In many ways, the essential story of New Zealand over the last hundred years or so has been our search for security.
Whether it be security from want, or unemployment, homelessness, or cultural alienation, it has always been a constant
theme which has occupied the minds of successive governments over the years.
The search for security in the aftermath of the Great Depression inspired the first Labour Government’s comprehensive
social security scheme of 1938, which, through many subsequent changes and modifications, has remained a cornerstone of
our society ever since. In the more affluent times of the early 1950s, the focus shifted more to community security,
with the bizarre 1954 Mazengarb Report linking declining traditional moral standards and teenage delinquency. The then
National Government found the report so compelling (in other words, politically helpful) that it mailed a copy of it to
every household in the country on the eve of that year’s General Election.
From the 1960s, the focus shifted to the gangs, with successive governments trying to play a strong law and order card
to their political advantage, while the gangs flourished and strengthened their links to organised crime. Since the
Māori renaissance began in the 1970s, there has been far greater emphasis on the security of Māori and righting
injustices and historic wrongs of colonial settlement times from the nineteenth century. More recently, especially in
the wake of the Christchurch Mosque attacks and other similar, though far less horrific situations, has come a new focus
on security from extremism. And, of course, we have just gone through the last two years of seeking security from the
pandemic and all the changes that has forced upon us.
Throughout these years, governments have been at the forefront of attempted solutions to these various threats to
security. Some of the solutions have worked, most have not. In 1951, the Holland National Government brought back
capital punishment to curb what it saw as the rising murder rate – miniscule by today’s standards – only for the next
National Government under Holyoake to abolish it a decade later. In the early 1970s Norman Kirk promised to “take the
bikes off the bikies” and “knock inflation for six” to protect communities and living standards. However, the bikies
kept their bikes, and inflation rose three-fold during the term of the 1972-75 Labour Government.
Nearly fifty years later, after all the social and economic changes of the 1980s and 1990s, and the broad continuity of
policy under governments of both the left and the right in that time, the basic issues of economic and community
security remain. While the strength of feeling waxes and wanes, the constant is that the greater the level of insecurity
perceived in the community, the greater the level of political risk to the government.
At present, a combination of factors is elevating concerns about security to a much higher level than in recent years.
The explosion in the cost of living and rising mortgage interest rates currently hitting households hard is perhaps the
most obvious. It owes much to the global spike in inflation caused by the economic upheavals of the pandemic.
For the public, however, such explanations are just mere excuses which do not help their struggle at all. Their
reactions are more visceral – they know what the problem is (they are experiencing it, after all) and they expect the
government to resolve it – now. Arguably, the current government’s moves to suspend fuel excise tax and temporarily
subsidise public transport costs by 50% are significant steps to lowering household costs. But more significant, and
more telling politically, is this week’s opinion poll showing that 78% of voters (including 60% of Labour supporters) do
not think the government is doing enough to curb the rising cost of living.
A similar story is likely to emerge with the spate of ram raids on shops now occurring mainly in Auckland but elsewhere
as well. Concern has already been expressed at the very young age of some of the alleged offenders, and links are being
made between that and school non-attendance rates of up to 40% in some areas in the wake of the pandemic. The
government’s promised response of a multimillion-dollar package over the next four years, to be announced in the Budget,
looks good for the future but will do nothing immediately. So, the ram raids look likely to continue and the frustration
and anger of affected shopkeepers and local communities will rise accordingly.
It might be argued that expecting immediate solutions is unrealistic. That is undoubtedly so, but voters still expect
governments to provide immediate solutions, even to the most intractable of problems, and show them little tolerance
when they fail to do so.
Aside from the specific impacts of the rising cost of living and the spate of ram raids and other robberies, serious
enough for any government facing an election in eighteen months’ time, the added problem is that they are occurring
against the backdrop of the pandemic. Whatever else it has done the pandemic has introduced new and unprecedented levels
of uncertainty and anxiety into the community, which are exacerbating the more traditional economic and community safety
anxieties now being experienced.
The government’s problem (not initially of its own making, although it will bear the consequences) is that the
uncertainty of the last two years has created a sense of community impatience and fatigue. People are simply tired and
frustrated by everything that has happened and now just want resolution – as soon as possible. Explanations no longer
seem reasonable – they just appear like more excuses. The phenomenon is not unique to New Zealand – the French who
re-elected President Emmanuel Macron by a comfortable margin one week, were out on the streets a week later protesting
at his policies.
Sadly, we are moving into a time where the appeal of simplistic solutions and slogans looks set to increase. As we have
seen this week, even the discredited snake-oil merchants of our past sense a new opportunity to peddle their loathsome
ideas once more. Opinion polls already showing the government on the cusp of losing office will add to the pressures and
risks it will face over the next year or so. On the one hand, it will want to show voters it both understands their
plight and is in control of the situation, but, on the other hand, it will be increasingly wary of alienating its
falling support further. It faces a difficult balancing act.
However, New Zealand’s ongoing search for security transcends the life of any government. Change occurs when people have
had enough of the status quo, not because of the ideological flavour on offer. Labour’s overwhelming task today is far
less about achieving its own dreams and aspirations than it is about persuading people it is upholding their living
standards and keeping their communities safe.
It looks set to become increasingly difficult to achieve.
MY SECOND WEEKLY COLUMN IS ON NEWSROOM.CO.NZ