Bill English and his wife Mary on election night
Germany and New Zealand held national elections over the weekend with some similar results. Angela Merkel led her Christian Democrat Union to a fourth victory as the largest party (with about a third of the vote) in the German parliament, while Bill English led the New Zealand National Party in gaining an even larger share of the vote (46 percent) most likely resulting in a fourth-term National-led government.
In both cases the result is a victory for moderate conservatism, although both winners will have to do coalition deals with one or more parties to form a government. For Merkel this means teaming up with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democratic Party, which face in opposite directions on the political spectrum.
English is in a stronger position and his preferred option would be more coherent – a deal with, or cross-bench support from, the more conservative and nationalistic New Zealand First would provide a clear governing majority of at least six seats. Labour, on the other hand, is entertaining the possibility of forming a government with NZ First and the Green Party – an awkward ménage-a-trois similar to Merkel’s – to achieve a bare majority of one seat with which to govern.
Those numbers could alter and possibly improve for Labour once 384,000 (15 percent of the total) special votes (overseas and late enrolments) are declared, which may be two weeks away.
Meanwhile, Bill English, who took over as National Party leader and Prime Minister last December when three-term premier John Key retired from the job and parliament, is clearly chuffed with a win that neither polls nor pundits predicted only a few weeks ago. He was a caretaker leader (though with a strong track record as minister of finance) following the more charismatic Key, trying for a fourth term – something that hasn’t happened in this country since the Third National Government of 1960-72 – and facing, in the last three months, stiff competition from a rejuvenated Labour leadership under Jacinda Ardern.
Ardern, 37, attractive, energetic, oozing idealism and purpose, was catapulted into the leadership role in July when Labour was in the doldrums, and brought the party’s vote from 25 percent in the 2014 election to 35.8 percent on Saturday. Pitching strongly to youth she promised three years of free tertiary education and a boost in students allowances. Child poverty, housing affordability, healthcare and clean waterways were also strong planks. All requiring a larger tax take from various sources.
Pundits predicted a “youthquake” that would carry Labour into first place, but although more young adults probably came out to vote (at 78.8 percent, voter turnout was slightly up on 2014) it wasn’t enough. She is understandably disappointed, though not yet conceding defeat.
English’s pitch was about strong, stable government and building on the Kiwi economic success story of the past nine years. He had his raft of promises too: lifting more children out of poverty and harm through the current approach of targeted assistance to fragile families; tax cuts that would give working families more cash; increasing paid parental leave; upgrading national educational standards; continuing increases in healthcare funding, additional support for first home buyers – in other words, plenty of what National calls “social investment”.
The difference? Grow the economy and share the benefits, versus borrow (more, in the short term), tax and spend? But looking at the party manifestos the place of the family in them seems significant. National puts its family package first; in Labour’s it comes seventh. Of course, they talk about families under other headings as well, but when it comes to focus, Labour is typically socialist in its emphasis on the individual, while National, under English anyway, seems to be giving more weight to the family.
During the election campaign English appeared more and more with his wife, Mary, and often one or more of their six children, at various events and on social media – sending an implicit message about where his own strength comes from. During his election night speech they were all on the platform behind him, sharing the success and giving a remarkable testimony to family unity. If English intends to lead a government that encourages strong and stable families one can only be glad that he has the chance.
Not all National politicians are so obviously into family values. Some are fiscal conservatives and social (moral) liberals — like their possible coalition partner David Seymour (the sole representative of the ACT Party in the forthcoming parliament, and someone, hopefully, they could govern without) – approving same-sex marriage in 2012 and likely to support Seymour’s assisted suicide bill. Moral issues are subject to a conscience vote in most parties.
English himself, though he voted against it, subsequently came out in favour of same-sex marriage and, according to the Family First lobby group's election guide, has been non-committal on adoption by (unrelated) same-sex couples, a practice that is already established in this country. However, he is opposed to legalising surrogacy. He is also opposed to taking abortion out of the criminal law (it is already available virtually on demand), to destructive research on embryos, and to legalising euthanasia.
Winston Peters and his New Zealand First team are usually solidly conservative on such issues and voted en bloc against same-sex marriage. From that point of view they are the best choice for a coalition partner. However, they are anti-immigration, which National is not.
The Maori Party, who were in coalition with National last term, were also fairly reliable on life and family issues; however, they lost all seven Maori seats to Labour this election and are practically defunct – an outcome widely lamented, except, presumably, by Winston Peters, who has long opposed having separate Maori seats despite having a Maori ancestor himself.
Labour’s Adern and probably most of her colleagues, not to mention the Greens, are either “liberal” on abortion, euthanasia and family structure, or non-committal. That won’t do.
This election, after decades of absence from the coalface of politics, I took part in a minor, grassroots way in the National campaign, supporting a local candidate. It is worth doing. The time when one could leave “politics” to a few diehard activists is long gone – if there ever was one.
In the past, it was largely about money: who would tax you the most, who would give you the most. Now, it is still about money, but even more about such fundamental realities as the nature of the family, even the nature of a person and whether he or she is just a “they” who can be manipulated (or killed) at any stage of life to suit her own whims or the whims of others.
So I am glad that New Zealand has voted, intentionally or not, to keep the foot on the brake rather than the accelerator when it comes to social change. I hope that translates into a more or less conservative government.
We are not Germany, and we don’t face the scale of the challenges posed by a large European country in an era of mass migration and cultural conflict. But the deeper issues that threaten our societies are the same, and no-one who cares about the future of humanity can afford to be merely an observer.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.