New Zealand society is increasingly made up of atomised individuals who are disinclined to participate in public life and politics, and when they actually do participate, they do so more as individuals than as members of groups. Third parties from business groups, to trade unions, through to the Freemasons and the Countrywomen’s Institute – as well as environmental and socialist groups – have been in significant decline. This blog post details the decline of such societal organisations in NZ. [Read more below]
One of the overwhelming reasons that New Zealand political parties no longer have strong linkages with third parties is because organised political social forces and movements have dissipated under the recent suspension of class conflict. The old schism of labour and socialism versus business and capitalism collapsed in the 1980s and 1990s, and this has had significant consequences for parliamentary politics in New Zealand’s traditionally class-based party system. The decline of the class cleavage in society has helped disconnect the old parties of both left and right from their traditional social roots, distinctive ideologies and supportive societal organisations. A similar argument has been made by sociologist Frank Furedi, in terms of the United Kingdom:
The erosion of old loyalties and the break-up of the old political patterns have resulted from the suspension of class conflict. The suspension of collective conflict between workers, on the one hand, and the employers and authorities on the other has also encouraged the individuation of political life, a situation in which people think and act more as individuals than as members of a group or social class. Many of the old constituencies have disintegrated (Furedi, 1995).
Collective action has been on the decline generally throughout the Western world, and especially in New Zealand where social movements and formerly strong extra-parliamentary political groups have become shadows of their former selves. According to Jack Vowles:
Group membership in general was high from the 1960s through to the early 1980s. However, the high point of single-issue group activity in recent New Zealand history was during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when anti-nuclear, anti-racist, and environmental activism proliferated. Party membership also increased substantially over the period, indicating a process of general political mobilisation (Vowles, 1998e: p.14).
Then during the 1980s and 1990s there was huge political upheaval due to neoliberal economic reforms, yet the response from the left in society was minimal. By the end of the 1990s the level of public protest was at a relative low. Few people protested about anything. Compared to this, Jackson noted that ‘In the four years from January 1967 to the end of November 1970, no less than 339 different demonstrations in New Zealand were reported in the Christchurch Press, an average of more than one per week’ (Jackson, 1973: p.164; see also: Trotter, 1995d: p.6).
Organisations on the left went into decline in the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps as a result of the economic restructuring and lack of resistance, the demoralised institutions of the left are now in a poor state, with few having any real significance in modern New Zealand society. For instance, CORSO has only a fraction of its 1980s prominence, the Coalition for Public Health had dissolved, Halt All Racist Tours (HART) is also defunct, and the Auckland Unemployed Workers Union is very quiet. [HART dissolved itself after the African National Conference declared that international sporting contact with South Africa could resume.]
In contrast to the 1970s and 1980s when there were a number of significant feminist organisations, there is now none of any prominence. The National Council of Women used to represent about 250,000 women through its affiliated organisations, but has recently discussed dissolution (Cleveland, 1972: p.93; Page, 1996). Similarly, the long-running feminist magazine, Broadsheet, ceased publication in 1997. On the far-left, too, the most significant Marxist organisations of the 1970s – the Communist Party, the Socialist Action League, the Socialist Unity Party, and the Workers Communist League – have all disappeared. The most prominent extra-parliamentary left-wing organisations are now the Workers Party, the Socialist Workers Organisation, the Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA), Arena, and Global Peace and Justice Auckland. But few of these have any significant membership or relevance. Jane Kelsey has acknowledged the lack of the political left in New Zealand:
New Zealand’s political environment became so dumbed down, and the left so marginalised, that when even business leaders and economic commentators began to concede in the late 1990s that the experiment had failed, no-one was able to capitalise on the opportunity. There was a dearth of critical analysis from the media, academics, the churches and non-government organisations (Kelsey, 2002: pp.62-63).
Organisations that are neither left nor right have also been less than significant. Grey Power is about the only social movement to have any real organising capacity in relation to elections in the 1990s. Similarly, no Maori groups have any long-lasting and significant influence on national politics. Interestingly, the right and conservative political groups and institutions have fared little better than those of the left. No longer do these organisations hold much sway in shaping the political agenda. In particular, conservative and right-wing groups like the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC), the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards (SPCS) and other far-right or racist organisations are rarely heard of or have much influence in society. The newly-created Maxim Institute is a morally conservative interest group, but one with few apparent connections with political parties (See: Collett, 2003).
Even the Business Roundtable has faded from public view and now has less credibility than before. Between the mid-1980s and early 1990s the Roundtable provided many of the innovative ideas and arguments to push through neoliberal economic reform, yet in recent years it has more often found itself on the losing side of battles. This started most famously with the Roundtable’s involvement in the unsuccessful anti-MMP campaign in 1993. As Steve Maharey argued, ‘the fact that [anti-MMP spokesperson] Peter Shirtcliffe was identified as a Roundtable figure made it certain that the campaign would be lost’ (Harris and Twiname, 1998: p.190).
According to Bruce Cronin ‘the Roundtable has been weakened in the 1990s because of the relative economic decline of its core, finance sector, membership’ (Harris and Twiname, 1998: p.182). Cronin ‘argues that evidence of the current weakness of the Roundtable is that it has failed to defeat the farming industry over the existence of the producer boards and their statutory monopoly over exports’ (Harris and Twiname, 1998: p.182). See also Tenbensel (2001: p.329), and Kelsey (2002: p.76).
Pointedly the Clark-Labour Government has refused to deal with the Business Roundtable while dealing with other non-aligned businesspeople as well as less dogmatic organisations such as the Business Council for Sustainable Development and Businesses for Social Responsibility. Related to this, in recent years there have been many resignations of disillusioned members from the Roundtable (Rotherham, 2000).
Part of the decline in the influence and size of societal groups is simply due to a dramatic decrease of the public’s willingness to be involved in politics. There has been a withdrawal from politics by the public and New Zealand has shifted significantly from being a society characterised by high levels of political efficacy and participation to one where voter turnout is low and party membership is tiny. Similarly, dissatisfaction with public life has also led to a wider disillusionment with other non-political groups. Almost all major public institutions from Federated Farmers to the churches have been affected by the decline in popular participation.
Even some environmental groups have been on the decline – for example, between 1985 and 1998 Greenpeace’s membership halved from 60,000 to 30,000 (Hawkins, 1998: p.5). While there are still some organisations that can attract a high number of members, the nature of this participation is open to question. For example, the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand claims over 40,000 members and 56 branches, but what level of participation is involved beyond sending in an annual membership fee is not known. Similarly, religious affiliations have been declining for decades. Between the 1991 and 1996 censuses, religious denominations fell significantly, with declines for Anglicans of 100,284; Presbyterians, 82,761; Catholics, 25,500; Methodists, 17,844; Baptists, 16,542; and Ratana, 11,142 (Department of Statistics, 2000).
Long-established mass organisations such as the Freemasons and the Countrywomen’s Institute have lost large numbers of their members. The Freemason’s Society is in significant decline, with its membership dropping from 48,000 in 1964 to only 14,300 in 2000 (Bone, 2002b: p.29). Similarly, ‘Jaycees – once the largest service organisation in New Zealand – now has only 16 clubs, and most service clubs have experienced similar problems’ (McNeill, 2002). Likewise, recruitment levels for the SPCA, the Scouts, Guides and Boys and Girls Brigades are now much lower than 20 years ago. New Zealand society today is more atomised and individuated, a situation that discourages a strong party-society relationship.
The decline in class politics has, of course, also affected business organisations, making them less political. …. since the 1950s – but especially since the end of the Cold War – collective business funding has declined, and corporations and wealthy individuals now make donations directly to political parties without the aid of intermediary business organisations. According to Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, in the UK:
The system of corporate versus trade union funding of politics probably reached a peak at the time when political conflict itself was based predominantly on class lines, with a party of business and of the middle classes competing against a party of the workers. Since the 1960s, the economies of Western countries have developed from an industrial to a ‘post-industrial’ stage (Pinto-Duschinsky, 1998).
The erosion of ideology in the party system also reinforces the severing of ties between movements and parties. It can be argued that the encouragement of consensual politics creates barriers against the emergence of new ideas and movements. Differences and disagreements are minimalised and politics becomes less about principles and debate, and more about organisation and real politick, meaning that parties become less receptive to fresh ideas and new social elements.