IT’S VOLCANOLOGISTS who detect the first signs of the pending eruption. Barely discernible tremors, swarms of them, imperceptible to those not equipped with a seismograph, but indicative of something stirring beneath the seemingly solid earth. Magma, rising from the depths, disturbs an equilibrium that may have endured for centuries, causing the ground to shake. Inside the volcano, things are heating up. Expanding gases create fissures in the volcano’s flanks, asphyxiating birds and other creatures caught in their invisible plumes. The quakes grow more violent. The air reverberates eerily – as if the mountain itself is groaning. In the final few hours before eruption, the volcano begins to deform, swelling ominously as the magma and the superheated gases expanding ahead of it approach the surface. Finally, with a roar like that of a stricken god, the volcano belches millions of tons of molten rock and ash into the upper atmosphere. For miles, across the landscape, Hell rises and walks around.
The metaphor of the erupting volcano is often pressed into service by journalists and historians. Understandable, since political upheavals, like volcanic eruptions, tend to take all but the most attentive observers by surprise. The existing political order, like a dormant volcano, seems stable right up until the moment it blows apart. Destroyed by forces which have been gathering strength for weeks and months right under the authorities’ noses – not so much unnoticed – as disregarded.
In this volcanic metaphor, the role of the seismograph is played by the polling agencies. It is the pollster who picks up the first tremors of political mobilisation. Barely noticed at first, generating results well inside the margin-of-error, but real nonetheless. Unmistakable evidence that beneath the familiar political topology magma is rising, gases are heating, hitherto solid rock is melting.
It was Act which provided the first indication that the fragile equilibrium established in the aftermath of the Covid Earthquake was coming apart.
As National began its belated rise towards electoral respectability (i.e. a Party Vote in the low-to-mid 40s) it soon became clear that getting there, and staying there, was more than it could accomplish. Meanwhile, the angry Right was refusing to cool down. New Zealand society was being changed radically, and without the permission of those who saw changing things as their prerogative. Moreover, National didn’t seem to be that bothered – as if they regarded the changes as tolerable.
Act’s take-off in the polls was the first sign of the roiling masses of magma churning away deep below the surface. More than willing to take the hard lines that National was eschewing, Act gave voice to the fears of those whose long-established privileges were being challenged by proudly insubordinate social movements pushing transformational ideas about ethnicity and gender.
Below the Me Too and Black Lives Matter agitation, however, and below the bewildering claims of the transgender activists, there was an upward thrusting force that at once empowered and overwhelmed the causes which Act and its fellow travellers dismissed as “Woke”. This was the magma of Māori nationalism, the expanding force of a people whose numbers and aspirations simply refused to stop growing.
The Māori Question was being put to Pakeha New Zealanders with an urgency born of too many wrong and/or misleading historical answers. It was heating the rhetorical gases of the Left, but it was not the Left. To the defenders of Pakeha privilege, however, the denizens of old New Zealand, two things were terrifyingly clear. That all this “Māori stuff” was huge – and that it was rising inexorably towards the surface of New Zealand politics.
Act placed itself athwart the Māori nationalists’ path. It promised to turn back the relentless advance of “Aotearoa” against “New Zealand”. The Treaty of Waitangi would be re-written, all traces of co-governance would be swept away. A new, written constitution would entrench Pakeha privilege forever. But, these were horizontal solutions: as if the Māori cause was an army advancing towards a defensible border; a force that could be stopped and turned around.
The upward thrust of the Māori cause is magma – unstoppable and potentially explosive. It may flow down the slopes of New Zealand as lava, reshaping the state in dramatic and irreversible fashion. Or, blocked by the congealed rock of racist resistance in its throat, its pressure will grow and grow until New Zealand disappears in an explosion of fire and ash, leaving behind only Aotearoa.
Therefore, take note of the latest Roy Morgan poll. In that dramatic upward tick of Te Pāti Māori – to a system-busting 7 percent – perceive the first, tell-tale tremors of a political eruption in the making. It is the young people, the rangatahi, who are rising. Not simply in response to Act’s futile policies of obstruction and suppression, but because there is in them a passion for growth and expansion that must, by whatever means necessary, find its way to the sky.