Pensioner power
New Zealand's new prime minister proves that age weakens many things, but not political muscle
27 October 2017
By: Duncan Graham

The rapid rise and youth of New Zealand’s new Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, 37, has drawn international attention. Less noticed has been the role of older Kiwis in her success.

The people of Aotearoa (the Maori name for the South Pacific nation) voted on September 23, but did not discover who would rule until mid October, when coalition negotiations were sealed and portfolios allocated.

The National Party, which had been in power for nine years won 56 seats, Labour and the Greens a combined 54, leaving NZ First with nine seats to determine who would run the nation for the next three years. It chose to side with center-left Labour.

Although dubbed by opponents as a “coalition of losers” the visceral hate which infects Australian and US politics is largely absent in New Zealand.

NZ First leader Winston Peters said Ardern had “exhibited extraordinary talent” while campaigning and that the voters wanted a human face to moderate capitalism. Peters, 72, has been a politician longer than Ardern, a parliamentarian for nine years, has been alive.

Although compared with young leaders like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, 45, and French President Emmanuel Macron, 40, Ardern does not fit the standards. She lives with her boyfriend, and quit her church when it rejected marriage equality. She’s childless and the third woman to be prime minister in New Zealand. 

In the new parliament 36 per cent are women. Although Caucasians dominate, 30 per cent are Maori and Pacific Islanders, and six per cent Asian.

Peters understands the importance of age in  politics. Described by The Guardian as “cantankerous” but by locals as “wily,” the former lawyer of Maori descent is the new Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.

He’s already known in embassies around the world from his time as Foreign Minister between 2005 and 2008. He said he’d be seeking more understanding of the Asia-Pacific region.

Australia and New Zealand give citizens cradle-to-grave welfare, including taxpayer-funded schooling, hospital care, unemployment benefits (the “dole”), and pensions. But the schemes are run differently.

Australia’s pensions are means tested so those with private incomes miss out. In New Zealand, paupers and millionaires all qualify at 65 - Peters gets the pension on top of his annual parliamentary salary of almost NZ$ 200,000 (Rp1.9 billion/US$ 140,000).

Economists say this road ends at a fiscal cliff. When state pensions started in the 1900s, governments planned brief payouts knowing the grim reaper would soon relieve them of the burden. Now life expectancy has risen from the mid 60s to the early 80s. Analysts say pensions are draining the national budget at the expense of infrastructure, education and health care.

Australia has partly plugged the leak by lifting the entrance age to 67 by 2023, adding compulsory superannuation paid by employers, and tightening eligibility rules. European nations, including Britain, have made similar moves. But not New Zealand.

Former National Prime Minister John Key famously promised to quit if anyone fiddled with pension eligibility, puzzling many: how could a country of just 4.7 million people (smaller than Metro Surabaya) afford such a drain on its finances? 

The answer is the politics of pensioner power. 

A retired Kiwi couple currently receives NZ$ 576 (Rp5.5 million/USD 405) each bi-weekly after tax - 65 per cent of the net average wage. Around 16 per cent of the nation’s revenue goes on pensions, and the figure ratchets up every year.

Although the two countries are often lumped together, the former British colonies have separate political systems. 

Australian states and territories send a fixed number of senators to Canberra. All are elected by the people. New Zealand has no upper house. Since 1996 it has used the mixed-member proportional representation voting system, also used in Germany for the Bundestag election last month, and a few other states.

Kiwis get two votes, one for their local electorate candidate, and the other for a party, so can split their choice. One more crucial difference: voting in Australia is compulsory, in New Zealand it is voluntary. 

In Australia, voting no-shows are around six per cent. In the New Zealand election more than 20 per cent didn’t exercise their democratic right. The stay-aways tend to be youngsters more concerned with their pay tomorrow, not half a century ahead.

Those diligent about their civic duty are retirees, and this substantial cohort rejects any party threatening their rights.

Peters used this year’s campaign to soothe seniors who see the dapper dresser as their champion against indifferent bureaucrats. In the last decade he forced a reluctant government to allow free off-peak public transport for pensioners through a “Supergold” card. A wee matter, as Kiwis say, but positively impacting their lives.

Also appealing to the aged were NZ First’s tough policies on law and order, and what it calls “common sense and straight talk.” The party is usually labeled “nationalist” and “populist.” It wants immigration slashed to 10,000 a year from the current 70,000.

In the past Peters has spoken about the “Asian invasion,” resonating with those - mainly the aged - fearing their traditional lifestyles are under threat. For “Asians,” read Chinese – now the third largest ethnic group behind Europeans and Maoris.

Now the ever-adroit Peters says he’s not anti-Asian but wants new arrivals “to meet critical skills gaps.” He knows the Chinese, like older Kiwis, are also conservative and determined voters. He even claimed during the campaign that he had Chinese ancestry, citing research that the Maoris were descended from Taiwanese aborigines.

Victoria University of Wellington molecular bio scientist Dr Geoff Chambers reportedly commented that this seemed to be a rare instance where “politics informed science.”

In public affairs there are few certainties - but one thing is certain: age weakens, but New Zealand pensioners retain their political muscle.

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