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A Populist Exception?


Jennifer Curtin and Jack Vowles

In 2019, Professor Robert Wade (London School of Economics) visited his homeland, New Zealand. He discussed the reasons why Trumpian-style politics could last for 30 years. Several months before his talk, a New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade briefing reminded the government that, at the global level, economic and security issues had resulted in widespread populist sentiment: ‘elected leaders, appealing to their political bases, are pursuing nativist and protectionist policies and rejecting globalisation and the institutions that support and enforce it’ (Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2019). This reference to populism was also flagged as a threat in a New Zealand Defence Force report, which argued that the increasing gap between rich and poor was fostering nationalist movements in the region and elsewhere.

New Zealand is evidently not immune to populism; however, the 2017 general election result suggested that the extent of discontent evident in jurisdictions elsewhere had yet to resonate with New Zealand voters. Through an analysis of survey data gathered through the New Zealand Election Study (NZES), this volume examines the question of whether, in 2017, New Zealand proved to be a ‘populist exception’.

The NZES has a long tradition—the 2017 ‘wave’ is the 10th since its first outing in 1990. The next study, for 2020, already in preparation, will mark 30 years of a continuous time series. The 2017 study was led by Jack Vowles at Victoria University and supported by a team of scholars from universities across New Zealand. As editors of this volume, we have benefited greatly from the insights of our colleagues Lara Greaves (University of Auckland), Janine Hayward (University of Otago) and Fiona Barker, Kate McMillan and Matthew Gibbons (Victoria University of Wellington). This volume has been a wholly collaborative effort.

No survey research can be completed without significant funding and much work. We greatly appreciate the generosity of the Victoria University of Wellington’s Research Committee and Summer Scholar funds, the University of Auckland’s Faculty Research Development and Summer Scholar funds, the New Zealand Electoral Commission and the University of Otago. Funding secured from the British Academy by Nick Vivyan and Patrick Kuhn (Durham University) enabled us to increase the sample size and, consequently, to provide data for their research on reporting of turnout.

The Centre of Methods and Policy Application in the Social Sciences (otherwise known as COMPASS) at the University of Auckland also provided wonderful service in the administration of the NZES. In particular, we must thank Lara Greaves, Martin von Randow, Barry Milne and the team of students and friends who systematically worked to ensure that the over 10,000 surveys were distributed in good time. Their efforts consumed several weekends; therefore, we acknowledge them here by name: Nidhi Aggarwal, Mo Anwar, Sarah Boyd, Bianca Brown, Lucy Cowie, Reuben Curtin Symes, Caitlyn Drinkwater, Sonali Dutt, Chris Garner, Laura Garner, Auguste Harrington, Hasith Kandaudahewa, Chooi-Wen Khoo, Tony Koson Sriamporn, Cinnamon Lindsay, Luke Oldfield, Camille Reid, Sophie Sills, Elizabeth Strickett and Irene Wu. Our thanks also go to the Public Policy Institute at the University of Auckland for sharing their space with us for this process and to Matthew Gibbons, Ruairi Cahill-Fleury, Joshua James, Correna Matika, Usman Shahid and Benjamin Yeung for their voter validation work across the country.

Charles Crothers at Auckland University of Technology provided very helpful insights and comments on the conceptual framework and several of the early chapters, as did the ANU Press Social Sciences Editorial Board. The board and the anonymous readers shared feedback on the full manuscript, challenging us to strengthen our arguments regarding New Zealand’s ‘style’ of populism. Sue Osborne’s editing skills were invaluable, as were those of Capstone Editing, while Frank Bongiorno, Emily Tinker and Richard Reid worked tirelessly with us in the final stages of publication. Finally, as was the case with our volume on the 2014 election (A Bark but no Bite, also published by ANU Press), our analysis was dependent on the generosity of our survey respondents. We hope they find this as interesting to read as we found it to write.


Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (New Zealand). (2019). Strategic intentions 2019–2023. Retrieved from

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