As some readers of this fine weekly will know, my family and I spent eleven wonderful years living and working in New Zealand. From 1993 to 2004 I was in the law faculty of the University of Otago in Dunedin, right down near the bottom of the south island. It was a superb law school and an excellent university – plus, the Australian university disease of managerialism run riot and top-down decision-making on steroids (by a coterie of vice-chancellors and deputy vice-chancellors who, in statistical terms, were second-rate academics themselves, if that, and almost all lefties) had yet to reach New Zealand’s shores. (Sidenote: On arriving into the world of Australian universities in 2005 my consistent advice to all my old New Zealand uni friends was that no Kiwi university should hire any Aussie, ever, for a university management position – the model of good uni governance in Oz was/is the former East Germany, or on a good day General Motors of the 1950s. They didn’t listen and New Zealand’s universities are now much of a muchness with Aussie ones in terms of managerialism run riot, wokeness and HR ‘process-is-everything’ thinking.)
And throughout my time in New Zealand I always worried about, and wrote against, their MMP über-proportional voting system. Half the MPs get into Parliament because their party’s faceless men and women simply put them at the top of a list they draw up, voters’ wishes be damned; vested party interests love it. And worse, as with all proportional voting systems, all the key negotiating to form a big tent or broad church coalition happens after the election – away from the glare of the voters – not before the election as with majoritarian voting systems here, in the US, Britain and Canada. Sooner or later this would come back to bite New Zealand, I figured. And boy did it ever do so.
Here’s the background. The main conservative party in New Zealand is the National party and for years they formed government under Prime Minister John Key. Others rated him far more highly than I ever did. He was a competent economic manager who would not fight the culture wars. Moreover, in the referendum held to think again about MMP Mr Key barely got involved till the very end. Had he invested some of his then significant political capital I think the Kiwis would have ditched this awful voting system. Instead, a few years later, he threw himself into the referendum to change the flag. It got slaughtered. Talk about not being able to distinguish what matters from what doesn’t! But my point above relates to the very first election after John Key stood down, the one in 2017. Under his replacement as prime minister, Bill English, the National party got 44.5 per cent of the party vote (the one that really matters in MMP); Labour got just under 37 per cent; the Greens got 6 per cent; and NZ First under a maverick leader Winston Peters got a bit over 7 per cent. In seats that was 56 to 46, 8 and 9 (plus one to a Thatcherite party ACT, all the votes for other parties being wasted below the threshold). In any other voting system in the Anglosphere, beating your main party opponent by over eight per cent is a landslide to you. But Winston Peters, a disaffected former National party politician, opted to put Jacinda Ardern and Labour into power. I daresay if you had polled those who voted for his NZ First party almost none of them would have agreed with this choice, or made it themselves. But in all proportional systems, of course, they aren’t asked.
It’s the party establishment and the insiders who decide. Nevertheless, that is what Peters did. Ardern was then lionised by the left-wing media (I repeat myself) in a way only Justin Trudeau could understand. Covid came along. And at the end of last year, with Kiwis being as pathetically sheep-like as Aussies about despotic lockdowns, Ardern won a massive landslide election win.
Since then we have seen all sorts of left-wing activism out of the Ardern government, much of it not signalled to the voters – the NZ government has doled out tens of millions of dollars to big media if they promise to toe the government line on Maori issues related to the Treaty; it is moving against local councils on water issues and restructuring health, both under the aegis of an identity politics, illiberal worldview that will have awful long-term consequences. But perhaps the worst effect is how this Ardern government’s Maori activism has turned supposedly august bodies devoted to reason and the pursuit of truth into politically correct, cancel culture vassals of the government’s worldview. Toby Young has written in the Speccie about the degradation of New Zealand’s Royal Society. When a government working group proposed that Maori mythology be placed on the same level as modern science, seven eminent scientists wrote a letter ‘In Defence of Science’ (one of them being part-Maori himself and an eminent biochemist). This anodyne letter, with its patently true claims that Maori mythology is not science, led to the all too-typical cancel culture on steroids. The letter writers were denounced by all sorts of the great and good, including by the vice-chancellor of Auckland University (grounds for the VC to be dismissed immediately in my view). Worst of all, the New Zealand Royal Society (which has Kiwi roots going back to 1867 and back to Britain and such luminaries as Joseph Banks and Christopher Wren before that) opted to take up a complaint against these ‘heretics’, a complaint that – disgracefully and shamefully – was signed by more than 2,000 New Zealand academics. A panel has been set up to investigate.
What bollocks! If someone wrote a letter saying creationism and its proponents were not advancing a scientific theory no one in the Royal Society would bat an eyelid. That’s because such views about the empirical world have no truth content. Same goes for Maori mythology. So either these couple of thousand Kiwi academics and the upper echelons of the Royal Society (which should have laughed this complaint out of court) are stupid and know nothing about the scientific worldview. Or, and this for most of them is the real answer, they are pusillanimous cowards. Like me they are perfectly aware of the difference between pseudo-religious claims about the world and scientific ones that involve falsifiable hypotheses.
But they are afraid to go against the modern world’s equivalent of the Church, deeming what can and cannot be said. Anyone with any integrity who happens to be a member of the Royal Society of New Zealand should be resigning in protest. If you’re not openly and bravely against cancel culture and the dogma of brutish identity politics, you’re part of the problem.
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