The election demonstrated deep divisions. Will the next three years make them worse or help heal the rift? And where will the pressure points be?

Will we see New Zealanders marching in the streets during the next three years? I don't mean protests in which the police, while behaving perfectly professionally, are smiling benignly in a sort of agreement. I'm wondering whether we'll see civil disturbances. And I'm not the only person pondering such things – probably even John Key is. He has had a good parliamentary win, but the country seems intensely divided.

Civil disturbances were relatively rare in twentieth-century New Zealand. (We had wars in the nineteenth.) We had strikes from 1907 (and the famous Blackball strike in 1908) but the first significant disturbances were in 1912 when Fred Evans was shot in an industrial fracas at Waihi and in 1913 when Massey’s Cossacks were turned on wharfies. Probably prime minister Farmer Bill Massey is best remembered for this incident – few associate him with the university which bears his name. Unfortunately we lack a good Massey biography but he evolved beyond the rabble-rouser of his early years.

In 1923 Massey’s cabinet decided to prosecute (Catholic) Bishop James Liston for ‘sedition’ – he had supported Irish independence. Rory Sweetman in Bishop in the Dock reports that Massey was in the cabinet minority who did not want the prosecution. Yes, Massey was a Protestant Ulsterman, but he knew the trial could be socially divisive. (Fortunately Liston was acquitted by an all-Protestant jury.) Massey had become a statesman keen to avoid having to get the Cossacks out again. (I allow that Marxists may argue that the real social divisions are capital vs labour and religious ones are ‘false’.)

Many readers will recall that Rob Muldoon presided over the divisions of the Springbok Tour in 1981. It was not by choice; he could find no alternative. In his biography of the man, Barry Gustafson records that Muldoon had hoped that the New Zealand Rugby Union would voluntarily cancel it. When told that ‘the tour was going ahead, Muldoon sat for a long time with his head in hands .... [and] said through his hands without lifting his head "I can see nothing but trouble coming from this".'

Key is probably not as steeped in our history as you are, dear reader, but his immediate post-election speeches indicated he intuited the problem. He has said that he would ram through a couple of election promises on the RMA and industrial relations before Christmas which are unpalatable to many. But the plan is to be more consensus-driven afterwards.

Yet, just as in Massey’s cabinet, there are those in this government caucus who would use their slim parliamentary majority to settle old scores, even though only about a third of adults voted for them, a third against them, and a third did not vote at all. What the latter thought, what they want, we can only conjecture – but almost certainly they will not welcome a deeply divided society. (Children make up about the same numbers.)

Despite having a record of short-termism, Key says he won’t join the dividers. But never forget the political temptation to score divisive points. Consensus government is not easy. It involves confining the government to policies which are broadly acceptable (or not unacceptable) to 80 to 90 percent of the population.

Key may calculate he can be dismissive of unionists and beneficiaries. The latter don’t generally organise, the former do but often seem too self-centred. The PSA press releases bewail the fate of the public servants, but rarely mention that the public will suffer a loss of service; teachers can march all they like, but they have yet to recruit parents.

What will be the crunch points? Iraq could blow up in the government’s face. An unfortunate Free Trade Agreement could be divisive. Tony Ryall got healthcare off the front page; I am sure Jonathon Coleman wants to keep it off. I thought giving the intelligence portfolio to Chris Finlayson was shrewd; he is likely to make sufficient changes to dampen down most legitimate concerns. We may have some local flare-ups because the central government often appears to be insensitive of local government concerns, but I doubt they will spread nationally.

The environment? Environmental concerns are right throughout the community as the National Party branches would soon remind the government. (As this was going to press Key was hinting he may back down on the more extreme proposed changes to the RMA.) And what if the economy stagnates?

My trifecta for barricades is unnecessary involvement in Iraq, high-risk anti-environmental developments and a poor quality FTA.

I hope not. Over to you John Key.

Comments (14)

by Nick Gibbs on October 13, 2014
Nick Gibbs

I can't see the TPP being anything but low quality with Japan's alleged refusal to look at removing agricultral tariffs. However I'm sure it will die in the US Congress after the mid-term elections. The Republicans will never allow Obama a legacy like the TPP. 

Key's generally very pragmatic when it comes to public opinion and their will be lots of opposition to deep sea oil drilling. But as the Green's denounce every development I think the public will tire of their obstruction and allow the Govt to press ahead with exploration. I'm sure National will want to see a few commercial wells sunk, although it won't happen anytime this term, and given that there maybe no oil there anyway, might not happen at all. 

Interesting times ahead.

by Tom Semmens on October 13, 2014
Tom Semmens

If riots are the language of the unheard, then I expect we'll see some soon.

Forr our middle classes, cocooned by a sympathetic media, they'll come as a bolt from the blue. But to paraphrase Trotsky - The riots will be impossible, until they are inevitable.

by Wayne Mapp on October 13, 2014
Wayne Mapp

Does the country seem intensey divided? Actually I think not. There are virtually no strikes. The only real demonstrations are on environmental issues, and the government does take at least some of the issues on board. A modest involvement in respect of ISIS will not generate a great upheaval.

In fact New Zealand is more calm than it has been as any time in the recent past. And I think Brian actually recognises this in the latter part of his post.

by Lee Churchman on October 13, 2014
Lee Churchman

Does the country seem intensey divided? Actually I think not. There are virtually no strikes.

I don't think that follows, Wayne. Organisation is a "force multiplier" as they say, and the opposition to the government, a minority though it is, is pretty badly organised due to the decline of unions and other organisations that sustained it (such as the Labour Party). 

by Viv Kerr on October 13, 2014
Viv Kerr

@ Nick Gibbs – “as the Green’s denounce every development”. No, that’s just the old dirty politics spin you are repeating there Nick.

 We can not burn the fossil fuel reserves that already exist, because to do so will cause catastrophic climate change and ocean acidification, so it is wrong for any government to encourage exploration for more fossil fuels. That, and the risk of oil spills, is why many people object to deep sea drilling. 

by Fentex on October 14, 2014

Life is too expensive for riots, and disengagement too easy.

I don't like National. I think their ambitions are, in sum, destructive, but I don't think anything that is happening now or likely too in the near future creates such obvious harm to sufficient people that anyone's about to risk themselves in riots.

The expense of housing is a slow morale sapping, anger inculcating, burn, but it isn't hot enough to light a fire of action while the bailiffs aren't seen day to day throwing people into the streets.

The TPP is a assault on smaller nations but those people who will be harmed most by it don't have the luxury of knowing that, bent as they are to the daily grind without opportunity to examine it's well hidden agenda. Enacting it won't stir anger until the consequences are understood by visceral expereince.

It won't be until some reporter finally gets the chance to write clearly of multiple stories along the lines of a widowed mother of four who died from fungal infection in poor housing because she couldn't afford the medication she could have once after we were obliged to disband Pharmac that the sort of momentum imagined to start riots could build. And then, even that, is not as motivating as visible violence by authority on the poor.

I don't personally see where the thought of riots has come from, widows are not dying in the streets from easily cured infections, strikers are not being pummeled by batons, students are not fighting for some new ideology, where is the conflict?

In a country where a third of electors don't see a need to vote I can't see where pundits locate the anger that fuels riots.

by Lee Churchman on October 14, 2014
Lee Churchman

but I don't think anything that is happening now or likely too in the near future creates such obvious harm to sufficient people that anyone's about to risk themselves in riots.

Life for most Americans in the late 1960s was improving, yet there were riots about all sorts of things (many of which had little if no connection), and political violence continued on a small scale for years. Similarly, there was general prosperity for most in the west before the Seattle riot of 1999 and the subsequent protests that lasted until 9/11 snuffed them out.

I guess what I'm saying is that while it's tempting to see political disturbances as always arising from bread and butter issues, they often appear to be caused by ideas. Lucky for our age, no-one seems to have any ideas, so we're quite safe. ;-)

by Brendon Mills on October 14, 2014
Brendon Mills

I have a slightly different view.


Had Labour and the Greens won, I believe that we would have seen a lot of disturbances. The farmers would have kicked up a big stink, as well as the power companies over NZ Power, business in general over RMA/ERA changes -- I actually would have put it past the power companies to switch the generators off deliberately. Landlords and property investors would have marched against the capital gains tax, and so on. They would have the media, and those with money up against them. Rather similar to 2007's marches against the amendment to Section 59, and the Electoral Finance Bill, and also the truck drivers protest of 2008.

by Brian Easton on October 15, 2014
Brian Easton

Wayne. Mapp. Interested in your perceptions that the country does not have some potential deep divisions. I received a number of reactions of angry disbelief in the week after the election. (Recall the petition for a recount?) That does not  guarantee disturbances, but it warns that there is the possibility. .

I did not mean to highlight industrial conflict; I wanted to say that sometimes we have not always been calm – hence the mention of The Tour. I thought the peace flotilla against the nuclear submarine could have turned nasty had there been a drowning.

Nick Gibbson: I’ll write about one aspect of the TPP next week. – Investor-State Resolution Systems – which, badly settled, would lead to a low quality outcome for New Zealand. Like you I am skeptical of one in the near future, for similar reasons.

Brendon Mills: Agreed that had the ‘other side’ got in there would still have been the divide and the potential for other conflicts. Elections don’t actually resolves political divisions; the winners sometimes can.

As a general point there are a number of issues about which there is widespread concerns but which are unlikely to lead to major civil disturbance. Some are mentioned in the comments.

by John Hurley on October 17, 2014
John Hurley

Here is part of key's post election speech on Capmbell Live:

What do you want to be remembered for?”
“Going back to that main point I think it was Muldoon who famously said “I want to leave the country in no worse condition than I found it”.
“Isn’t that a low ambition?”
“Yes I want to leave the country in better condition than I found it and if theres something (I genuinely beleive) It would be lifting our confidence to a certain degree about how we see our selves in the world and what we think we are capable of achieving. Now I think individually there is masses of ambition that sits out there there but can we actually take that and convert that to take the opportunity .
And I always thought what was happening in the opposition of politics (of course they would oppose National, that’s their job actually apart from everything else) but it was a bit negative about out place in the world. So we played a bit about whether people coming here was a good or bad thing whether people should invest here was a good or bad thing, or whether we have a trade agreement with parts of Asia was a good or bad thing, but actually in my mind, the reason that I want to say yes to those things is because they are the opportunities that reflect our opportunities to both get wealthier (which is all about what you can do with that money) and then ultimately the oppurtunities for Kiwis. I’d like New Zealanders to feel (after my time as Prime Minister) they have become more confident outward looking nation more multicultural.

This is like John Banks saying of Auckland: "there are X million people moving to Auckland in the future and this represents a great oppurtunity"

The oppurtunity will go to property investors and developers initially while the rest will be fighting it out at resident's meetings or trying to climb the property ladder.

Multiculturalism is the zietgiest of the left but Robert Putnams study, evolutionary psychology and computer modelling show that diversity is the inverse of community cohesion. If all we concentrate on is the evils of overt racism we overlook the benefits of the close bonds that have served us for eons.

by Wayne Mapp on October 17, 2014
Wayne Mapp

Hi Brian,

"Angry disbelief" at the election result, when it was pretty much what every poll predicted. I guess it depends on who one is talking to.

It reminds me of The Standard, which has essentially become the sole preserve of true believers. It used to promote lively discourse, but that is now actively discouraged by the moderation policy. So it is now only true believers talking to each other in total conviction they represent the authentic voice of New Zealand. Of course such a website is perfectly OK, but one would hope the contibutors to it recognise its limitations.

Lets hope The Pundit never falls into that trap.

by Brian Easton on October 19, 2014
Brian Easton

John Hurley: You talk of mulitculturalism as something special to the Left. They would love it to be, since National has cornered the Chinese vote. Even ACT had billboards targeted at Chinese voters. The data and observation says we are a multicultural society. The issue is how to also maintain a cohesive one. 

Wayne Mapp: Sorry if I implied everyone who spoke to me disbelieved the election outcome. Of course not. But I cannot recall an election in which so many were very angry. 

In regard to the polls, Wayne, I confess to having been wrong. In the past  the polls tended to overestimate National's support (recall Jim Bolger's 'bugger the polls') and so I, like a lot of people, made a two or three point percentage deduction from National's total. (It would still have given the government to National, of course.) We were wrong this time. Am I allowed to call for an enquiry as to why the polls were right?


by John Hurley on October 20, 2014
John Hurley

Multiculturalism is special to the left and right but for different reasons. On the right it keeps property prices up and the construction sector busy  whereas on the left it blunts their relevance since they can do everything about house prices (or growth associated issues) except tackle immigration. To me they are no different to climate change denialists who can't abide the idea, as they want to carry on with business as usual. The left want to build a better society against the natural inclinations of the population  and so they are loathe to let little things like unaffordable housing get in the way.

by KJT on October 23, 2014


I talk to ordinary working people every day.

The disbelief is that so many were persuaded to vote National, against their own best interest.

"Dirty politics" works!

Partisan Media propaganda, ignoring policy, works!

If the Standard was as you describe it, please explain why you are allowed on there? Wayne, you have to admit,  can hardly claim to be a "true believer" in the Labour movement.

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