An important opinion poll was released back in January by Curia Research, showing the country is increasingly divided. The survey asked: “Thinking now about the state of New Zealand and our society, do you think New Zealand and New Zealanders are less divided, or more divided than a year ago?”
A large majority of 72 per cent said we are more divided, with only 10 per cent believing we are less divided. Notably, some respondents felt the divisions more than others. For example, city dwellers and Government supporters felt it less – only 57 per cent of Wellingtonians and 56 per cent of Labour supporters thought divisions were increasing, compared to 83 per cent in New Zealand towns, and 78 per cent of National supporters. Nonetheless, across all demographics a majority believed that divisions were increasing.
The Human Rights Commission also reports that they are now receiving twice as many complaints about public abuse. They say, “Complaints and inquiries have gone off the richter scale. People are really stressed and angry”.
Of course, the recent Parliamentary Grounds occupation was also a sign of the growing discontent and anger. And the fact that various opinion polls showed that the protesters had significant support – perhaps a third of the country – points to more than just some fringe conspiracy theorists.
Alongside all of this, there has been a distinct rise in toxic political debate. Anger and intolerance appear to be permeating all forms of communications.
Journalists are particularly sensitive to rising toxic polarisation, as they increasingly cop nasty Twitter putdowns and threats from across the political spectrum. Over the last week there have been more articles and columns about the increasing nastiness.
For example, former press gallery broadcaster Lloyd Burr wrote: “politics has become so personal and hateful and ugly. I was a political reporter in the press gallery from 2013 until 2018 and the political climate was never like it is now.”
This means that the country’s social cohesion is under serious threat. Our ability to reasonably debate our differences and find collective solutions to problems is declining. And if this toxicity is left unaddressed, a variety of social and democratic deficits are likely to build up over the coming years. Think, for example, about the impact on quality debate and deliberation in next year’s election if toxic political polarisation continues to increase.
Growing tribalism has trumped reasonable debate
The notion that “He waka eke noa” (We are all in this together) has started to wear very thin over the last year for many New Zealanders. Divisions in society that have always existed have suddenly become much more pronounced. Ethnic and socioeconomic disparities, in particular, have become starker than ever before.
Unfortunately, the recent tendency on the centre-left has been to either ignore the existence of those growing divisions or disparage various disaffected groups. The tendency on the centre-right has been to opportunistically champion the growing grievances.
Both sides have tribal reasons for their orientations. For the centre-left the existence of growing divisions is a very inconvenient fact while their team is in power, and the centre-right want to get their team back into power by opportunistically chasing behind any sort of discontent.
Others simplistically dismiss the rising polarisation and anger as being a direct result of ignorance, conspiracy theories, and the rise of social media and internet politics.
The Covid and economic factors in toxic polarisation
Covid has been an obvious driver of polarisation. Liberal democracies throughout the world have experienced a strong correlation between the severity of the virus and subsequent toxic politics and discontent.
Quite simply, the more the pandemic has turned people’s lives upside down, the more polarisation has surged. As Lloyd Burr said last week, “what we’ve gone through, and what we are still going through is unprecedented for almost all of us. The global pandemic is straining everything. It’s ruined so much. And it’s continuing to ruin so much.”
Covid has been viewed by most as the biggest and most acute challenge since World War Two. It’s no surprise that it is now having intense political implications and sparking protests everywhere, including in New Zealand. Although the recent occupation was said to be about vaccine mandates, they were obviously also a reflection of wider alienation and discontent that has been accelerated recently.
Of course, initially in New Zealand the pandemic produced the opposite of toxic polarisation. In 2020 the country experienced incredible unity and harmony. This was due to Covid being eliminated, hence the public triumphantly “rallied around the flag” celebrating what was seen as a great “New Zealand exceptionalism”.
Divisions and political debate were papered over by this mood, and the general election of that year was unusually apolitical. The political outcome was extreme popularity for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and a 50 per cent electoral vote for Labour. Surveys showed the public had great trust in public institutions and government.
This wasn’t to last. Subsequent Covid variants were much more effective at infecting and killing New Zealanders, and the Government’s Covid management was criticised from across the political spectrum. The “team of five million” fell apart, and intolerance and division grew.
The Government’s Covid policies also created other harms and grievances. Economically, there has been an estimated transfer of a trillion dollars to the wealthy, especially driven by money printing and policies designed to inflate asset prices. Housing became even more of a crisis for those on the bottom of the economic pile. New Zealand became more of a two-tier society than ever before and that will be reflected in our politics, one way or another.
The wrong approach to polarisation: Ignore and disparage
Among partisan political commentators there has been an attempt to downplay and dismiss the growing societal divisions of the last few years. Worsening economic inequality is glossed over by supporters of the Government, an embarrassment for a Labour Government seeking re-election. They also point erroneously to public opinion surveys taken during the Ardern Government’s first term as evidence that public trust in institutions isn’t a problem – never mind that everything has changed since 2020.
On the other side, National leader Christopher Luxon has given a speech titled “A Divided Society” and initiated debates about whether the current government is “the most divisive government in recent memory”. And yet just last week he referred those in New Zealand society with the least as “bottom feeders”, explicitly excluding them as being of interest to National.
This all risks the problems of toxic polarisation becoming just another political football for left and right to aggressively kick back and forth. It will be a shame if efforts to understand and deal with growing divisions and polarisation end up being characterised by the problem itself – the tribal left disparages the existence of divisions, and the tribal right champion it disingenuously. The left sneers at the “deplorables” who are discontented, and the right seeks to find populist policies that might scratch the itch.
Of course, political polarisation has always been something of a business model for politics. Along with various social media companies and the media itself, politicians and their proxies have a vested interest in driving up outrage, promoting divisions, and stoking culture wars. It can bring in an audience or even votes, while at the same time diverting public debate and attention away from substantive issues.
It can also bring in cash donations. Witness, for example, how the Act Party has recently ran a successful fundraising campaign – raising about a million dollars from wealthy individuals like Xero founder Rod Drury.
Whether donors have supported David Seymour’s party due to its economic policies or its advocacy on ethnic and free speech issues is hard to know. But, of course, it all spirals upwards, with equally toxic “cancel culture” campaigns from the opposite side. Currently, te Pāti Māori are campaigning to cancel Xero, using a smear that Drury’s donation to Act is all about “white supremacy”.
Ultimately, this all just feeds into a culture war, when what we really need is for left and right to be focused on real solutions for the “bread and butter” concerns around jobs, housing, health, and other factors that improve people’s lives. And the rest of us must somehow learn to be less tribal, embrace critical thinking and keep our leaders focussed on the real issues and divisions.
We need to acknowledge fundamental divisions in society are growing, and recognise they are based on real pains – especially in terms of economic struggles – and then have political conversations and debates that aren’t plagued with intolerance, nastiness, and smears.
The Human Rights Commission has been running a campaign urging people to lower the temperature of political debate – to “dial it down a notch”. This seems apt, but ultimately, we also must be careful not to just suppress political differences and divisions in society.
Democracy works best when the clash of opinions and the highlighting of problems helps us find the truth and solutions. It would be a shame if this just means we are divided into different clans with hostility towards the other, and politicians with incentives to magnify animosity towards opponents.
Background reading on divisions and polarisation
Bryce Edwards (Democracy Project): Political Roundup: Brace yourself for ugly and intolerant politics
Bryce Edwards (Democracy Project): NZ not so politically and socially polarised
David Farrar: A much more divided country
Max Rashbrooke: Don’t buy the lie that we are divided
Tess McClure (Guardian): ‘What would your mother say?’ New Zealand urges citizens to wind back online rage
Peter Gluckman (Stuff): Trust and transparency are an antidote to rising autocracy