The coalition government's generation game

by Bevan Rapson / 14 November, 2017

Better together? Our “youth-adjacent” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her septuagenarian deputy, Winston Peters.

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Waiting for the new government to be formed wore down just about everybody involved, not least the journalists forced to read and reread the same old tea leaves while events played out behind closed doors.

But even the most strung-out correspondents hovering in the lift lobbies appeared in better shape than Winston Peters, who through the long days and nights between the election and the establishment of a new government began to look every one of his 72 years.

The campaign itself seemed to take a physical toll on the New Zealand First leader, but so did those intense days of his party’s parallel negotiations with Labour and National. In some of his interviews over that time, his trademark inscrutability threatened to tilt towards sheer incomprehensibility.

The clear signs of fatigue etched around his eyes gave cause to wonder whether the years had begun to take their toll. Might his wits also no longer be quite as sharp as the creases on his customary tailored suits? After all, much younger people are known to admit to their “senior moments”.

To be fair, Peters got the job done eventually. And let’s hope – in the national interest – that he shrugs off any lingering fatigue and proves himself to be in good nick for whatever the roles of deputy prime minister and foreign minister demand of him.

But it was still odd to have the establishment of a fresh new government being announced by a figure who has been around so long, a septuagenarian who learned his political chops under Robert Muldoon and who was clearly feeling the effects of an arduous schedule. It hardly looked like the “generational change” Jacinda Ardern promised during the campaign.

Peters has taken a back seat since, as befits a coalition partner who attracted only 7.2 per cent of the vote. And Ardern has started to put her “youth-adjacent” stamp on the government’s look and feel.

The tootling of a band playing “groovy tunes” in Parliament grounds helped set the mood on the day she was sworn in as Prime Minister. Her bright outfits and delighted smile contributed to the festive atmosphere, while her interactions with a proud partner and her cute nieces showcased to a tee the personal warmth her supporters find so compelling.

Nor did it hurt that media around the world were interested in our photogenic new leader, or that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used a video link to offer his congratulations. Sure, US President Donald Trump called, but face-time with that other personable young premier seemed much more symbolic of the shift Ardern claims to represent.

Since taking office, our new Prime Minister and her team have been propelled by their election promises and agreements with NZ First and the Greens to confirm a flurry of upcoming changes. A wide range of National policies have been lined up for the axe.

From the abolition of national standards and charter schools to the banning of foreigners from buying existing houses and the promise to re-enter the Pike River mine, the new government has so far shown a readiness to follow through on its commitments.

But in view of NZ First’s innate conservatism and dedication to the interests of its elderly supporters, can Ardern’s government really live up to expectations of a brave new direction?

Watch the top ten moments Winston was Winston:

Real generational change presumably means tackling a range of thorny policy areas – the affordability of superannuation, house prices, responses to climate change and drug law reform are among those that spring to mind – in a way that leans more towards the concerns and priorities of younger New Zealanders.

The worst outcome for voters hankering for real change in such areas will be if Peters and his party turn out to be like that elderly relative on social media whose presence has a chilling effect on certain topics even being discussed by the younger generation.

The last thing Labour wants is to be constantly tending to a partner grumpy over an announcement or response to events. Every step will have to be weighed with regard to NZ First’s likely response.

The other thing to consider is whether Ardern’s cabinet really aspires to the kind of change their leader supposedly represents, or if they might settle for the pragmatism and risk-aversion of the Clark years. The return of Clark’s influential chief of staff, Heather Simpson, to advise the new leadership on a temporary basis, suggests our new Prime Minister is as ready to look to the past as to the future.

Both H1 and H2 will have plenty of sage advice to offer, but let’s not forget Clark’s tenure began began last century, before some of today’s voters were born.

And anyone imagining the youthful exuberance of Ardern’s cabinet might hold the secret to generational change should probably think again. According to the ages most easily found online, the average vintage of her cabinet ministers just squeaks under the half-century mark at 49.8. That’s only a smidgen younger than their National Party predecessors, who had an average age of 51.2. Even taking out the four NZ First cabinet ministers (average age: 58.5) only reduces Ardern’s team average to 47.6, suggesting expectations of a major generational shift aren’t particularly supported by the numbers.

The youngest member of cabinet? The 37-year-old leader herself. While she has two fellow 30-somethings to keep her company in Chris Hipkins and Iain Lees-Galloway, both of them seem rather more like upright Young Fogies than harbingers of a hip new era.

The Greens have freshened parliament up a little with the election of two high-profile young newcomers to their caucus, Golriz Ghahraman and Chlöe Swarbrick. At 23, Swarbrick is the youngest MP to enter parliament since Marilyn Waring 42 years ago. But the three Green MPs who, as ministers outside cabinet, have the greatest part to play in the new government – James Shaw, Julie Anne Genter and Eugenie Sage – have an average age of 46.6, which once again hardly seems to represent an injection of youth elixir.

Of course, we’re all only as young or as old as we feel, and it’s people’s ideas and values that matter.

Ardern has three years in which to justify the faith of fans such as esteemed anthropologist Dame Anne Salmond, who reckons the new Prime Minister’s rise “marks a changing of the guard between generations, and a time to try out new ideas”.

Sceptics can point to Ardern’s campaign backdown over a capital gains tax and her pledge not to adjust the pension entitlement as evidence she has so far been reluctant to back up the talk about generational change with meaningful action.

But it’s early days. And it’s possible the cantankerous senior she’s in harness with might actually be more of a help than a hindrance in advancing a new policy framework. In announcing his decision to go with Labour, Peters’ willingness to lash out at our prevailing version of “capitalism” suggested he might have an appetite for greater reform than most of us imagined. With this coalition, he and Ardern have the opportunity to make some clear breaks with the recent past.

Between them, they have most of the generational spectrum covered, and their pairing might just serve as a reminder that in terms of our national fortunes, young and old need to be in this together.

If their partnership can help resolve silly recent antagonisms over “selfish” boomers and smashed-avocado-eating millennials, that could be considered progress in itself.   

This is published in the December 2017 issue of North & South.


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