Jon explores the 'four torrents' of New Zealand's political history, concluding that in this year's campaign the big ideas that could represent our next big change period are being subsumed by small ones.

“The Time, so misordered, does crowd and crush us to this monstrous form”

Shakespeare, Henry IV

In Washington DC’s National Gallery sits an exquisite representation of Fortuna, the contingency of history. It was created by an unnamed sculptor from the school of Rodin and depicts Lady Fortuna holding aloft a cornucopia. A Roman Goddess, Fortuna has long been associated with fate or luck, and for both good and ill.

Niccolo Machiavelli made one of the most (in)famous descriptions of her in The Princelikening Fortuna to remorseless torrents. When they were wild and angry they swept all before them. Machiavelli wrote "every one flees before them and yields to their fury without the least power to resist". The Florentine thought it heroic, and sometimes successful, for his Italian princes to pit their personal skills against the vicissitudes of Fortuna.

Unfortunately Machiavelli’s advice suggested Lady Fortuna be taken roughly, which has won him few friends over the long haul. But his essential point about Fortuna remains a universal one. History consists of constant change and while it is sensible to accept her as she comes, sometimes it is even more prudent to attempt to resist her powerful rhythms.

In our age we can understand Fortuna as a destructive configuration of political, economic, or social forces that have rapidly built up and then been unleashed. The credit crunch, mountainous debt, and the resulting economic crisis, alongside intractable conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, provide a dramatic example of Fortuna’s debris confronting the next U.S. president.

David Lange, with his finely honed sensibilities, understood Fortuna well when reflecting on his own ascent to power during the drama days of July 1984. Lange talked about the "atmospherics of the gods", which dictated either "stability or heroic leadership; a symbol of contentment and incremental progress, or a symbol of resistance to the forces of evil", as Neale McMillan wrote in Top of the Greasy Pole. Lange’s lot chose resistance, which quickly morphed into revolution.

In New Zealand the unleashing of Machiavelli’s torrents has happened four times since responsible government began in the 1850s. Julius Vogel’s ‘grand go-ahead policy’ during the 1870s was the first. After the costly New Zealand Wars, combined with wheat and wool slumps, and rising unemployment, the colony’s finances were in a parlous state. Vogel’s response, large scale borrowing from the U.K., created our country’s essential rail and telecommunications infrastructure.

He also facilitated a wave of mega-immigration. What followed was a decade of economic prosperity and the crucial shift to centralizing our politics under a strong unitary state, a mere formality once the provinces were abolished in 1876.

Our second big change period followed the Long Depression of the 1880s. The Liberals of Ballance and Seddon cemented the role of state as the most influential actor in shaping New Zealand’s future direction. The Liberals, through democratic, land and labour reforms, as well as welfare innovation, shifted the balance from private to public endeavour, addressed some of the key drivers of inequality and tilted them further in the direction of equality.

After the desperate depression of the late 1920s and early ‘30s the pre-conditions for transformative politics were again met. Michael Savage, and then later Peter Fraser, rose to their challenge. The erection of the comprehensive welfare state, the introduction of state housing, and progressive education and industrial reforms, all came to embody what Richard Mulgan, one of our greatest living political scientists, called the active and fair state. They also set the course of political debate for the next 50 years.

Then we had 1984-92, our last big change period. Freedom was reforged, albeit with high costs for Kiwis less adaptable to the demands of the new de-regulated economy. What was also unique about 1984 was that economic crisis coincided with a generational shift.

At the point when the structural milieu was at its most vulnerable, and the old order had fallen into utter disrepute, along came a government who were open to different ideas and new approaches.

With this recent history in mind, the intersection between sharply deteriorating economic conditions and a generational movement that is beginning to take shape brings a certain poignancy to our looming election, one that would otherwise be lacking in any élan vital.

Yet I also think John Key is right when he says that the New Zealand economy is well placed to survive and thrive into this century. We currently have real economic uncertainty and well-grounded fears about the global and local economy. But we have cause for optimism too, after this storm has passed. The information revolution has eroded the tyranny of distance and rising demand from the fast-growing Asian middle classes looks positive over the coming decades.

In New Zealand’s short history, therefore, prolonged periods of consolidation have been interrupted by four "big change" periods, a phrase coined by Colin James to describe what I have called torrents or Fortuna. (He explores this idea in his excellent 1986 treatment, The Quiet Revolution). I forget not, also, that before our four torrents came the compact between the British Crown and tangata whenua. Maori copped the vicissitudes of Fortuna before the rest of us.

But the nascent foundation of our modern New Zealand state also possessed within its creation a democratic seed that found fertile soil here.

Accordingly, one of my hypotheses for this year’s election is that it represents the beginning of the end-game of this Rogernomics era. Perhaps, also, our next big change moment will not be economic but rather a second democratic one.

If we are bold and expansive it could include a republic, a formal written constitution, and a reframing of the treaty and its centrality into an instrument which symbolises and celebrates a national renewal and our full independence.

But we won’t get there unless we start to talk about how we get there, and there seems no mood yet among our political elites to lead such a discussion. Alas, the urgent debate of this campaign, it seems, is reduced to matters of tax.

Comments (8)

by Michael Appleton on October 07, 2008
Michael Appleton

Jon: Colin James has a couple of pieces in the Herald today( and, which seem to overlap with the themes of this piece, and your earlier one.

One thing stands out in Colin's pieces, though: he seems to have softened his earlier claims that English/Key represent a marked generational shift from

When talking about the economic crisis, he talks of Cullen and English as one: "The way out of structural deficits is hard, as we found in the post-Muldoon 1980s and 1990s. English and Cullen both know that from experience. So does anyone over 40. The under-40s might be about to learn."

This would suggest that, when it comes to economic socialisation, Clark and Key are on the same side of his imagined dividing line.

When talking about political generations, he notes: "Key and English have promised no big change of direction, just tendencies which would change things incrementally over time. By contrast with the 1984 lot, they are blandness personified. That fits one description of the rising political generation as a "bridge" generation to the next ... The next revolution, if that is what the next-but-one generation is plotting, is some way off."

So, here's my question: do you agree with this concept of Key/English being a "bridge"? What interests me about this is that I also see Clark and Cullen as conservative, transitional leaders. If Key and English are likewise - don't we risk suffering from drift? And doesn't this model of leadership make more sense in 1999, coming after fifteen years of revolution, than it does in 2008, coming after nine years of steady-as-she-goes stewardship? Or am I just wishing for more drama than New Zealand needs?

by Tim Watkin on October 07, 2008
Tim Watkin

Interesting question Gary. I'm sure Jon will offer an answer, but I'd note that we went about 50 years - from the 30s to the 80s - between the most recent 'big changes'. So yeah, Clark may be Fraser to Lange's Savage. Key may be Holyoake. Or maybe Clark is Fraser and Holoyake all in one. But my point is that these bridge governments can last a long time. The times may be worthy of another 'big change', but I don't see anyone on any front bench at the moment with sufficient character to make one happen.

by Dr Jon Johansson on October 07, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Gary - I agree. I also see Key/English and Clark/Cullen as transitional leaders. That's why Clark is drawn to trust, who do you trust to handle the transition better?  

The drift you speak of already exists and it poses considerable risks to Key should he win and then fail to meet voter expectations.

Change rhetoric, such as it is, can only get you so far and after the always false dawn of a 'honeymoon' period gives way to the reality of relentless, day-after-day economic insecurity, well, it could turn very ugly very quickly.

But a tansition can also prepare for the path not yet traveled. For instance, instead of using the Maori Seats as a none-too-subtle and cynical bargaining chip with the Maori Party, Key could have located it in a 'future and vital democratic discourse' frame. That would be consistent with my view that 'new generational' thinking should already be signaling how we might come together to discuss several tricky areas in our democracy, such as those issues I raised in yesterday's column.  

This vital discourse could also, coincidentally, have accomodated National relitigating their support for Supplementary Member (SM) electoral system change its floating under the rouse of a referenda. 

My point being, Gary, that transitional leadership can be both purposeful and invigorating. But first you have to try...    


by Dr Jon Johansson on October 07, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Tim -

That long 50 years of consolidation is quite something - valium alone doesn't explain it - and it confounds and complicates any analysis of our politics as cyclical.

Whereas, I can explain the last 50 years of US politics in a pretty coherent cycle of preparatory presidents, ones of achievement, and then the consolidators who followed them.



by Michael Appleton on October 07, 2008
Michael Appleton


I would make the two, perhaps pointless and wrongheaded observations in response:

1) Oftentimes, transformational leaders come to power in periods of crisis - e.g. FDR, Thatcher, Lange/Douglas. Perhaps I should be thankful that, twenty-four years after the last one, we have yet to re-encounter the giddy days of July/August 1984 :)

2) It seems that these crises are, if not brought about at least worsened by the fiddling of inept, transitional leaders, such as Hoover and Muldoon, who cannot comprehend the magnitude of what's happening to them/their country. Perhaps, to milk the metaphor, a bridge government that goes on too long can become a bridge to nowhere, leading us off a cliff? If Key is another small-bore leader, could he miss another great crisis coming down the pike (as, arguably, Clark/Cullen have?)?

by Dr Jon Johansson on October 07, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Gary -

Funnily enough, I think Muldoon could fathom the magnitude of impending change. But he hated its darwinian effects so chose to surpress it with the unique configuration of political power he crafted.

He failed miserably, thereby setting the stage, as you point out.

The other observation I'd make, in terms of our current economic concerns, is that leopards don't change their spots. Roger Douglas, I'm sure you can imagine, senses opportunity, right now, so must be tearing his hair out to be so close but still so far from power.

Thankfully, courtesy of our history, his particular dog won't hunt. Too many Kiwis are wise to it. So, too, is John Key. 



by Tim Watkin on October 07, 2008
Tim Watkin

Jon, I thought when I read your piece - and then promptly forgot until now - about Winston Churchill's saying about greatness. Some men having it thrust upon them, some being born to it and all that. But Gary's first point reminded me. So you wonder whether Lange etc would have been as transformational at another time.

As for point two, Gary, I'm not so sure we know yet whether Clark/Cullen missed this coming disaster. They may not have been Rooseveltian in their transformation (see my piece today), but they did make some long-term investment during the good days and history may remember Cullen well for his fund, Kiwisaver, some of the government buy-backs etc.

Jon, you say America's 50 years of consolidation makes sense to you, but NZ's less so. I had assumed they were for for pretty much the same reasons - a world war followed by two war-weary generations. The middle-classes during that time just wanted security, a mortgage, and the chance to be just a little better off than mum and dad. And governments were happy to intervene to ensure those middle classes got what they wanted. Average wealth grew and everyone was satisfied for a while. You think there's more to it than that, especially in the US?

by Dr Jon Johansson on October 07, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Tim -

Lange saw himself as a situational leader, and I think he needed the right atmospherics - as well as politicians like Douglas, Palmer, et al, and his staffers - to make it work at all. That said, Lange's mates were preternaturally ill-disposed towards stability. I often pose the question to my students about whether they could imagine Douglas being content to fiddle about and tinker during stable times. Lange would also have got bored. 

Lange and Clark would have made a great pair under the French system. Clark, as PM, would have got a lot done and Lange, as President, would have made everyone feel good about themselves while giving fine speeches.

About your last point, I was a bit fuzzy mate. I don't mean more than that. I should have made explicit I meant political cycles.

In the US I have read about a political cycle seamlessly connected by periods (and presidents) of preparation (preparing the way for change), achievement (achieveing change) and consolidation (maintaining the status quo).

JFK, with his talk of the New Frontier and challenge to land man on the moon, was a preparatory president. Clinton was seen to be the next one, some 30 years later, on the back of grasping the opportunities and demands of the new information age economy. 

You don't see much 'preparatory leadership' in NZ. Bolger in the lead up to MMP and Big Norm (and Holyoake before him) on anti-nuclearism are two very different examples, but they are isolated ones, not a recurring pattern.

That's where I see one difference.         





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