By Elle Morrell
AUCKLAND — When the New Zealand Labour government was turned out of office in 1990, the party was at an all-time low in popularity. Then, within months of being elected in a landslide, the incoming National Party government of Jim Bolger was equally unpopular.
New Zealand voters haven't yet had a chance to deliver their final judgment on Bolger's government, but when they do there's a good chance they'll break the two-party mould of New Zealand politics by electing a new coalition — the Alliance, made up of NewLabour, the Greens, the Democrats, Mana Motuhake and the Liberals.
Many New Zealanders don't think the existing political system is delivering the sort of government they want. In a recent referendum they voted heavily for a new, European-style system of preferential voting which would allow representation of a bigger range of parties in parliament.
At the centre of these exciting changes is NewLabour, a party that broke away from Labour out of disgust with its policies in government. NewLabour took much of the traditional rank-and-file base of Labour, and has built on that since then, recruiting heavily in working-class areas and among youth, and actively seeking the links which have led to the formation of the Alliance.
Quentin Findlay, a member of the NewLabour national council, is typical of the wave of young activists joining the Alliance parties. "Labour and National are the same", he says, "Neither offers a future for young people." He expects the Alliance to come up with answers to New Zealand's disastrous unemployment and broader questions of social and economic empowerment for groups including the young, women, Maoris and Islanders, and disabled people.
Gary Holmes, president of the Young Democrats, has similar concerns. He says the combination of high unemployment, a user-pays education system, expensive health care and other results of a decade of monetarism have left the country with the world's highest teenage suicide rate.
Findlay, Holmes and many others gathered here recently for the inaugural conference of the Alliance, a meeting riding high on the entirely justified hope that it could be preparing the next government of New Zealand — one that would take the country in a fundamentally new direction.
Vanessa York, a 22 year-old university student, is hoping for a turn away from the authoritarianism that has grown in step with the rise in poverty and social problems. "We've got people talking about curfews for young people at the moment. This government doesn't want to admit that there is an unemployment problem, but we're starting to know what is going on and to stand up for our rights."
Lyndsay McAteer, another NewLabour activist, is excited about the breadth and diversity of the new coalition: "We come from all over the place and from all sorts of different groups: youth groups, gay activists, sports groups. What's really promising is that we're encouraging diverse and constructive discussion."
Debra Boyask "never intended to get involved in politics", but she got angry with "the Labour Party breaking practically every promise it had made to get elected. I would have been a Labour voter in the early '80s, but looking at the monetarist policies of both the major parties angered me sufficiently to look for an alternative, which was the NLP at the time. Now the Alliance gives us a chance to really be part of the political process and change things directly."
Ashok Parbhu, a Green representative at the conference, says the Alliance opened his eyes to the world of politics and the possibility of change. "I went along to an Alliance meeting and started to realise what they were aiming for. It was almost as if my eyes were opened politically for the first time. Now there is no turning back."
June Tane from Mana Motuhake, the Maori party, says its important to keep in touch with the grassroots: "We have to keep going back to the branches and back to the people".
These are just a few of the young activists now working on setting up a youth network within the Alliance. Some of the Alliance parties already have active university clubs, and they want to strengthen their work among the young unemployed and high school students. Ashok Parbhu thinks such a network will be a useful counterweight to any tendencies towards dogma in the Alliance parties.
Norman Woods, from Dunedin, says such grassroots structures are an important part of "keeping people in power honest, always questioning authority".