Senior moments, NZ First and power

The United States touts itself (very debatably) as the oldest continuous nation-state democracy. So perhaps it is not surprising that its Congress has had a senior moment.

The United States has a chronic federal fiscal problem which at some point it will have to address with higher taxes (many Democrats) or lower spending (many Republicans) or both (many middle-ground Democrats and Republicans).

The Democrats control the Senate and the Republicans the House of Representatives. Usually they compromise but both parties played hard on the budget till the money began to run out. The House speaker, Republican John Boehner, who controls the agenda, would not put a “clean” budget-approval motion which Democrats plus some moderate Republicans would have passed. He stuck to his party’s rule requiring majority Republican approval for any motion.

Boehner’s problem was a viral infection of his party by the Tea Party, an amalgam of anti-establishment populists with a mythical/mystical vision of the nation’s (white) origins and bountifully-funded hardline small-government ideologues. Tea Partiers appear to believe health care for the worst-off will bring down their nation, so demanded the modest 2010 health care law be “defunded” as a condition of passing the budget. The Democrats said agreeing to that would invite future blackmails on budget votes. This puerile game was still playing as this was written.

Tea Partiers unseated or beat some moderate conservative Republicans for the party’s candidacies in recent elections. Those left fear such attacks more than they fear Democrats, from whom their gerrymandered seats have made them unassailable.

The Tea Party’s populism is in part a product of social and economic stress which has hit middling people hard. Across Europe populist parties with a wide range of gripes and “solutions”, from far “right” to far “left”, have won support, in some cases sizable.

Mostly, populism is manageable within regular politics. But at times extremists or ideologues piggy-back on or take over populist surges. In Europe in the 1930s the outcome was highly toxic.

Come nearer home, to Australia, last week declared by Credit Suisse the world’s wealthiest nation per capita but for all that looking a bit stressed (as the rich often do). Populism surfaced in last month’s elections.

Far more voters left Labor than moved to the Liberal-National coalition. Many went to micro and oddball parties which won five (or six, depending on a recount) Senate seats. The Motoring Enthusiast party (led by an unemployed man) got there off an initial vote below 0.5 per cent, thanks to a manufactured “ticket” agreement among the myriad non-mainstream parties to give each other their single-transferable-vote preferences.

And here?

In the 1990s, populist reaction to the stress of radical economic deregulation went “left” to NewLabour (actually old Labour) and “right” to Winston Peters and New Zealand First. Peters promoted an “old National” mix of economic and social nationalism, which was reassuring to pre-baby-boomer “ordinary blokes” (1975-84 National Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon’s populist label), for whom he got the pension protected and the oldies’ gold card.

NewLabour had an extremist wing. Peters is not an extremist and his dominance as leader preserves his party from takeover by extremist ideologues. In different times from those of the baby-boomers’ post-1984 freedom revolution it is nearly conceivable he could have led National.

But Peters did what populists do at their peril. He joined mainstream-party governments: Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer for 20 months with National and then fired and a term with Labour as Foreign Affairs Minister, with time on the bench while funding allegations were dealt with. After each spell in office, his party vote plunged, to 4.3 per cent in 1999, though he held Tauranga, and in 2008 to 4.1 per cent and out of Parliament.

What Peters does after the 2014 election will be the subtext at his party’s conference this coming weekend. (First, of course, the party has to clear 5 per cent, a reasonable prospect, though note that Labour is now back in business and John Key is unlikely to boost him as in 2011.)

Peters is said to so deeply resent Key’s and National’s treatment of him in 2008 as to rule out collaboration or even cooperation. He did not respond to Key on the spy-on-everyone bill. He did work well with Labour in office and often agrees with it and the Greens but has deep disagreements with both.

One option, if Peters holds the balance of power, would be to sit on the cross-benches, allowing a government to stay in office in return for concessions.

On such matters Peters will this weekend be his habitual elusive self. But, as he showed by taking office, there is also a Peters who seeks respectability.

Peters is in the gold card age zone and our democracy is one of the oldest continuous ones. Still, so far neither appears headed for a senior moment.