The election demonstrated deep divisions. Will the next three years make them worse or help heal the rift? And where will the pressure points be?

Pundit: 13 October, 2014.

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

Will we see New Zealanders marching in the streets during the next three years? I don’t mean protests in which the police, while behaving perfectly professionally, are smiling benignly in a sort of agreement. I’m wondering whether we’ll see civil disturbances. And I’m not the only person pondering such things – probably even John Key is. He has had a good parliamentary win, but the country seems intensely divided.

Civil disturbances were relatively rare in twentieth-century New Zealand. (We had wars in the nineteenth.) We had strikes from 1907 (and the famous Blackball strike in 1908) but the first significant disturbances were in 1912 when Fred Evans was shot in an industrial fracas at Waihi and in 1913 when Massey’s Cossacks were turned on wharfies. Probably prime minister Farmer Bill Massey is best remembered for this incident – few associate him with the university which bears his name. Unfortunately we lack a good Massey biography but he evolved beyond the rabble-rouser of his early years.

In 1923 Massey’s cabinet decided to prosecute (Catholic) Bishop James Liston for ‘sedition’ – he had supported Irish independence. Rory Sweetman in Bishop in the Dock reports that Massey was in the cabinet minority who did not want the prosecution. Yes, Massey was a Protestant Ulsterman, but he knew the trial could be socially divisive. (Fortunately Liston was acquitted by an all-Protestant jury.) Massey had become a statesman keen to avoid having to get the Cossacks out again. (I allow that Marxists may argue that the real social divisions are capital vs labour and religious ones are ‘false’.)

Many readers will recall that Rob Muldoon presided over the divisions of the Springbok Tour in 1981. It was not by choice; he could find no alternative. In his biography of the man, Barry Gustafson records that Muldoon had hoped that the New Zealand Rugby Union would voluntarily cancel it. When told that ‘the tour was going ahead, Muldoon sat for a long time with his head in hands …. [and] said through his hands without lifting his head “I can see nothing but trouble coming from this”.’

Key is probably not as steeped in our history as you are, dear reader, but his immediate post-election speeches indicated he intuited the problem. He has said that he would ram through a couple of election promises on the RMA and industrial relations before Christmas which are unpalatable to many. But the plan is to be more consensus-driven afterwards.

Yet, just as in Massey’s cabinet, there are those in this government caucus who would use their slim parliamentary majority to settle old scores, even though only about a third of adults voted for them, a third against them, and a third did not vote at all. What the latter thought, what they want, we can only conjecture – but almost certainly they will not welcome a deeply divided society. (Children make up about the same numbers.)

Despite having a record of short-termism, Key says he won’t join the dividers. But never forget the political temptation to score divisive points. Consensus government is not easy. It involves confining the government to policies which are broadly acceptable (or not unacceptable) to 80 to 90 percent of the population.

Key may calculate he can be dismissive of unionists and beneficiaries. The latter don’t generally organise, the former do but often seem too self-centred. The PSA press releases bewail the fate of the public servants, but rarely mention that the public will suffer a loss of service; teachers can march all they like, but they have yet to recruit parents.

What will be the crunch points? Iraq could blow up in the government’s face. An unfortunate Free Trade Agreement could be divisive. Tony Ryall got healthcare off the front page; I am sure Jonathon Coleman wants to keep it off. I thought giving the intelligence portfolio to Chris Finlayson was shrewd; he is likely to make sufficient changes to dampen down most legitimate concerns. We may have some local flare-ups because the central government often appears to be insensitive of local government concerns, but I doubt they will spread nationally.

The environment? Environmental concerns are right throughout the community as the National Party branches would soon remind the government. (As this was going to press Key was hinting he may back down on the more extreme proposed changes to the RMA.) And what if the economy stagnates?

My trifecta for barricades is unnecessary involvement in Iraq, high-risk anti-environmental developments and a poor quality FTA.

I hope not. Over to you John Key.