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Can NZ avoid populist leaders’ divisive sloganeering?

Democracy rocks.

Voting forms for your local body elections will be mailed out some time between 20-25 September. Turnout statistics from recent years suggest you’ll not be hovering round your letterbox for NZ Post’s ever-more sporadic deliveries, in the hopes those orange-trimmed envelopes are tucked between the Countdown and Briscoes circulars.

The little orange guy was all over the show in 2016. Local Government NZ ran a 10-month campaign right up to the final polling day in October; its goal was to boost voter turnout to more than 50% for the first time since 1989. After all that exertion, I’m not sure you could call a 0.7% increase a win; turnout went from 41.3% in 2013 to 42% in 2016.

I’m also not sure the little orange guy is a guy. It’s meant to be gender-neutral and of no particular ethnicity – an amorphous orange blob-person, if you like. If it had even a lick of blobby hair, it would bear an alarmingly close resemblance to the big orange guy Donald Trump. And a symbol of democracy-building, Trump is not.

Globally, democracy is in recession and has been since 2006. Think Turkey, Thailand, Venezuela, Bangladesh, swathes of Sub-Saharan Africa… Equally worrisome, says Stanford University political scientist Larry Diamond, has been “the decline of democratic efficacy, energy and self-confidence” in the West, no more so than in the world’s leading democracy – the United States. “The world takes note of all this. Authoritarian state media gleefully publicise these travails of American democracy in order to discredit democracy in general and immunise authoritarian rule against US pressure.”

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New Zealander Robert Wade, professor of political economy and development at the London School of Economics, picked up on this theme when he gave a talk recently at Auckland University. His lecture was titled, cheerily, “Why the Trump Era could last for 30 years”. With or without him, it seems, we’re in this 30-year cycle, spinning about in a front-loader of Trumpian politics. We can also expect massive disruption to labour markets as artificial intelligence gobbles up white-collar jobs, more mass migration and the social turmoil that comes with it, and continuing tension between the US and China superpowers.

What interests Wade is how New Zealand has so far resisted the swing to the kind of right-wing populism currently sweeping Europe and the US. “Many of the forces that are driving nationalistic populism in the world are also evident in New Zealand, notably persistent and fairly high levels of inequality. But it’s not led to the country’s leaders trying to mobilise people’s grievances in the way it has in Europe and America.”

Not yet. But a line in a recent National Party release about promising to “light a regulations bonfire” popped for me: “…we will eliminate two old regulations for every new one we introduce”. This is straight out of the Trump playbook, besides being patently stupid. On the campaign hustings and signing an executive order in his first week in office, Trump proclaimed: “If there’s a new regulation, they [federal agencies] have to knock out two.”

Robert Wade talked about New Zealand maintaining a healthy level of social cohesion, of having labour market and tax policies that keep polarisation from widening. I hope he’s right and politicians – both local-body this year and those standing in the 2020 general election – resist the temptation to borrow from Trump and other populist leaders’ divisive, nasty sloganeering.

It also behoves we the people to exercise our democratic rights and privileges – to get out and vote, at least. As Winston Churchill noted, democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others. I wish that statement didn’t seem quite so pertinent today. 

This article was first published in the October 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.