Will we have an election year ‘culture war’?

Politics in Aotearoa is quite different to Australia, the United Kingdom and the USA, so it is difficult to know how much we will move towards the fractious and divisive politics of those countries in this election year.

Bryce Edwards suggests New Zealand voters must prepare for an ugly culture war this election

Trump, Morrison and Johnson have found fertile political ground in the backlash to being woke. Simon Bridges is likely to ape them

Bridges is already trying a bit of this approach, but he’s not very popular so it’s difficult to judge whether he is shifting support – National has generally maintained good levels of support regardless of their leader’s lack of appeal.

Some say the New Zealand insistence on fairness goes back to our colonial history. Many escapees of industrial Britain embraced a life in a less class-ridden country. Of course the idea that New Zealand is an equal and “classless society” was always a myth, but this egalitarian ethos endures.

It creates a particular problem for politicians of the right. As a former prime minister, John Key, told US diplomats in a private briefing, New Zealand’s “socialist streak” means it can be difficult to push rightwing policies. Key later elaborated: “New Zealand is a very caring country. I think New Zealanders do have a heart.”

In 2017 this helped the election of Jacinda Ardern’s government, made up of parties that channelled concerns about the lack of fairness under the then National-led government. The new government promised to be “transformative”, rolling out a fairness agenda in programs from KiwiBuild to child poverty reduction targets.

This all presents the National party with a dilemma. There are few votes in criticising the government’s fairness agenda – in fact the opposition is reduced to complaining that the government has not delivered on its left-leaning program.

As the election nears, National will try to paint itself as better economic managers and Grant Robertson as an irresponsible and incompetent finance minister, but this is unlikely to cut it with many voters.

I agree. Robertson has largely been successful at avoiding scaring the economic horses.

So where can it differentiate? National increasingly relies on stoking “culture wars” and law and order. It is these fertile new hunting grounds that give Simon Bridges his best chance of painting Ardern and her colleagues as out of touch with mainstream New Zealand.

I doubt that Bridges will get very far there – one of Ardern’s strengths has been her ability to show empathy for how ‘mainstream New Zealand’ feels, especially during high profile times of deaths and emotions.

Culture wars are concerned with debates relating to ethnicity, gender, sexuality, human rights, discrimination, free speech and civil liberties. Elements of the political left – especially in the Labour and Green parties – are increasingly associated with campaigns in these areas, and often their stances are not shared by many mainstream voters.

But I think they are just niche elements of the left.

Ardern knows very well to keep her government as clear as possible of contentious social issues. Instead, if Labour and its coalition partners can keep public debate around traditional egalitarian concerns about inequality, housing, health and education, the New Zealand notion of fairness will probably also ensure her government will get another chance.

But Ardern probably needs the Greens and possibly NZ First to retain power. Winston Peters tends to appeal to a quite small ‘unfairness’ demographic which is quite different to the type of ‘fairness’ voters Greens will be trying too appeal to.

National’s best bet might be to provoke an ugly culture war. Expect to see Bridges attempt to start debates on these issues and paint Labour and the Greens as “woke” elitists, or just soft on law and order. This might be desperate and opportunistic – National MPs genuinely don’t care that much about many of these issues. But National knows that they are the sort of emotive and divisive concerns that might change votes.

This would be high risk. While it may appeal to some they are likely to already lean towards National. The more moderate voters that are seen as essential to winning elections are less likely to be attracted to divisive politics. They are more likely to be repelled by it.

There’s a cultural backlash ready to be fostered – as Donald Trump, Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson have found to their benefit. Such debates, whether over identity politics, hate speech, minority rights or gender can be explosively divisive. That could end up being the ugly story of the 2020 general election.

The US is a two party democracy that is very polarised – Donald Trump exploited this to win the presidency.

But we have multiple parties and I think far less division. There are noisy minorities on the extremes, but National and Labour are generally seen as more similar than different by most, in part due to the moderating influence of MMP.

National (and NZ First and the Greens) will no doubt try to push ‘culture war’ type issues to an extent, and media will give them more publicity than they deserve, but I am doubtful that many voters will buy into the divide and conquer style of politics that has worked elsewhere in the world.

Leave a comment


  1. Alan Wilkinson

     /  19th January 2020

    There seem to be plenty of real issues going backwards but mostly being ignored by the Lefty media and pressure groups. National should be on top of them rather than relying on culture warfare. However when the Left indulge in it there should be a robust response.

  2. Ray

     /  19th January 2020

    I would prefer a National led government and will vote accordingly but in all honesty the alternative Labour led one will almost give identical outcomes.
    Take Labour’s year of commissions and consulting ( they obviously were not expecting to win) by some counts National had a quite similar number.
    And so it goes.
    Personally I just hope all the “woke” men get the arse card.

  3. Corky

     /  19th January 2020

    ”Expect to see Bridges attempt to start debates on these issues and paint Labour and the Greens as “woke” elitists, or just soft on law and order. This might be desperate and opportunistic – National MPs genuinely don’t care that much about many of these issues.”

    Truer words have not been written. Case in point John Key and Nikki Kaye. The problem with National MPs is many don’t live in areas where social disintegration is on show for all to see. They only have an intellectual understanding of these problems. Just like most Lefties only have an intellectual understanding of the myriad of problems business owners face.

    Lefties are a different breed. They have a passion. They are sly and street smart. And like rust, they never sleep. National will have to out passion them.

    Regardless, I think National needs to start a culture war. But I also think they need one policy that is so out of left field the public will gasp. Can the Tories do it? Unfortunately, no.

    • Duker

       /  19th January 2020

      Back when Lange was MP for Mangere, he recounted the time his national opponent at an election was the later MP for Tamaki Clem Simuch, who turned up to Langes electorate in his Bentley. When Lange saw this he urged Clem to ‘drive around the electorate one more time’ . Now days that would be a Yuge twitter storm instead.
      National has embraced the wokeness itself, with its “unanimous” support for Zero Carbon Act, the Captains picks for good list positions for ethnic Mps who wouldnt get delegates voting for them and of course previously the Nats “unanimous” support for Equal Marriage and No smacking .
      The reality is they are just as Woke as the real agenda isnt culture but financial

      • Corky

         /  19th January 2020

        Quite true, Duker….the trick will be to paint a different perception. Enter Raptor Squad.

        Clem Simich was treated unkindly in Bob Jones’s book – Memories Of Muldoon. Bob was less than impressed. Muldoon said Simich would make a perfect MP. Simich would know he’d never be in cabinet; and he had no aspirations about leadership. That’s how Rob liked his MPs.

    • duperz

       /  19th January 2020

      Oh ye, of little faith! Can’t you imagine the tv ads with the Strike Force Raptor squads dancing across the screen a la the dancing Cossacks!

      Well, maybe you can’t given your ‘Lefties are sly and street smart. And like rust never sleep.’ 😊

      • Kitty Catkin

         /  19th January 2020

        The silly thing about the Cossack ad was that the Cossacks were FIGHTING Communism; they were on the other side, the White Russians. Or did Muldoon mean that National were the Cossacks, coming to the rescue ?.

        There are, of course, many lefties who are middle class and/or academic and working class National supporters like a man I know who’s a retired miner. The idea that Labour supporters are working class and National are the opposite is a bit of a myth, I think.

      • Corky

         /  19th January 2020

        ”Oh ye, of little faith! Can’t you imagine the tv ads with the Strike Force Raptor squads dancing across the screen a la the dancing Cossacks!”

        Yeah, I have already done that script for the add. Remember, it starred Simon, Raptor Squad and a feral Leftie biker.

        ”Oh ye, of little faith!

        Can’t you be more original? Why do you have to copy me? Ah, yes..sorry I forgot.

        ”Well, maybe you can’t given your ‘Lefties are sly and street smart. And like rust never sleep.”

        Well, you would know.

  4. Grumpy

     /  19th January 2020

    All we have in common is a far left faction in the minority’s government imposing radical agendas on a slowly awakening public. Unfortunately the Opposition is little better. In that case what can you expect from an increasingly disenfranchised public.

  5. duperez

     /  19th January 2020

    I think using the word ‘fairness’ is quaint. Mostly fairness is like a clip in the car boot to hold something down. It goes along for the ride, it’s there without thinking about it, it’s there if you need it on occasion. Then it is quoted as important.

  6. Pink David

     /  19th January 2020

    “The US is a two party democracy that is very polarised – Donald Trump exploited this to win the presidency.”

    Hillary exploited this too. She just lost.

  7. In the U.S., I see both sides contributing to the culture wars about equally, with each side insisting the other side is “worse.”

  1. Will we have an election year ‘culture war’? — Your NZ – NZ Conservative Coalition

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: