Political partisanship: is New Zealand becoming more polarised?

New Zealand has, for the most part, held out against the worst aspects of partisan politics of other countries. 

Take the relationship between Democrats and Republicans in the United States, or the Brexiters and Remainers in the UK; there exists between the two sides a hostility that borders on hatred and disgust.  

When leaders of these groups exhibit hostility towards the opposing side, the same behaviour is accepted or normalised towards the supporters. 

Understanding the other side’s point of view, even if one disagrees with it, is central to any hope for civility in civic life. But in many cases, attempts to rationalise a position or argument by either side are often met with contempt or, at times, aggression. There have even been instances of families and friendships splintering or businesses being targeted because of someone voting for Trump or Brexit.  

Covid-19 only further exacerbated the situation. In the United States, the hyper-partisanship that had been simmering away for the best part of a decade boiled over into an almost uncontrollable state. Both sides feared the other either maintaining or gaining power at the election, afraid that the return of civility wouldn’t be possible with ‘the other side’ leading the country. 

Even with Joe Biden as President, America remains hopelessly divided. 

Back at home, Labour and National voters don’t treat each other with that same hostility. In comparison with other Western nations, New Zealand has always been a relatively relaxed country, politically speaking. It’s still possible to be friends with someone who votes a different way. 

But as the rest of the world becomes increasingly more polarised, is blind partisanship starting to creep into New Zealand? 

Analysis undertaken by the US’s National Bureau of Economic Research looking at long-term trends in affective polarisation – people’s negative feelings towards those of the opposing party – argues that partisanship has risen in New Zealand over time.  

Indeed, public opinion in the wake of Covid-19 would seem to support this hypothesis. 

During the first few months of Covid-19’s arrival in New Zealand, there was a genuine sense of unity felt across the country. You just needed to look at the polling to see that.  

But when it became clear that the virus had been contained and we returned to normal life, cracks in that unity started to appear. 

If anyone dared to criticise the continued handling of the pandemic – such as the multiple failures at the border in the latter months of 2020 – supporters of the Government would accuse them of anything from being a part of Plan B, to actually wanting thousands of New Zealanders to die. 

Disapproval expressed about Jacinda Ardern or Labour more generally in the months leading up to the election was considered taboo, particularly online. Being supportive of the Government’s overall response to Covid-19 was irrelevant if you were critical; to do so meant you weren’t a loyal member of the ‘team of five million.’  

The focused has shifted in 2021 to the success – or failure – of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout. 

In recent weeks and months, most media coverage has described it as a shambles. And while the public might not be too fussed, most would agree that it isn’t going smoothly. 

Hipkins and Ardern haven’t exactly done themselves any favours on this front. Promising to be at the front of the queue while declaring 2021 to be the year of the vaccine were unfortunate statements made by a government that has a questionable record of delivery. 

But right on cue, any criticism of the state of New Zealand’s vaccine rollout causes an outcry amongst Labour cheerleaders, evoking a similar sentiment to Greta Thunberg’s “how dare you?” It is almost treated as blasphemy.  

Equally, there are others who refuse to admit that the Government’s response to the pandemic was appropriate and one of the best in the world. Any attempts to reason with them fall short. 

These reactions – from both staunch supporters and detractors of the Government – demonstrates a total inability to accept that two things can be true at once. Either things are as good as we can expect or as bad as they could be.  

It should be acceptable to hold the position that New Zealand’s response to Covid-19 was a good one while simultaneously being critical of it when things go wrong – particularly when they are avoidable – without fear of the response you might receive. 

Of course, New Zealand isn’t anywhere near close to having the same levels of political partisanship and polarisation as in other countries. No one’s businesses or relationships are at risk because of voting preference – yet. 

But the current environment is one that, if left to fester, could see us succumb to the same sorry state of affairs that we see in the likes of America.  

I don’t like the idea of New Zealand as a country where political opponents are also political enemies. Do you? 

Monique Poirier has a Masters degree in Political Studies, and is a former small business owner and Parliamentary staffer. She is the Campaigns Manager for the Auckland Ratepayers’ Alliance.

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