A Populist Exception? The 2017 New Zealand General Election, eds Jack Vowles and Jennifer Curtin. Canberra: ANU Press, 2020, pp.286+xvi. Print: AU$60, ISBN 9781760463854. Online: free, ISBN 9781760463861.


The dust is settling on New Zealand’s 2020 general election. There are still about 480,000 special votes to count—overseas voters, people who registered on election day, and similar—but it is clear that Jacinda Ardern has led the Labour Party to a resounding victory. On the preliminary results, Labour has received the greatest swing in its history, a swing all the more remarkable because the Green Party also improved its vote and the Māori Party appears to have returned to parliament by wresting an electorate off Labour.


New Zealand’s mixed-member proportional system began at the 1996 election and Labour will form the first majority government since its introduction. The centre-right National Party slumped to its second-worst result in its 84-year history, bogged in scandals and two leadership changes. The right-wing libertarian ACT Party benefited from National’s malaise, securing its highest-ever vote, but New Zealand First (NZF), led by deputy prime minister Winston Peters, won too few votes to re-enter parliament. Despite concerns that Covid-19 might dent voter attendance, voter turnout of 82.5% is the highest since 1999.


How did New Zealand reach this point? There will be many analyses to come of the campaign. It is worth looking back, though, to the 2017 general election that brought Ardern to power. She gained the Labour leadership just seven weeks before election day, reviving her party from opinion polls around 24% to a vote of 37%. National won 44.5% but, for the first time, the largest party in parliament did not become a party of government: the Greens and NZF both supported Labour.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. NZ PMO, PR Handout Image. Via AAP Photos.


ANU Press has published a thorough analysis of the 2017 election, edited by two esteemed professors of politics, Jack Vowles and Jennifer Curtin. Vowles’ fingerprints appear throughout: of the nine chapters, he (co-)wrote six. Yet, as the acknowledgements reveal, much work by many people went into this volume. It is no collection of “hot takes” disguised as scholarship; it is rooted in data from the 2017 New Zealand Election Study (NZES), the tenth edition of a survey that has run alongside every election since 1990.


As indicated by the title, A Populist Exception? places the 2017 election within the context of international trends towards ideological polarisation. Populism is a label rarely adopted voluntarily; it is often applied pejoratively. The first chapter, by Fiona Barker and Vowles, considers carefully what populism is and how it has functioned in New Zealand. This chapter’s theoretical overview makes it invaluable for readers with interests beyond the geographical or temporal bounds of the book.


Barker and Vowles show that characterising populism as inherently authoritarian or illiberal is mistaken. They synthesise, revise, and reject various definitions, suggesting that populism functions both as scepticism of “elites” possessing superior wisdom and as a rhetorical strategy employed by politicians whose actual policies are not populist. They emphasise that populism can take pluralistic forms that appeal to “the people” in their diversity.


New Zealand has some experience of authoritarian populists, notably Rob Muldoon, prime minister from 1975–84. The stronger tradition, however, is of pragmatic, pluralistic populists such as Richard Seddon, Michael Joseph Savage, and Norman Kirk. In a later chapter, Vowles explains that, on the face of it, New Zealand’s political structure should appeal to populists and authoritarians alike—a unitary state without safeguards limiting legislative or executive power (p.108). But both attitudes take moderate expression in New Zealand: populists lean towards Labour, with authoritarianism more correlated with voting National. Populists might be unsatisfied with democracy, but they support it. Vowles speculates this might be because Labour was out of power since 2008—disappointment with the results of democratic processes but not a rejection of them (p.114). Another potential surprise is in Vowles’ final single-authored chapter, where populists emerge as the strongest supporters of multi-party government (p.263). He uses this to question the framing of populism and anti-pluralism as closely associated.


The distinctiveness of New Zealand’s political culture emerges throughout this book. Overseas commentators struggle to characterise NZF, some claiming in 2017 that its role in forming government showed the rise of Trumpian politics. In Australia, this drew on mischaracterisations of NZF as the trans-Tasman analogue of One Nation. Labour forming government with NZF did not suggest authoritarian populism had captured New Zealand. Vowles uses NZES data to show that NZF’s support was declining in 2017 and he suggests that Winston Peters is in the twilight of his career (p.64). NZF’s exit from parliament this election shows Vowles’ analysis as prescient.


The second chapter (Vowles) and third (Lara Greaves and Vowles) discuss the stability of New Zealand’s party system and seek to measure populist and authoritarian attitudes among various groups. There is an especially interesting generational breakdown—the oldest and youngest New Zealanders are less populist than generations between. NZES data shows that Labour and National’s traditional urban/rural divide remains, crosscut by socio-economic distinctions that have evolved from occupational status to differences in assets and property. Labour’s success this year in regional areas normally considered National heartlands will provide much material for future analysis.


Bucking international trends that associate populism with white men, Māori and Pasifika respondents score higher on populist and authoritarian sentiments. Greaves and Vowles argue that this reflects the historic unresponsiveness of governments to Māori and Pasifika grievances, and Greaves examines this further with Janine Hayward in a chapter on Māori. They emphasise that Māori politics, especially the seven Māori electorates, are distinctive features of New Zealand politics that disrupt conventional assumptions about populism (p.213). They also underscore that opposition to Māori electorates is associated with authoritarianism and preferences for majoritarianism, not with populism and especially not its pluralist form (p.235).


Kate McMillan and Matthew Gibbons tackle an important issue: the role of immigration in New Zealand politics in light of right-wing anti-immigration populist parties overseas. McMillan and Gibbons argue that the proportional electoral system and the ability of resident non-citizens to vote create incentives for parties to woo rather than alienate minority communities. Compared to voters in the UK or US, New Zealanders are much less likely to view immigration as the most important issue (p.155). McMillan and Gibbons conclude that in this sense, New Zealand is a populist exception. Anti-immigration rhetoric hews more closely to traditional concerns in the labour movement about wages, infrastructure, and housing.


New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, with Labour MP Duncan Webb (left) and Climate Change Minister James Shaw (right). Image credit David Rowland, via AAP Photos.

Curtin and Greaves contribute an especially valuable chapter on the role of gender and populism. Populist leaders, especially right-wing authoritarians, are usually men. Curtin and Greaves argue persuasively that Ardern’s inclusive, positive electoral rhetoric—containing a pluralist populism where diversity makes society better for all—left little room for oppositional authoritarian populism. They also include a welcome critique of condescending narratives about “Jacindamania”.


Curtin and Vowles are unfortunate that global events rapidly outpaced their concluding chapter. They write on Covid-19 from the perspective of April 2020, suggesting that it made the election harder to predict. By the time the book came out, the landscape was different: Ardern and Labour had overseen a world-leading response and confirmed their competence as policymakers and communicators. When polls opened, the main question was whether Labour could win an unprecedented majority. We now know they will, even if the special votes boost the Greens’ total.


A populist exception? is available through ANU Press.

In coming days, we will learn the election’s final figures as well as the outcome of referendums on cannabis and euthanasia. This year’s NZES is also under way. A Populist Exception? is a rigorous and invaluable study of the 2017 election and a volume on the 2020 election will be awaited with interest.

André Brett
André Brett

Dr André Brett is a historian at the University of Wollongong. He is the author of three books, including Acknowledge No Frontier: The Creation and Demise of New Zealand’s Provinces, 1853–76 (Otago University Press). A fourth book is forthcoming on New Zealand’s shrinking passenger rail network, and he is currently writing a manuscript on the environmental history of railways in colonial Australasia.