Svend-Age Saltum: “There’s a Denmark you don’t know and wish didn’t exist. Families with their plastic-wrapped furniture, TV dinners and a way of life you pretend doesn’t exist. Someone has to look out for them and you bloody well aren’t!”
Borgen, Season 2, Episode 6
Years ago, working in a job covering parliamentary select committee proceedings, I developed a soft spot for NZ First MPs, especially Peter Brown, Ron Mark, and Brian Donnelly. What resonated with me was, covering committees on Local Government and Environment, Transport, and Finance and Expenditure, that they seemed normal: having asked pointed questions and hadn’t prejudged their opinion of bills. I considered them like good local councillors who were also prominent Rotary club members – a breed less valued in modern professional politics.
The simultaneous NZ First and Conservative Party conferences last weekend symbolised forces of a bygone era of New Zealand conservatism – now declining in part due to the lack of powerful supporting institutions such as business and religion – the former symbolically less resonant.
NZ First is the arguably more native brand of old conservative politics because it harks back to the National Party of Robert Muldoon, Winston’s mentor: paternalist conservatism where the state was both the guardian of the social order (immigration and homosexuality) and the economic order in terms of an economically active state. This approach is more appealing to the older voter base. Winston’s economic approach is like a softer version of Muldoon’s ‘Think Big’, with an emphasis on regional rail projects such as a line to Taupo, and incentivising migrants to move to regional cities. This is also similar to Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew, another idol of Winston.
In spite of flaws with this, NZ First’s reliance on Winston’s leadership works insofar as he was and still remains one of the most shrewd political operators in modern New Zealand politics. His magic is best compared by fictional politician Svend-Age Saltum, the leader of the Freedom Party in the Danish political drama Borgen. Despite Svend-Age’s more rumpled look and commitment to xenophobia that Winston lacks, there is the similar ability to gain public attention, play the victim when it suits, perform well in the media, and to understand his voting base – no doubt important factors that keeps a party of another age relevant in modern politics.
Yet NZ First is held back by, not just the dominance of Winston Peters and a lack of clear successor once he retires or the party fails cross the 5% party vote threshold, but the lack of populist appeal to issues to appeal to the older base. Immigration has ceased to be an important issue – especially since the process of migration to New Zealand now more strict on world standards – and property rights of foreign owners have been adopted by both Labour and the Greens. Economic policy defies the tune the National-ACT tenet of “no picking winners.” With a reliance on economic populism, NZ First’s appeal is uncertain, especially since, even with a greater resonance with the older but ultimately declining voting base, economics can only inspire voters so much.
Comparatively, Colin Craig’s Conservatives are rooted values that have never resonated strongly in New Zealand. The policies themselves – a blend of ‘One Law for All’, binding referenda, tough on crime, and flat tax – are a jumble of ACT-NZ First policies that hardly capture the public imagination. The greater reliance on social conservative principles – especially given their image on gay rights and female virtues – limit Conservative appeal to the sort of younger people who would consider voting ACT. Ironically, their confused appeals to younger people, notable in Colin Craig’s selfie phase, the phrase “Nek Minnit, Conservative”, or the world’s creepiest sexy firemen calendar won’t likely work, let alone appeal to the likely older voters Craig that would tend towarsds the Conservatives.
Without a coherent economic policy or strategy, the Conservatives rely on a reputation of social conservatism – certainly appealing to older and more religiously -minded voters. Craig appears more rooted in a Protestant evangelism which hasn’t taken hold in New Zealand unlike in the US. New Zealand has dealt with lightening rod issues such as gay marriage and gay adoption with surprising ease, and these will never be repealed. Even the issue that prompted Craig’s entry into politics, the Section 59 repeal bill (the “anti-smacking law) has arguably lost steam and probably an issue that even National Party politicians would be very reluctant to revive.
The greatest drawback of the Conservatives is the reliance on leadership – and not in a good way. Colin Craig has none of the charm of Winston and more importantly – as highlighted above through his strange youth appeals and views on women – his approach comes off as creepy. Like NZ First, it’s a party reliant on leadership with none of the benefits. Craig’s other asset – enough money to finance the party – is also a curse. The party’s dependence on Craig’s personal donations to fund party spending which totaled $1.8 million in 2011 – slightly higher than Labour’s $1.78 million – yielded only 2.7% of the vote. All the finance in the world can only achieve so much with Colin Craig’s image and approach.
Though representing a nostalgia for a “simpler time” that will not return, NZ First and the Conservatives represent a part of New Zealand that still exists and many of my peers would rather forget exists, but equally deserving of representation. How long they survive depends on their leadership. NZ First more rooted in New Zealand history, but as challenged by a changing country as the Conservatives. Regardless, both depend on their leadership for survival – for better or worse.