The dark side haunting New Zealand’s politics in 2022 must not hijack the next election

After a year of rising inflation and falling Covid waves, New Zealanders must take stock of how their country’s politics has changed

The death of Queen Elizabeth II felt, even to the most faithful republican, as confirmation of something dark at the heart of 2022. The late Queen was a constant across the momentous changes of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Her death – marked with an almost sickly deference in the various realms of the Commonwealth – felt like a crack in time.

The order of events took on a ferocious momentum. China is quickly abandoning its three-year-long Covid elimination strategy. Russia is perhaps preparing to reopen a northern front in its war against Ukraine. Meanwhile, the United States promises a zombie contest between President Joe Biden and ex-president Trump in two years. New Zealand feels like a paradise – at least in comparison.

But smug self-comparison risks obscuring a harsh turn in the country’s normally demure politics. The National party leader, Chris Luxon, sensing a hardening in the collective mood, condemned support for the most vulnerable New Zealanders as “bottom feeding”, implied the existence of “high calibre” and low calibre Māori, and attacked young men “sitting in a garage in South Auckland” with thoughts of pursuing “gang life”.

That rhetoric is a departure from previous National leaders, Sir John Key and Sir Bill English, who, in their final term, sought a “social investment” as their signature policy. This was one of Grant Robertson’s favourite attack lines in 2021, tormenting the opposition with the reminder that they were “no longer the party of John Key and Bill English”. It was good fun. Former National party leader Judith Collins would rage away, and Chris Bishop and Nicola Willis would quietly plot a return to those golden days.

But the implication was more significant than simply setting the leader of the opposition off. If National were no longer the party of Sirs John and Bill, then Labour was. At least in its management of the economy.

In 2022 Robertson drew up a budget even Bill English would approve of, with the crown accounts forecast to return to surplus in the year to June 2024/2025. The government sold this impressive achievement as “a secure future in difficult times”.

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern with finance minister Grant Robertson in parliament.
New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern with finance minister Grant Robertson in parliament. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Yet that focus on economic security masks the government’s own hardening. GDP growth remains strong, and unemployment is still mercifully low, but these figures struggle to account for the day-to-day stresses in most New Zealanders’ lives. The chief expenses for any family – food, energy, and rent or mortgage – are rising dramatically and, for the poorest families, unsustainably.

It seems like an age since the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, made the most important political decision any New Zealand leader has made in almost a century: to lock down the country. So many things were uncertain in that unseasonably warm March in 2020. How many people would adhere to the new alert level 4? Could we actually beat Covid-19? Would the economy crash?

By winter the virus was, for all intents and purposes, eliminated. The prime minister was vindicated, and her foresight and decisiveness were rewarded with a parliamentary majority in the 2020 election. History will rightly remember Jacinda Ardern as the most important prime minister since Sir Peter Fraser.

But Ardern’s decisions, and their vindication at the election, owed much to the progressive instincts of her finance minister. As the country went into lockdown in March 2020, Grant Robertson implemented a ban on evictions, a rent freeze, a voluntary mortgage holiday scheme, and a generous wage subsidy to protect people’s livelihoods.

Yet if we remember 2022 for anything, perhaps it’s the return to politics as usual. Robertson, confronting the possibility of runaway inflation, sought to manage the economy in the spirit of the late Michael Cullen with respectable increases to the health, education, and infrastructure budgets and – where appropriate – targeted support payments. The government removed the fuel excise tax and subsidised public transport fares. One-off cost of living payments were made to people on working and middle class incomes.

Was it enough to protect people’s livelihoods? Even the most generous commentators would acknowledge that, against the scale of the price rises across the economy, it did no more than take the hard edge off inflation. But it perhaps signals a change in the government’s own thinking, as it prioritises an orthodox approach to economic management over its progressive instincts from 2020.

This all took place as Covid-19 waves crested and crashed in three-month intervals. For most people, Covid passes after moderate symptoms. But for the vulnerable or the unlucky the virus leads to severe symptoms, long-term disability or death. What unites the lucky and the unlucky and the seemingly invulnerable and the vulnerable is the fallout from infections. Children miss school. Work is disrupted. Public places and businesses close.

In the short term, this is the new normal. And it’s precisely what the so-called anti-mandate protesters who set fire to the parliamentary grounds in February were objecting to. The year would be incomplete without reviewing the damage that this small number of reactionaries (who at no point numbered more than a few thousand) wrought on our politics and media.

Of course, on that day, when the rump of the occupation set fire to the parliamentary grounds, they had had none of their demands met. But they had opened a new, dangerous front in the discourse.

The calls to summarily execute politicians put a lie to their fraudulent proclamations of “love” and “freedom”. The stunts – from the hangman’s rope swinging in a tree to the prison cell for “Jabcinda” – represented something new and dark in New Zealand politics.

Misinformation and disinformation had infected a worrying number of people who – in the exhilaration of collective action – took their new ideology to what seemed its logical end point: violence. If you wrongly believe the vaccine kills, like the woman who left her husband because he had the Covid-19 booster and she “seriously believed” he was “going to die”, then why would you not deploy violence to apparently save lives?

It’s stating the obvious, but it’s worth restating for the record: a large number of these occupiers were tragically unwell. But a smaller number were exploiting the gullible and the stupid for their own financial gain or personal glorification. The challenge for politics in 2023 is to ensure that these grifters cannot hijack the next election.


Morgan Godfery

The GuardianTramp

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