Why have the Kiwis rejected populist ideas that other nations have embraced?
Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Labour prime minister was recently returned to power for a second term with a commanding majority. The main opposition party in the elections was the centre-right National party. But there was also a new
party joining the fray: Advance NZ.
This 'populist' party campaigned against Ardern’s Covid-19 restrictions, vaccinations, the United Nations, and 5G technology - and won just 0.9% of the vote. Yet it's a very similar platform that's resulted in the rise of strongmen such as Donald Trump and Brazil’s leader, Jair Bolsonaro. Why such a massive difference in impact?
In New Zealand, analysts say the lack of traction gained by fringe or populist movements was due to the majority of its citizens' long-term contentment with the direction the country has been heading. This has been the case for more than 20 years, through both centre-right and centre-left governments, and prevented populist sentiment from taking root.
“When you look at the numbers, New Zealanders have essentially been satisfied with their government since 1999,” said Stephen Mills, the head of UMR, the polling firm. That period had spanned two Labour and two centre-right National prime ministers - including Jacinda Ardern - all of whom had led fairly moderate governments.
For the past 21 years, UMR has asked poll respondents whether they felt the country was on the right track, with the response staying “basically positive”, even during the Covid-19 pandemic - during which Ardern was universally hailed (both domestically and internationally) as one of the most effective leaders in dealing with the crisis.
David Farrar, the founder of Curia Market Research, another leading polling firm, also asks the “right or wrong direction” question and has recorded a “strong net positive” result since 2008 - meaning people mostly thought the country was traveling the right way.
In contrast, he said, the US had seen “net negative” results for most of the past 40 years, meaning people felt the country was headed in the wrong direction. “That’s corrosive; 40 years of negative feeling,” Farrar said of the United States.
“A huge reason that our politics is not so extremely polarised and so far out there is because we no longer have Murdoch-owned press in New Zealand, and it’s never taken a foothold,” said David Cormack, the co-founder of a public relations firm and a former head of policy and communications for the left-leaning Green party. As we all know, Murdoch media is massive in the US and UK and all too frequently they drive confrontational politics and seek to elevate populist sentiment. His Fox News Network is probably the pinnacle of his work in this regard, so it's no wonder Trump is such a big fan.
In Britain, a majority had felt the country was headed in the wrong direction before 2016’s Brexit vote, in which 52% voted to leave the European Union, Farrar said. Such sentiment allowed populist movements to gain momentum, something that contented New Zealanders had mostly avoided.
It wouldn't be fair to entirely blame Fox News et al on the rise of divisive sentiment and populism, as it takes two to Tango. The dance partner is years of decline in peoples' belief that their country is going in the 'right direction'. Put the two together and the results are pretty unpleasant. So, hats off to New Zealand. Let's hope the rest of the world can follow your lead...
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