Regular contributor Tony Orman here gives his take on Labour being booted from office by voters last month. He is a former journalist and since 1984, a “swinging” voter.

 “This law (Maori Wards Bill) is a brazen attempt to hijack local democracy, and the use of Parliamentary urgency betrays of the promise of open and transparent government.” –Jordan Williams, Executive Director of the Taxpayers’ Union 

In the post mortems I’ve seen following Labour’s crushing defeat, just about every political columnist and analyst has failed to recognise the big issue, one that was common to just about every other issue — the erosion of democracy.

In 2017 former Prime Minister, Geoffrey Palmer wrote a startling blog post expressing concern about the state of democracy in New Zealand. It surely should have been headline news, but it wasn’t. Which raises a large question mark about the media’s competency and sense of responsibility. 

Palmer’s statement was aimed at a National government, led by John Key. Palmer had very good reason to be concerned. Several years before, an action by the Key National government was totally unprecedented — and totally undemocratic.

Sacking the democratically elected ECan Council

On 1 April 2010 Nick Smith, Key’s minister for the environment and local government, pushed through the ECan Act, which sacked the democratically elected Environment Canterbury (ECan) council and replaced it with state commissioners.

The move outraged the Law Society Rule of Law Committee which denounced the ECan Act as repugnant to the Rule of Law. Most were appalled at the total snub to democracy. But it went through, pushed by National’s Nick Smith. And the “communist style” state power grab has remained.

Palmer and Labour’s hypocrisy 

But then, wasn’t Palmer’s criticism a case of “the pot calling the kettle black”?

Hark back to 1984 and the election of the 4th Labour government. Geoffrey Palmer was guilty of hypocrisy. 

Ironically, 1984 is the title of English novelist George Orwell’s famous novel about a Big Brother dictatorship. In 1984 the 4th Labour government was elected with Palmer as a senior cabinet minister promising open government and giving people the say.

It started well. Led by David Lange as Prime Minister, the 4th Labour government held a Summit Conference proclaiming a new day in democracy and public consultation.

But within months, Rogernomics was born and democracy went into the incinerator.  Public assets were sold with no reference to the owners, i.e. the public. Aggravating the insult to their owners were the assets being sold at heavily discounted prices to the government’s corporate friends.

Democracy was severely under attack.

Shades of 1984

George Orwell gave a strong warning in his writings. He wrote 1984, published in mid-1949, to give people a lesson aboutthe consequences that could happen if they allowed government to exercise total control, i.e. totalitarianism. In the book, the totalitarian regime of Oceania is able to manipulate their citizens into believing anything.

The 4th Labour government went about enforcing a neo-liberal style of economics that had far-reaching consequences and tore the existing fabric of New Zealand society into tatters. The good community-minded Kiwi spirit of helping and caring for others, was replaced by a selfish, increasingly arrogant aggressive persona of “Stuff you, I’m alright Jack.”

There were economic as well as social consequences. Crime rates jumped and and many Kiwis lost the work ethic.  The costs of increased crime and diminishing of production have been immense.

So the erosion of democracy was evident in Geoffrey Palmer’s parliamentary days and his warning in 2017 had a strong element of hypocrisy about it.

Ardern — darling to despot

Back to the recent 2023 election: the remarkable feature is how hard the Labour government was given a drop kick by voters. At the 2020 election they had 50 percent of the electorate. Three years later that plummeted to 27 percent.

Although she departed this year to socialise in the US around Harvard University, former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has to shoulder the blame. During Jacinda Ardern’s resignation announcement she told the nation that after five and a half years as Prime Minister she “no longer had enough left in the tank to do the job justice”.

Was that really the reason? She has certainly enough gasoline now in her tank to be swanning around rubbing shoulders with well-known figures in the US.

Was a major reason that the Labour Party strategists realised, by polls and other indicators, that Ardern had gone from “darling” to “despot” in the public’s steadily wide open eyes? That to keep her at the helm was courting a public trouncing at the polls?

People were not fooled by Hipkins

In January 2023 she was replaced by Christopher Hipkins, number 2 on Labour’s list behind Ardern who had been her right-hand man. The public were not fooled. They realised that Hipkins had been a major player holding key ministerial roles in government actions including the Covid-19 Response, Education, Health and Police portfolios among others.

And one could mention George Orwell in 1984 and arguably his most famous quote, “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”

This seemed relevant to Hipkins’ role as Education Minister who presided over the rewriting of the school history curriculum that inserted Wokeist fantasy, distorted colonisation chapters on both Maori and European migrants, the Treaty of Waitangi, Maori history, and obliterated any mention of famous New Zealanders like Captain James Cook and Sir Edmund Hillary.

Hipkins given a ‘hospital pass

Nevertheless, Labour’s defeat was mainly Jacinda Ardern’s defeat. 

While Chris Hipkins used his boyish charm to try to persuade voters that he was a new face, his pleadings failed. He must have known by the time he took over as PM in January, Ardern had given him in rugby terms “a hospital pass” and the Labour government’s fate was sealed. The damage had already been done.

One pundit who did get it right as far as the erosion of democracy went was former ACT MP Muriel Newman who wrote “in effect the election was a rejection of the radical woke ideology that Jacinda Ardern had imposed onto the country with complete disregard for the fundamental rights New Zealanders had come to expect from our democracy.” 

Ardern the bright, young leader eroded democracy

I had seen alarming signs of the disregard for fundamental democracy soon after Labour’s defeat of the John Key-led National government in 2017. I had by then lost faith in John Key as PM and noted his government’s disrespect for democracy. On election night, I saw Jacinda Ardern as a bright, new, young leader.

But as I watched over the following year, doubts crept in.

Then came the terrible murder of 51 people by a gunman at 2 Christchurch mosques on 15 March (‘The Ides of March’) 2019. Firearm law changes following the tragedy were rushed through in just days. The Ardern government claimed over 12,000 submissions were considered in just two days — defying both credibility and democracy.

More followed, such as a local Maori wards Bill rushed through its final reading in Parliament in a few days.

Jordan Williams, executive director of the Taxpayers’ Union, said “This law (Maori Wards Bill) is a brazen attempt to hijack local democracy, and the use of Parliamentary urgency betrays of the promise of open and transparent government.”

Public complacency

Some columnists back through history have examined the erosion of democracy. A number have identified complacency by the public, in another word, apathy. Greek philosopher Plato wrote, “The price of apathy is to be ruled by evil men.”

I’m deeply concerned that New Zealanders are oblivious and suffering from apathy. Sure, some were numbed by the Rogernomics dictatorship of the 1980s, but that’s no excuse. 

But then too many, I suspect, just couldn’t give a Stuff; born from selfish apathy with no thought for future generations.

Respected writer and columnist Karl du Fresne looked at complacency, saying: “One thing we do very well in this country, besides rugby, is evasion of responsibility. We get reports and inquiries, hollow apologies and hand-wringing … and then it’s back to business as usual”. He found there is a glaring “accountability deficit” throughout New Zealand.

The public believed Parliament is the place of democracy — where you could get a fair hearing from elected representatives based on a historical and moral constitution of honour, truth and justice. Its not a charade. But it became a charade — more than a bad joke. Little wonder then that the public rates politicians, political parties and governments as among the most untrustworthy people.

And I hear people advocating for a four year term for government. Would you have welcomed another 12 months of the authoritarian style of the Labour government just defeated?

The lesson is not just for voters to become more politically attuned and vigilant about democracy’s precarious state: the incoming coalition government of National, ACT and NZ First, whatever form it takes, better be respectful to democracy and endeavour to restore that which has been lost.