By: Duncan Graham
The Radio New Zealand website headline seemed a must-read: “Myrtle Rust Found In Waikato.”
Yet another overseas tourist lost in a snowstorm? Anticipate tales of heroic search-and-rescue. Or maybe she’s a notorious bank robber on the run in the North Island region named after the longest river (425 kilometers).
Neither. Myrtle Rust is a plant disease discovered on two trees now legally cordoned and rapidly felled. That this yawn was deemed national news reveals much about the small South Pacific nation now considered a safe retreat should nuclear warheads explode in North Korea.
Another factor was dollars. Apart from tourism, New Zealand leans heavily on agricultural exports. So, an alien bug should be feared by all, even one with a benign forename.
Myrtle aside there’s an even bigger event underway and getting international coverage – a general election which looks increasingly likely to be lost by the incumbent National Party headed by Bill English, 55, a competent economist but a bland politician.
His Labour Party challenger is Jacinda Ardern, 37, fun, young but untested. Straw-grabbers have compared her to French President Emmanuel Macron, 40, another fresh contender from behind.
Ardern has been in Parliament for less than a decade and before that in backroom politics – including the UK where she was on the staff of Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair.
That a woman might become PM without the sky falling shows the cultural gap with the US. New Zealand was the first nation to give women the vote in 1893; two decades ago voters put the National Party’s Jenny Shipley into the top job.
She was succeeded by Labour’s Helen Clark. She held on for three terms (each of three years) until unseated by banker John Key in 2008.
Clark then joined the United Nations in New York as head of its development program. Last year she stood unsuccessfully for the secretary general’s job.
Kiwis believe a woman’s place is everywhere so few journalists dare ask gender-based questions. Voters may want to know Ardern’s marriage plans and dress tips; she accepts the reality but prefers policy talk.
For the record her father Ross is New Zealand High Commissioner to the Pacific Island of Niue. She lives with her radio presenter boyfriend. No kids. Although raised a Mormon she’s now an agnostic. In New Zealand these traits are no handicap, although her opponent is a married Catholic with six children.
Two months ago middle-road National looked certain to win based on its record of economic stability and few major political crises. Yet housing problems caused by rising migration, high prices and few new builds have forced families to rent, not buy, putting pressure on social services.
There’s been some resentment towards cashed-up arrivals from China (12 per cent) followed by the UK (many said to be Brexit refugees) and Australia at 10 per cent each. The rest are Indians, Pacific Islanders and returning Kiwis according to Statistics New Zealand.
About 74,000 immigrants a year is an entree in Europe but a main course in a nation with only 4.7 million people - and 30 million sheep.
National’s fortunes collapsed followed Ardern’s sudden leap to opposition leader last month when her boss, charisma-free Andrew Little, accepted he’d been ineffectual.
Overseas Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand) is known as a milk-and-honey progressive state. However, not all is clean and green. Although crime is falling, the jail rate of 212 for every 100,000 citizens puts New Zealand alongside Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
More than 40 per cent of those behind bars are Maori, yet the original occupiers represent just a seventh of the population; this suggests many ethnic, education and employment issues still resist resolution.
New Zealand was a global pioneer in welfare for all; hospital care is free, medicines subsidized and pensions not means tested as they are in Australia, where wages are higher and taxes lower.
Yet by comparison with its big northern neighbor, New Zealand is doing well; economic growth is three per cent and the budget balanced. The Great South Land is being ravaged by a mining slump, factional fights over global warming, and moral storms about same sex marriage.
New Zealand passed that law four years ago. Visitors expecting Sodom and Gomorrah will be disappointed; last year just 465 local same-sex couples got hitched while almost 20,000 opposite sex pairs followed suit.
The change was easier because New Zealand is a unicameral state so has no upper house to reject laws. It uses the mixed-member proportional representation voting system.
Electors get two votes, party and candidate. The Electoral Commission says MMP’s “defining characteristics are a mix of MPs from single-member electorates and those elected from a party list.” A party's portion of the 120 seats “roughly mirrors its share of the overall nationwide party vote.” This gives the five minors more clout. The Greens dominate, but this year imploded over welfare policies.
Unlike Australia there’s no compulsory voting. The Saturday September 23 election is in the spring, but New Zealand’s fickle weather could keep voters indoors.
Traditionally the elderly exercise their democratic duty. In the last election 22 per cent of electors couldn’t be bothered. Labour strategists hope Ardern’s feisty independence and bright countenance will stir youngsters to vote.
The issues have been largely domestic and so far the debates generally civilized. National is free market, but not US extreme. Labour is socialist, but not UK radical.
The country has a small defense force and relies on the ANZUS Security Treaty with Australia and the US. Having a massive arid continent between Godzone (God’s own country) and the world’s trouble spots helps calm nerves.
New Zealand has been pushing into Southeast Asia to boost trade and opening new consulates in Indonesia. However, New Zealand harbors a small but vocal group supported by seven Pacific Island states alleging human-rights abuses in West Papua.
Their campaign has been annoying Indonesia. Should Labour win on September 23, their calls for greater transparency could find a more supportive government.
Disclosure: The author is a registered New Zealand elector.