QUEENSTOWN, New Zealand.
You might think it hard to think about politics when you’re in a place as extraordinary as this on New Zealand’s South Island. The landscape fills the eye with glacial and volcanic lakes, valleys and mountains so breathtaking and eerie in their beauty they inspired director Peter Jackson’s vision of mythic Middle Earth when he adapted J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings into three epic motion pictures.
In the cab on the way from the airport the driver immediately announced he had worked four days as an extra on the second film of the trilogy – “The Two Towers.” He was proud to say he played a refugee from Rohan escaping the evil Orcs.
At least I think that’s what he said. The New Zealand accent plays tricks with vowels. On Saturday, it took me a while to figure out what a tour bus driver meant when she said the only mammal indigenous to the country was the “bit.” I finally realized she was talking about bats.
Then she kept insisting we’d soon be riding on a cruise missile. Visions of hurling to earth astride a bomb a la Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove danced through my head until I understood she was saying “cruise vessel” – the three-masted ship we were taking on a voyage around Milford Sound.
Actually, she and the taxi driver were just about the only people I met here who opened the conversation without talking about Barack Obama’s victory, as well as our congressional elections. This trip began in Auckland, New Zealand, on the North Island, where I was attending an international conference of writers, all of whom were eager to discuss recent events in the States. “This is your Mandela moment,” South African Kwazi Diamond declared to me the first day. “This was the world’s election.”
And so it was, but once again it’s more than a little embarrassing to realize yet again how little we Americans know about the electoral politics of other nations compared to what they know about ours. In fact, New Zealand had its own national election just four days after America’s – literally as we were flying here. Hands, please, if you knew that. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t until I arrived.
They had a turnout here of 78.69% of enrolled voters – and were disappointed. It’s the second lowest voting rate in more than 20 years. We, on the other hand, were reasonably delighted with a 62% turnout – only about four million more than 2004, despite predictions of a massive bump this year in the number of those casting ballots.
Like President-Elect Obama, New Zealand’s new leader, John Key, is 47 years old and having to hit the ground running, facing a major economic crisis, his country already in recession. But unlike Obama, Key is taking office almost immediately and heading straightaway for Peru, to attend a meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Forum (APEC).
What’s also different – perhaps appropriate in a land that’s upside down from us and where water spirals down the drain in a different direction – is that the political shift here is the opposite of that back home in the States. John Key is a conservative replacing a liberal – the Labour Party’s left-leaning Prime Minister Helen Clark, who served in office for nine years.
Key has formed a coalition government that he characterizes as “center-right,” including representation from the free market party known as ACT and the Maori Party that represents the country’s indigenous people – about 15% of the nation’s 4.3 million population. Traditionally, the Maori – among New Zealand’s poorest and most disadvantaged – have aligned with Labour.
Coincidentally, despite the Obama win, the idea that the United States also is a “center-right” country and should so be ruled is being pushed in America by such conservative commentators as Pat Buchanan, Charles Krauthammer, and Joe Scarborough.
They’ve been seconded by former Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd who advised Obama to “govern from the center, where the vast majority of the country is,” while Hillary Clinton’s adviser Mark Penn wrote in the Financial Times: “Stick to Centrism.” Newsweek agreed, declaring in a headline a couple of weeks ago: “America remains a center-right nation — a fact that a President Obama would forget at his peril.”
But on the other side, the argument is made that Barack Obama’s election marks a revival of the progressive tradition stretching back to the New Deal and beyond – to Lincoln’s vision of a strong national government and a wider, more generous embrace of just who constitutes, “We, the people.”
The one thing that’s clear in both America and New Zealand is that Obama and his team were right – these were elections about change, about throwing the long-seated rascals out, period – whether they were conservative or liberal in their outlook.
Quite simply, the time had come. In the elections’ wake, Tapu Misa, a newspaper columnist in the New Zealand Herald, wisely chose to quote Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “The old order changeth, yielding place to new, And God fulfills himself in many ways, lest one good custom should corrupt the world.” Whether change will lead to improvement and advancement, or simply signal motion without action, is now the formidable challenge faced by both our nations.
MICHAEL WINSHIP is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.