. Enter New Zealand First, that stubborn, often unwelcome, yet ever-present fringe. Throughout the campaign, Winston Peters appealed to the rural voters who have been left behind by National’s policies. In this, his message was similar to Labour and the Greens, only with a conservative accent as opposed to a progressive one. He appealed to the conservative poor, attacked National from the right – he also campaigned on change.
So it is not so surprising that New Zealand First ultimately picked Labour as their coalition partners. Despite what the pundits say and what many people believe, politics is not really about left or right, progressive or conservative – it is about the rich vs. the poor, and it is about power. National keeps talking about New Zealanders getting ahead, but the reality is that their policies have enriched the rich, and ignored the poor. The reality is that more and more New Zealanders have found themselves being left behind. Those people, and those who have enough of a conscience to vote against inequality, have increased in number in recent years. The Greens, Labour, and New Zealand First campaigned for those votes, and now they are the government.
I started The Echo Chamber Project because I am interested in the growing clout of political social media in influencing people’s opinions, and because there is a growing trend of people only following voices they already agree with, and becoming blind to the other side of the argument. This is a dangerous trend for any democracy, and so I started The Echo Chamber Project to observe what would happen in New Zealand in 2017. I found that the National campaign were liars, frequently misrepresenting statistics and inviting counter-factual interpretations. I found that Labour and the Greens were generally honest actors, though of course their interpretations were favourable to themselves. I found that New Zealand First skirted a fine line between saying what was correct, yet inviting incorrect interpretations.
So, ultimately, the liars were kicked out of office in exchange for marginally more honest folk. Somewhat good news for our democracy for the lies to have been relatively ineffective, you might say, but perhaps it was less the case of an informed and vigilant electorate, and more a case of National being bad at lying this time. Steven Joyce’s $11bn fiscal hole was a farce, blatantly wrong to anyone who cared to examine Labour’s spreadsheet, and it forced a number of bigwig economists to have to publicly denounce it – regardless of whether National’s policies would line their own pockets with bigger profits, there was no way they would destroy their own credibility by supporting such deficient arithmetic. But National told many, many other lies, the vast majority of them unquestioned and un-examined by the media.
What if Jacinda Ardern had not replaced Andrew Little as Labour leader? What if Steven Joyce had not overreached with his dodgy statistics and accounting? What if Winston Peters had made a deal with National instead of Labour? There are many what-if’s, and few of them have anything to do with policy. The democratic ideal is that voters will examine the policies on offer, and choose the ones that they believe to be best for our society. The democratic reality is a precarious hotchpotch of a process, where a society confusedly stumble towards making a decision, sometimes the right one, but sometimes alarmingly wrong. Having spent so many hours on this Echo Chamber Project, observing New Zealand’s political Twitter during the 2017 General Election, I am left with a sense of relief, but little confidence. I am relieved that the liars were not rewarded this time, but neither were they punished – The Maori Party and United Future paid the price, not National.
Democracy comes with a price tag – either we keep our vigil and reject dishonestly from our politicians, or we let ourselves be deceived into a government led by bad people with bad policies. For now, I will consider my price of admission paid, as I close The Echo Chamber Project NZ2017.