All You Need To Know #10

The New Zealand 2020 Election, Translated for Americans

Let’s mix things up! For the past several months, I’ve been sharing my perspective on the upcoming US Presidential Election. But it turns out New Zealand, the country where I live now, also has an election coming up. There’s some really interesting stuff to go over here, especially if you’re an American.

Jacinda Ardern has turned into an international household name over the past few years. She’s empathetic, she’s strong, she had a baby while in office, and she keeps shining in moments of great turmoil. She’s dealt with a huge terrorist attack, a volcanic eruption, and of course, Covid-19. There’s no wonder she’s popular around the world and in the country.

But here are some details you might not know. First, New Zealand is a very conservative country. Think of a place like Montana: very rural, very macho, and lots of farm industry. Imagine a country full of people who would have voted for John McCain over Barack Obama. As anywhere, the cities and the youth are more progressive, but it’s not a particularly progressive place. For example, abortion was just made legal this year, whereas euthenasia and cannabis are both still illegal.

Second, Jacinda Ardern lost the previous election! Her party (Labour, which is like the Democrats in America) got a paltry 37% of the vote, compared to 44% for the National Party (Which are like Republicans in America). So how in the world is she Prime Minister with only 37% of the popular vote? Pull up a chair, this is about to get wild.

In America, the party who gets more votes gets to run the whole government. This is called the “First Past the Post” model, and it’s how New Zealand used to work. But in 1993, New Zealand decided to move to a new approach called Mixed Member Proportional which means you need to make a coalition to reach 50% of the available seats, and then you can lead.

After the 2017 election in New Zealand, Labour had 46 seats and the Greens had 8. This mean the lefties had 54 seats whereas the right had 56. Game over, right? Well, no. You need 61 seats for a majority, and neither the left nor the right had enough to lead. Who had the remaining seats up for grabs? This guy named Winston Peters. He often plays kingmaker because his party, named New Zealand First, has had to break the tie more than once.

New Zealand First, as the name sounds, is a right-wing party. They are nationalists, protectionists, and social conservatives. They’re a more natural fit with National, but Winston Peters really, really enjoys being in the spotlight. And he really enjoys explaining how important he is.

For those of us old enough to remember Pat Buchanan’s racist Reform Party, or Ross Perot’s arrogance and love of the spotlight, Winston Peters is sort of a blend of both. (Here he is making fun of someone’s accent and labelling him a joke.)

No one likes Winston Peters, but both parties really needed NZ First’s 8 seats, so they played nice for a few weeks and hoped they’d pick them to lead. In the end, Winston Peters gave a 7 minute speech where he said an economic downturn was coming, and then said:

“Far too many New Zealanders view today’s capitalism not as their friend but as their foe. And they are not all wrong. That is why we believe that capitalism must regain its human face. […] That’s why in the end we chose a coalition government of New Zealand First with the Labour Party.”

A pretty fitting analysis, I’d say. He was saying he wanted a leader who could show empathy when everything went south. Hello, Jacinda Ardern!

Jacinda Ardern came into office sort of like Barack Obama. She’s attractive, well-spoken, and young. She spoke to more people than the same old boring white men people were used to seeing in politics, and her star rose right away.

Meanwhile, National crashed into a ditch. Eventually their leader hit a measely five percent approval rating while Jacinda Ardern registered the highest approval rating for any New Zealand Prime Minister ever. They replaced him, a Marco Rubio-style guy, with a Jeb Bush-style guy. That guy quit after one month. Now they have a new leader who will lose to Jacinda Ardern in hilarious fashion when the election is held in September.

Kiwis are going to decide if euthanasia should be legal. So far it’s polling pretty well, so I suspect it will pass.

I don’t think recreational marijuana is going to pass. The polling is neck-and-neck with a lot of undecided voters. But because the country is pretty conservative, and the pro-legalisation forces haven’t been communicating very well, I think in the end it will fail. But I’d like to explain some reasons why I think it should pass.

A similar bill passed amonst a decade ago in Seattle, and the main effect was a tremendous amount of new tax revenue. It also reduced the need for black market sales, which are often tied to drug cartels and gangs. It’s a good thing when adults can know what they’re buying, from a certified tax-paying business, without having to get involved in anything shady.

But the biggest thing for me is the medical angle. There are two components to marijuana, THC and CBD. THC is what makes you high, but CBD addresses a lot of health concerns with no buzz. I’ve seen videos of young kids suffering horrible seizures that can only be treated effectively with CBD. The same goes for headaches, migraines, and lots of other maladies.

I don’t personally smoke weed, neither for medical or recreational reasons. But the more research I did in Seattle, the more CBD looked like a miracle cure for certain conditions. For that reason, I strongly support its legalisation. But I’m not holding my breath.

The Green Party in New Zealand tend to get about 5% of the vote, which is the threshhold necessary to get seats in government. Whereas New Zealand First looks like they will fall below the 5% threshold this election. Sorry not sorry, Winston Peters!

As someone who supports Jacinda Ardern, I love this graph. She was polling around 40%, then did a good job leading the country through Covid-19, and now wheeeeeeee she’s around 60%.

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But the bigger issue is what’s happening to National. They’re not just losing ground, they’re getting more extreme. Here’s a graph showing the smaller parties. Green is hovering over 5%, New Zealand First is completely collapsing, and almost everyone else is statistical noise. Except one party, ACT. What are they all about?

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They’re a classic far-right organisation. Lower taxes, personal liberties, more military. They also want to re-instate private prisons, bring welfare reform, and raise interest on student loans. These are people who looked at the most radical Republican policy moves in America over the last few decades and said “Sounds great to us!”

I hear Kiwis tell me a lot that they’re confused by how crazy America’s politics are. As am I! But I think New Zealand’s politics are a lot closer to America’s than they care to admit. I’m seeing increased polarisation, I’m seeing the rise of the alt-right, and I’m seeing less compromise and good-will.

For example, most of the right-wingers in New Zealand are still mad at Jacinda Ardern for her strict lockdown because they believe it ruined the economy. They were arguing for opening borders to Australia. The Jacinda Ardern that the rest of the world sees is a strong leader who took smart, science-based action. Whereas much of New Zealand see her as a pretty face who can communicate well but can’t be trusted with the economy.

Unproductive polarisation isn’t a uniquely American thing, and I think it’s clear that New Zealanders will start to notice this more and more as time goes on. Or maybe they won’t! America is a very convenient scapegoat.

I think Jacinda is going to win, by a lot. I think weed legalisation will fail, and euthenasia will pass. New Zealand First will disappear and ACT will reach the 5% threshold. National will stay weak, and Labour will stay strong.

This week Jacinda Ardern called this a “Covid Election.” And an hour ago New Zealand discovered its first four cases of community transmission in 100 days. How right she was. Now we’ll see if we once again are a team of 5 million, or if National wants to follow the Republican playbook to try and tear her down.

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