Runner-Up in the 2018 SAANZ Student Blog Competition 

Ask any New Zealander this past week who the racist, anti-feminist and immigrant-loathing individuals are bound for our shores and they would probably respond with ‘Lauren Southern’ or ‘Stefen Something’. Such was the chorus of hand flapping, cynically whipped up by our news media that these two Canadian nobodies were suddenly propelled into our national news cycle. Even more surprisingly then was that the visit of former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, a vastly more accomplished racist, anti-feminist and immigrant-loathing old fart, passed by this weekend without much fanfare at all.

Unlike Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern, both of whom lacked the profile here 3 weeks ago to mobilise any more than a hundred odd angry sods, it was the Howard Government that successfully pioneered dog whistle politics to millions of Australian voters. It was also the Howard Government who savaged the ideals of an inclusive Australia, showing just how effective outright lying can be. Howard’s masterful populism (much of which he co-opted from Pauline Hanson), was undoubtedly politicised during his 4 consecutive terms, at the expense of a more harmonious Australia.

So unapologetically divisive was Howard, it must be asked why no attempt was made to block his entry into New Zealand in the first place? Or at the very least, what happened to that loud mob of protesters primed to shout down a couple of B grade internet celebrities? Seemingly unimpeded by our Minister for Immigration Iain Lees-Galloway, Howard was instead headline act at the annual National Party conference. During his endearing rant, intended to rabble rouse the party’s conservative base, Howard opined that our electoral system was flawed and that the opposition National Party had been robbed of a 4th term in government.

That sounds a lot like incitement, sedition perhaps? Maybe Howard should have been thrown into detention until his character could be properly assessed.

Semi-joking aside, his speech, to be followed next week by Molyneux and Southern should provoke some thought as to why we so readily accept the ‘mainstreaming’ of rancid populism by our politicians, but not by others who are remarkably less significant. His visit also comes at a critical time in New Zealand politics with National Party faithful still licking their wounds following a not-so-poor result on election night. For that reason the choice by National to bring Howard over should be analysed through the recent political history of our trans-Tasman neighbour.

Firstly, National voters are still angry (and the party knows it). While MMP produced a government that fitted closely enough with how the public expected it might, many National faithful felt aggrieved that much of Winston’s retirement-home constituency probably lean blue, suggesting that a majority of the voting public would have preferred a National / NZ First government. This all played out in an eerily similar way to the 2010 Australian Federal Election where a hung parliament gave 4 independent MPs the chance to decide the next government. Despite 3 of the 4 Independents hailing from traditionally conservative seats, 3 of the 4 decided to throw their support behind Labour and return the Gillard government to power. Maintaining widespread incredulity for the next 3 years was a useful way for the Liberal Party to keep its supporters active until the next election.

Secondly, tax cuts are easy while ‘doing stuff’ is hard; the Rudd government (2007 – 2010) tried doing both. Through raising the threshold on middle income brackets and instigating a series of poorly managed infrastructure programs, federal Labour pissed away wads of money faster than a full house of yobs at the MCG.  The outcome was (cue the surprise) bloody terrible mate; ballooning fiscal deficits and shoddy workmanship all of which were rightfully eviscerated by the Australian media.

Enter 2018 and New Zealand Labour’s marquee housing policy: Kiwibuild. To be an unmitigated success, Labour must nurse Kiwibuild along parallel tightropes of ‘on time’ and ‘on budget’ while also meeting the public’s expectation of ‘affordable’ all while hoping that the existing property market (read: artificially inflated ponzi scheme) does not collapse. The Australian experience suggests that any (perceived) failure with Kiwibuild could be enough to propel Mr Bridges (or insert opposition MP here) into the role of Prime Minister at the next election. And if it were Mr Bridges to ride a wave of righteous vindication back into government, one might fairly characterise him as sufficiently close ideologically speaking to that of Tony Abbott, the man mentored by Howard who led the Australian Liberal Party to a landslide victory in 2013.

That’s what makes Howard so iconic to conservatives across Australasia and an attractive keynote speaker for National as they look to hustle their way back into power. Not only did Howard spend more than a decade freezing out a socially liberal reform agenda, he established a political culture of ‘traditional’ Australian values that aided his party’s return to office less than 6 years later. The consequence of National springing back in to government under Bridges would also be equally comparable to that of Abbot, as reforms earmarked by progressives (in areas such as criminal justice) are either unwound or kicked to touch.

Which again begs the question, who should the activists have been more animated about these past few weeks? Two uneducated Canadian Youtubers or a former Australian statesman?

Luke Oldfield is a PhD student at the University of Auckland, he’s studying Political Marketing in the interests of overcoming Penal Populism, he writes for the blog, where this blog was originally posted.