Fringe politics new world order
Dec
10
2015

NZ appears largely immune from the rise of populism taking hold elsewhere. Or is it? Stephen Mills asks.

All sorts of weird and wonderful things are now happening in Western democracies. The success of new parties and extreme volatility is the order of the day.

New Zealand is almost alone in avoiding any equivalent excitement. Not that much has changed since John Key established his ascendancy in 2007.

Two years is a very long time in politics but current polling suggests the 2017 election is going to be similar to the 2011 and 2014 elections with a close contest between National being able to hold power with tiny client parties, or New Zealand First deciding whether to back Labour and Greens or National.

Almost everywhere else the established political order is under siege. Polls now show the leading contender for the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States is Donald Trump.

For a while the main challengers were Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. None has held political office and none seem remotely qualified to be the leader of the free world.

A 74-year-old socialist, Bernie Sanders, is almost certainly not going to beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination but is issuing a respectable challenge.

In the first round of the recent French regional elections the Front National came in first overall, ahead of the two main parties, the Republicans and Socialists.

In the British elections this year the right-wing populist party, Ukip, won the third largest vote share at 13 per cent. The Scottish Nationalist party swept Labour out of its Scottish stronghold, winning 56 of the 59 seats.

The Labour Party immediately afterwards selected 66-year-old Jeremy Corbyn as leader. On his own account he only stood to promote debate on his socialist ideas.

He started the leadership contest at 100 to 1 odds. Corbyn had never held any Parliamentary office and had voted against his own party over 500 times.

In Canada this year the Liberals under Justin Trudeau, who had finished a poor third in the previous 2011 election, swept to a landslide victory. Only weeks before voting day, polls had shown a tight three-way contest between the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP.

In Poland this year a Eurosceptic party surged to win the first outright parliamentary majority since free elections began in 1991. One new party led by a rock star won 39 seats in the 460-member Lower House and another, founded by an economist just five months before the vote, won 31 seats.

The Five-Star movement founded by a comedian, Beppe Grillo, in 2009 won almost 25 per cent of votes in the 2013 Italian election and secured further representation in the European Parliament in 2014.

There are plenty more examples, even from sensible Scandinavia. O

ur nearest political neighbour, Australia, has also been behaving a little wildly. Three elected prime ministers in a row - Rudd in 2010, Gillard in 2013 and Abbott this year - have been tossed out by their caucus colleagues before they could contest the next election.

In the 2013 federal election, the Palmer United Party (PUP) was formed only five months before voting day by colourful mining magnate Clive Palmer. It ran on an eccentric set of policies and secured around 5.5 per cent of the nationwide vote. Until imploding, it exercised the balance of power in the Australian Senate.

UMR Research polling in September shows that there is at least some interest in new parties in New Zealand.

When asked whether "they were generally satisfied with the choice of political parties in New Zealand or would like to see a new party or some new parties emerge before the next election", 68 per cent of voters indicated they were generally satisfied; 25 per cent plumped for liking new parties and 7 per cent were unsure.

There was more support for new parties from younger New Zealanders and those aged 30 to 44 years than from older age cohorts. There was also more support from New Zealanders on middle incomes than those on low or high incomes.

That 25 per cent figure needs to be very carefully interpreted as any new party could not possibly encompass the inevitably conflicting views of all of those declaring an interest in new parties emerging. But it does suggest New Zealand may be subject to some degree to the disillusion with established politics that is clearly sweeping many other countries.

It may take John Key losing his grip on New Zealand politics for those forces to emerge.

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