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From a post-war childhood in Jewish Brooklyn, NYC, to a vocation as a foremost commentator on our election process

                              —altogether, it’s been an intriguing and accomplished journey for this amiable politics professor, whose five decade-long lectureship at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington was marked, in June 2022, by a special event in the Grand Hall at Parliament House.

Barbara Clements
Uri Khein

20 FEBRUARY 2024

ABOVE: Stephen Levine emulates the celebratory gesture of John Key on the front cover of ‘Key to Victory: The New Zealand General Election of 2008’. SUPPLIED. BELOW: Parliament House, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. URI KHEIN

1. Observing Democracy



i. Observing Democracy

Grand Hall.jpg

ABOVE: The Grand Hall.


On 7 June 2022, a unique gathering unfolded in the Grand Hall at Aotearoa New Zealand’s Parliament. Hosted by then Speaker of the House Rt Hon Trevor Mallard, the event had been arranged in honour of Professor Stephen Levine, one of the nation’s most highly regarded political scientists—an academic who has come to be regarded with admiration and trust by Members of Parliament of every affiliation.

1. Five Decades









For the past fifty of Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington’s 125 years, Stephen had been (and continues to be) on staff as a lecturer in the Political Science and International Relations programme—its longest-serving member to date. Among his other academic interests, it was Stephen’s role as a specialist on the country’s electoral process that had inspired a formal Notice of Motion in Parliament, presented by Labour’s Ginny Anderson, to commemorate his milestone. The Notice had prompted Speaker Trevor Mallard’s decision to host an event in the Grand Hall.



With its glass domes and semi-circular stained-glass windows set into pale mint walls adorned with gilded plasterwork, above light toffee-coloured Rimu panelling and a gleaming parquet floor, the Grand Hall is among the Parliamentary complex’s most graceful spaces. When not in use, the Hall is a sanctuary of dignified silence; something that wouldn't have been the case over its former life as a lounge for MPs. At the time that Stephen Levine began his lectureship at Victoria University, five decades ago, the now-pristine Hall would have been filled with cigarette smoke and the hubbub of male MPs. If not lounging on leather couches with their tumblers of Scotch, they’d have been seen clustered, contemplatively or jovially, around a pool table. Though MPs Dorothy Jelich and Mary Batchelor were once photographed shooting pool in the Lounge, female MPs, who at the time numbered less than five, did not feel especially welcome there. When Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan, the only woman serving in cabinet, suggested that part of the lounge be set aside for newspaper and magazine reading, she was awarded an intimate nook, suitably screened-off from the leisure of her male colleagues.



Elected under a First Past the Post (FFP) system, Parliament after the 1972 General Election consisted of eighty-seven electorate MPs, elected from Labour and National. At a time when Christopher Luxon, the current Prime Minister, had been still a toddler, and neither of his immediate predecessors, Chris Hipkins and Jacinda Ardern, had yet been born, few envisaged the possibility of a third party holding a seat in the legislature. Presented with any futurist scenario, hypothesising a blended legislature of list and electorate MPs, elected under a Mixed-Member Proportional representation (MMP) system, the probable response of many Members would have been bemused puzzlement. The notion of an internet, and social media feeds needing relentless updating, would have likely provoked general bafflement.



It would probably have been inconceivable that the country would one day see a substantial, and not merely token, presence of Māori and Pasifika in Parliament and Government or that there would be a balanced ratio of female to male MPs. Or that the Members seated in the House of Representatives would include former refugees. There would have been scant benevolence toward any prediction that the makeup of Cabinet would include ministers (including now-former deputy prime minister Grant Robertson) who were openly gay or lesbian, or that Aotearoa New Zealand’s Parliament would be first in the world to see an MP, the late Georgina Beyer, who was openly transgender.




*               *               *


The General Election of 1972 had seen the defeat of National Party prime minister Jack Marshall in the General Election, at the hands of Labour’s charismatic Norman Kirk, known affectionately as “Big Norm”. The year following the election, both men would receive a request from Stephen Levine, then a young academic newly arrived from the United States, for contributions to an anthology he was compiling on the election—an effort aimed as much at orienting himself to the New Zealand political process as informing others. The response from the leaders would be positive, with the defeated Marshall contributing one chapter, and “Big Norm,” his successor, sending in two.


As the nations’s twenty-ninth, and first New Zealand-born, Prime Minister Norman Kirk would seek to firmly rebrand New Zealand as a dynamic Pacific island nation, constructively engaged with the fortunes of its own neighbourhood—not least of all in his own vigorously charismatic opposition to French nuclear testing; a stance that would rattle the UK's prime minister Edward Heath, almost as much as it would provoke Georges Pompidou, the French President. No longer would the nation go on lingering as a placid outpost of Anglo-Saxon sensibility on the south seas (although, in respect of its traditional defence treaties with its larger partners, Aotearoa would continue fairly much to toe the line). Kirk would not survive long to redefine the outlook of the nation; as a result of an array of health complications, he would be dead at fifty-one, after less than two years in office. But Kirk would always be remembered for being the first of New Zealand’s contemporary leaders to have emphasised an independent outlook for a valiant but vulnerable middle power; one fated to shuffle its aspirations with the dilemmas of dealing with ambiguous friends, and trading partners, invariably many times larger and more powerful than itself.  


Alas, while in office, Kirk would also pilot the notorious Dawn Raids, a scheme to apprehend overstayers that would selectively target, and traumatise, Pasifika communities. And yet Kirk’s emphasis on the country’s Pacific regional status and destiny was to leave a formative impression on how a young Stephen Levine would come to perceive the land to which he had shifted from the United States. Shortly after beginning his career in Aotearoa, the political scientist from Brooklyn, New York would be advocating the politics of the Pacific islands as a topic of vital relevance. He would front a well-subscribed Honours course on the subject, and compile Pacific Ways, two anthologies on Pacific Island governments and politics.


This would turn out to be but one facet of a fruitful and longstanding for Stephen as lecturer, researcher, editor, author and mentor in his adopted country. Choosing to specialise in comparative politics, he would go on to teach a wide range of courses, including a focus on New Zealand, the United States, Southeast Asia, and Africa, along with “niche” courses on politics, sports and the arts, and political psychology.

BELOW: The third Labour
Cabinet, 1972-1975.

The Parliament of
Aoteaora New
Zealand in 2023.



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Parliament 2.png
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Norman Kirk, giving an address to a crowd in Levin during the election campaign of 1972, of which he and Labour would be eventual victors. 

*               *               *


The scope of Stephen Levine’s emergent, wide-ranging scholarly curiosity, and what would transpire as an assiduous inclination, is revealed, in part, in two of his own essays from one of the earlier anthologies edited by the political scientist. Published in 1978, Politics in New Zealand—which, like its successor, The New Zealand Political System, was published by Allen & Unwin, “Tolkien’s publisher!” as Stephen noted, happily, at the time—saw him grapple with the imperative of political science not as an elaborate spectator sport but as discipline rooted in realities whose nuances are not always readily visible or consciously communicated.


In an essay analysing the results of a survey of voters participating in a by-election in Nelson, he was to make the critical observation that there was anything but an acute synchronicity between a given community’s authentic aspirations and the declarative theatre of the political process. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that electors in Nelson, overall, turned out to be parochial in outlook first, and partisan after that. One finding was a startling degree of overlap between the attitudes of National and Labour voters towards the respective party leaders, National’s Rob Muldoon and Labour’s Bill Rowling. Though being, naturally, as positive as they possibly could be concerning their preferred party’s leader, voters on either side tended to be candid about accounting Muldoon strong but rude and bombastic, and Rowling as principled and amicable but ineffectual.


In other respects, the parochial dignity of Nelson’s electors showed up in the survey as a murmuring anxiety about isolation, with fears expressed plainly about the community being left behind by the system. Irrespective of party preference, the considerable list of aspirations expressed by voters for their community was homely stuff. They wanted improved roads, bridges and air transport, and a rail link to the West coast port facilities, as well as infrastructure for fisheries research and education, the creation of a pulp mill, and more day care centres. Voters wanted to see Nelson placed firmly on the map and respected as more than a “sleepy hollow.” But they also wanted to preserve the district’s unique character. Concluded Stephen:


Electoral contests associated with parliamentary politics may be unpromising avenues for citizens seeking solutions for the social and political problems of greatest importance to them.” Such an interpretation is more than ironic, for it reduces the political struggle to a vicarious but ultimately frivolous form of entertainment. This is profoundly unfortunate, for even a community such as Nelson with its reputation for calm and tranquillity can contain unsatisfied aspirations to which sensitive political institutions ought to be able creatively to respond.

In a subsequent, and rather fascinating, essay, The Politics of Political Science, in the same volume, Stephen would address an exigent consideration concerning his own field: namely, that the science that appraises the political process is one that itself oftentimes requires meaningful appraisal. Utilising detailed survey results, he would assay trends among students taking political science courses. For students to be genuinely committed to the discipline was one thing; but to be conscious of the ‘why’ behind that commitment was no less important.

Politics in New Zealand.jpg

As for the vicissitudes of the ‘why’ when students waded deeper into their political science courses, the results indicated by the survey may have intrigued, and even somewhat alarmed, him. He would discover that students indicated concern for a complex array of issues, with the heft of their concern being moral and ethical rather than economic. What was disquieting was the, the idealism of students showed signs of waning as time went on; taking the place of idealism was an accentuation of cynicism concerning political parties and processes. Moreover, students seemed to become despondent about not being credited, beyond the university environment, for the enhanced sophistication in their awareness concerning politics altogether. There 


appeared to be a trend among political science students of growing more isolated from their parents, at least in terms of political opinion. These trends seemed to dovetail, more broadly, with an ivory-tower syndrome, or the problem of academics being distrusted in the wider community, or regarded as an aloof, and perhaps radical, elite.


In weighing these trends, Stephen would remark on the hesitation held by lecturers in filling the void of Students’ disillusionment by articulating values steeped in political philosophy—a reluctance likely borne around fear of being accused of propagandizing young minds. Over and above this, there was, he opined, “an incapacity [on the part of lecturers] to supply ideas which can functionally substitute among students for those beliefs and values which have been dislodged.” He felt the ramification of his study to be one of recognising that


… for students a very thin line separates scientific attributes— being inquisitive, testing preconceptions, suspending judgment until more information can be obtained—from indifferent cynicism. While political values cannot be proven in any scientific sense, it may be desirable to suggest to students that preferences which cannot be proven nevertheless can be defended. Students ought to understand that ultimately political science seeks to civilise the exercise of choice, by citizens and governments alike, so that political preferences are informed not only by social facts but by a judicious consideration of ethical consequences.


For Stephen, these considerations would be integral to a dedicated, career-long focus, on not only the long-term aspirations of his students but their thought processes and motivations as well. His activities down the track would demonstrate that he considered the fostering of students’ activities beyond graduation to be of paramount interest. As founding Head of his University’s School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations, he would establish, in 2000, the University’s parliamentary internship programme; affording, over the years, an opportunity for several hundred carefully selected postgraduate students to experience and learn about Parliament from the inside. Many of the interns would subsequently work in Parliament, in Ministers’ offices, and in government departments, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) and Treasury. Likewise, he would play a key role in the establishment and promotion of Victoria University prizes recognising undergraduate and postgraduate student achievement and research excellence.





















Expanding one his own wide interests, Stephen would go on to write extensively about New Zealand politics, elections, and international relations. He would serve as a member of the board of Fulbright New Zealand (The New Zealand-United States Educational Foundation). His authorship of articles and book chapters, often collaborating with colleagues, remains ongoing. Among works that he has edited have been two volumes on “alternative” or “counterfactual” history—New Zealand as it might have been and New Zealand as it might have been II. The latter in particular reflects Stephen’s Jewish background and outlook, with a chapter entitled “What if New Zealand had come under Nazi occupation?”— described in the book’s epilogue as an account “of a New Zealand that thankfully never was,” and “a memorial to people who were never exterminated and consequently, at the same time, to all those elsewhere who were.”

Responding to a request from students who were interning with National party MPs, then Prime Minister John Key met with them in his Beehive office for forty-five minutes. The PM had insisted that Stephen also be present.

New Zealand as it might have been II.jpg


*               *               *


Fast forward to 2022, and to the celebration in the Grand Hall, which, owing to Covid-19 restrictions that were continuing to linger, was able to accommodate one hundred people only. For that, it was a gathering of respectable size in the twenty-seven-metre-long Hall, and included a number of Stephen’s past students (many of them participants, present and former, in the parliamentary internship programme), as well as university colleagues, including the Professor Jennifer Windsor, the Acting Vice-Chancellor at Victoria, along with MPs, and Stephen’s son Spencer, and his family.


One after another, the speakers got up to reflect on and pay tribute to Stephen’s work; ten in all. The Speaker, Trevor Mallard, MPs, Professors Sarah Leggot and Nigel Roberts (the latter a long-time co-editor/author of Stephen’s) and Emma Harman, a former intern—all had some unique insight to offer concerning the veteran political scientist. Reflected his colleague Dr Claire Timperley, who had been inspired by Stephen from a young age: “There are few who could claim to have made such an impression on the study of politics of this country … But what stands out to me about Stephen, perhaps above all else, is his commitment to his students. He told me last week that a student from his very first year of teaching as a graduate student at the University of Florida is still in touch with him. My jaw dropped: how many of us could make the same claim in 10 years’ time, let alone over 50?!”


It was at that point that Dr Claire Timperley made an announcement: the  fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of her mentor’s career was to be marked by the inauguration of the Stephen Levine Prize, encompassing all of his research interests: political leadership, electoral systems, voting behaviour, legislative behaviour, African politics, politics and sport, politics and the arts, and counterfactuals in political discussion.



2Scrutinising the game

If, for Stephen Levine, 2022 had been a highlight, the year 2023 promised to be another, albeit one of a more “routine” kind. Once again, the three-year election cycle was to be renewed in a general election, with that year’s contest promising to be intriguing, and fraught, in a period of unprecedented turbulence. With a nation embattled by climate disaster, and by an ongoing cost of living crisis in a tense global environment, the stakes in last year’s election were always going to be high. Analysing the dynamics and the aftermath would be critical.


Every time that Aotearoa New Zealand holds a general election, the involvement of Stephen Levine is the same. Always intensively engaged, he scrutinises the action until the campaigning and voting are at last over, and all the results, including special votes, have been confirmed. In what might be described as a final, unofficial stage in the election process, a major academic post-election conference takes place in the chamber of Parliament’s former Legislative Council. The new (or re-elected) Prime Minister and other party leaders are all invited, as are journalists, academics, and a selected audience. Typically, the setting of Parliament, and the sense of occasion in bringing together all the players, raises the stature of the event. The gathering is considered to be fun, but also serious, with an unspoken focus on the value of our democracy, which can never be taken for granted. That the conference and Stephen’s subsequent election book is, however, became evident on 7 June 2023 when MP Todd Muller (briefly National’s leader, from 22 May to 14 July 2022) opened a speech in Parliament on a topic having nothing to do with the forthcoming election, commencing nonetheless with these words: “Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. So when the story of the 2023 election is written, as it will surely be, and edited by Stephen Levine, as it most surely will be …”—words now recorded in Hansard, the record of New Zealand’s parliamentary debates.


Ever conscientious, Stephen sees to every detail, including selecting the food for morning tea, lunch, and afternoon tea, ensuring that everybody’s dietary requirements are catered for. For Stephen the highlights of hosting the event include introducing the Speaker of Parliament, who then formally welcomes everybody. After that, Stephen introduces the initial speaker.


Overall, speakers at the conference are never perfunctory, with remarks by major players, not least of all the new, or re-elected prime minister, tending to be absorbing, and sometimes striking, in their detail and openness. Following the 2017 election, when Jacinda Ardern, having been leader of the Labour Party for less than two months, emerged at the head of a scarcely anticipated three-way coalition between Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens, it was Stephen’s happy responsibility to welcome her as the new, and 40th, Prime Minister (at thirty-seven, Ardern was the second-youngest person ever to have ascended to the role, with Sir Edward Stafford, in the 19th century, also thirty-seven, having been the younger by a mere fifty-two days).

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ABOVE: Jacinda Ardern with Stephen at Unity Books, Wellington, September 2018, for the launch of ‘Stardust and Substance: The New Zealand General Election of 2017’.

TOP: Jacinda Ardern, taking the podium as the country's newly-elected prime minister, at the 2017 post-election conference in Parlaiment's Legislative Council Chamber. As Stephen tells it: "She was speaking and then she happened to see, moving through the corridor, outside the chamber, at the back, a group of children being taken through Parliament on a tour. She called out to them, invited them to come in – it was a brilliant bit of high-spirited spontaneity – and they came racing in, sitting down in the centre aisle, to hear the prime minister speak, even though she’d told them they’d be welcome to come in but that it would prove to be ‘very boring’. (It wasn’t)."





In Stardust and Substance, the book that would come out of the conference, Stephen would reflect on the wonder of having grasped “how an underdog—a party [Labour] fading fast, facing further futility, a fourth successive failure—suddenly, in seven-and-a-half weeks, transformed defeat into victory.”


An already short campaign was given an unexpected surge of energy and excitement as a new party leader upended a seemingly inevitable result. Some, indifferent to politics and election campaigns, suddenly took interest; paid attention; found what was taking place to be outside their past experience: different; diverting, dazzling. …  the result was that the country moved in a different direction—an alternative reality suddenly took hold, and the history that was lazily waiting to happen never did.


The history that was ‘lazily waiting to happen’ would, of course, have been a fourth term for a nearly unshakably popular government led by John Key and National; albeit one now with Bill English, Key’s broadly liked and trusted former deputy and finance minister, then at the helm. Indeed, in spite of a surge of fortune during the campaign for Labour with “Jacindamania,” the atmosphere at National Party headquarters on election night was a jubilant one. Being significantly further ahead than Labour on the night, National had every reason to be hopeful that another term in Government was genuinely within reach.


The night was one that had left Ardern, by her own admission at the conference, published subsequently in Stardust and Substance, feeling flat and unhopeful. But in contrast to the most recent previous of elections under MMP, there was a sinuous subtext to the election night result, something to which not everybody would have been attuned. Not everyone, for example, would have interpreted the conscientious, and evidently sincere, olive branch held out by Green Party co-leader James Shaw to New Zealand First’s Winston Peters in his election night speech as a sign of what was to come: a somewhat unlikely three-way coalition that be joined by both their respective parties, with Jacinda Ardern’s Labour at the helm (it would be a rather uncomfortable match-up for everybody, with tension between the Greens on the one hand, wanting to pull Labour further to the left, and New Zealand First on the other, fashioning itself as a “hand break” on Labour’s more “radical” policies, including a potential Capital Gains Tax. And yet there would also be some sympathetic overlap between the Greens’ social-environmental remit, and New Zealand First’s focus on regeneration of the regions).   


*               *               *


With special votes evening up the election-night ledger, making a left-leaning government more viable, everything became a matter of the remarkable dynamics of courtship and negotiation that were and are possible only under the MMP (Mixed-Member Proportional) system. As far as negotiations went, some specific legacies already generated under MMP came into play: Labour’s negotiating team was joined by the late Sir Michael Cullen, who, as deputy prime minister and minister of finance respectively in the previous Helen Clark-led Labour government, had gotten on well with New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, after Peters had joined Clark’s government following the election in 2005.


That the unpredictable narrative of what was to be Aotearoa New Zealand’s eighth election under MMP was so well analysed and chronicled after the fact owed itself in no small part to Stephen Levine’s work in organising the post-election conference and the book (with additional contributions) that came out of it. In contributing to (and editing, either on his own or with colleagues) books chronicling every election held under MMP since its introduction in 1996, Stephen has joined other political scientists in a collective focus on the new electoral system. In 1995, with the introduction of MMP only a year away, a multi-year grant would see the establishment of a publicly-funded MMP research programme: something in which Stephen would play an integral role from the beginning, invited by his colleagues to become the head of it. An immediate result, reflecting political scientists’ intense anticipatory curiosity, was the award-winning New Zealand Under MMP: A New Politics? (published jointly by Auckland University Press and Bridget Williams Books), lauded by New Zealand’s Electoral Commission for its “significant contribution to public understanding of electoral matters.” In 1998 Victoria University presented an award for “Special Academic Achievement” to Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts for their “outstanding contribution” and “professional productiveness … in examining and explaining the impact of MMP.”


The research project’s eight-year run led to numerous book chapters, journal articles and conference papers being produced, analysing various features of MMP—its implementation and consequences. One imperative factor noted by Stephen Levine and his colleagues from the beginning was that ongoing confidence in the then fledgling MMP electoral system could scarcely be taken for granted. After protracted, excruciating, weeks of negotiation following the first MMP election in 1996, the country’s first coalition government had seen Winston Peters joining National prime minister Jim Bolger’s government. In spite of a severe falling-out between the two when Peters had previously been one of Bolger’s National Party ministers, the two men had seemed to get along well with their coalition arrangements, with Peters becoming Deputy Prime Minister as well as Treasurer—a post created specifically at Peters’ behest.


Later on, however, Jenny Shipley, one of Bolger’s ministers, would oust Bolger as National’s leader in a coup. Left out of the loop, Peters was resentful; the ensuing tension between him and Shipley saw the coalition disintegrate. New Zealand First itself split, with a breakaway faction branding itself Mauri Pacific continuing to prop up the Shipley government, until being ousted in the 1999 election by Helen Clark’s Labour—in conjunction with the Alliance, led by Clark’s former Labour colleague (then foe, then friend again), Jim Anderton. In Left Turn: The New Zealand General Election of 1999, Stephen and co-author Nigel S. Roberts would write:


Much will depend on the performance of the Labour-Alliance government and of the Prime Minister, Helen Clark. A smoothly functioning and effective administration will take much of the steam out of the move to revise or replace MMP. A relapse into chaos, however, will be its death knell.


As things would turn out, further chaos would indeed beckon, with an ideological split in the Alliance Party threatening the viability of Clark’s government. And yet, perhaps unforeseeably, the ship of state would be kept on course under MMP, with a successful and stable three-term Labour-led MMP government being followed by a no-less successful and stable National-led National-led MMP government under the leadership of John Key.


Stephen with John Key, Wellington 2012, launching ‘Kicking the Tyres: The New Zealand General Election and Electoral Referendum of 2011’.

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In respect of this conspicuous (some would say remarkable) stability under the MMP system, which now spans more than two decades, the presence of strong leaders from the major parties seems to have played play a decisive, and perhaps determinative, role. At a post-election conference in 2014, Stephen had the pleasure of introducing John Key, an undisputed maestro of the MMP system, for a third and final time as election victor. In Moments of Truth: The New Zealand General Election of 2014, Stephen had summed up succinctly the appeal of John Key himself, the third prime minister of New Zealand of Jewish ancestry, and one of the country’s most popular and successful politicians of all time:


It doesn’t matter that most people don’t know John Key personally and can’t say, based on personal experience, what he is like. The New Zealand public, overall, has a view of him. His reputation [is one of] a friendly person, an example of a nice guy who doesn’t finish last, approachable, capable and engaging.


In his own contribution to the conference, Key had highlighted the importance of the post-election conferences altogether, and the books that came out of them, in terms of documenting New Zealand’s history for future generations:


The immediacy of the modern news cycle, together with social media, creates a focus on instant reporting and judgement, but it is also important to reflect in a more considered way …  Academic scrutiny of elections, politicians and political parties is an important function of democracy; it is also something that strengthens it.


The anthology of conference presentations, supplemented by chapters from other authors, that emerges from each conference is by now a well-rehearsed process. If an election takes place in October, it will be followed by a conference held in December. In the normal run of things, Stephen receives all contributions by the end of February or early March. He then edits the chapters, handing them to the publisher in May, and the book comes out one year after the election.


The 2017 election book was launched at Wellington’s Unity Books, with Jacinda Ardern and was relaunched in May 2019 at the Auckland Writers Festival, with the Prime Minister addressing an audience of 2000 people at Auckland’s Aotea Centre. Not surprisingly, any book that marks a change of government is a major occasion; previously, the 2008 election book had been launched with the newly-elected John Key to a considerable audience in the Beehive’s prodigious, arcing Banquet Hall. For Stephen, some of the book launches have had an additional element, “firstly, the thrill of having your book published, and then the joy of having my son Spencer present, with my granddaughters seeing their Grandpa speaking.”


Reading the prefaces and summaries that Stephen has written in these election books, in collaboration with close colleagues Nigel Roberts and Jon Johansson, and in more recent years, alone, reveals a rationale concerning which Stephen is very particular. In getting all the key players on record relatively quickly, there is already a guaranteed distillation into historical memory from immediate recollection. Historical memory itself is thus consolidated as a multi-faceted narrative from diverse points of view. Stephen suggests that in encouraging the players to revisit the event in which they played a crucial part, there is always the possibility that subjectivity of each of them about their own role in process will find deeper resonance. As for those who will come to study the event later, these will find fresh information that will strengthen their overall understanding.


There is one additional, essential dimension: in soliciting the views and interpretations of all parties on the election, there is a validation of the participation of everybody, enhancing collective respect for the election process—as well as a tacit reverence for democracy itself as something authentic and cherishable—albeit showing its imperfections, with its own illusions that, whether circumstantial or inbuilt, are ever needful of reflective analysis. For example, though they’re hardly hampered at every turn, the ability of backbench MPs and MPs from smaller and opposition parties to meaningfully influence policy outcomes remains conspicuously attenuated. Reflecting on this, dryly, in 1978’s Politics in New Zealand, celebrated feminist academic and remarkable former National Party MP Marilyn Waring—the first but by no means the last of Stephen’s former students to be elected to Parliament—wrote: “The old adage that ‘influence is something you think you have until you attempt to use it’ may well be the norm.”


What had been the case in 1978, under the old First Past the Post electoral system, remains intact to a significant extent under the arguably more democratic MMP. But as Stephen himself has observed, a critical examination of the electoral process, and of the democratic system overall, is scarcely tantamount to casting into critical doubt, or undermining the integrity or value of, the process itself—with the latter leading to a debilitation or removal of critical institutional foundations and safeguards; to the point that democracy itself is a cynical pretence, as is the case in many countries. As Stephen wrote, with colleague Nigel Roberts, in Key to Victory: The New Zealand General Election of 2008


Democratic politics … [rest] on the premise that no leader is irreplaceable; that no party, once governing, is free from error; and that political change, involving the peaceful transfer of power from one political group to another, is not only inevitable but an indispensable component of the democratic process. Not all electoral environments have these characteristics, as a survey of the globe would confirm. Many elections are anything but ‘free and fair’. Some are more about populism—an electorate’s eager re-endorsement of a particular personality—than they are about programmes or policy alternatives.


Citing ‘Illiberal democracies,’ they referred to countries


… in which elections are held, but in circumstances in which freedoms of expression and communication are restricted—cynically provid[ing] the trappings of democracy, but little of the substantive opportunities that give the democratic idea meaning and purpose, and make political change possible.


Levine Roberts (as the respective co-authors are known) also reaffirmed Aotearoa’s recognised, cherished status as a democracy:


In international terms, New Zealand’s electoral experience remains distinctive. Organisations that regularly rank countries of the world in terms of ‘political’ and ‘civil’ liberties continue to hold New Zealand in exceptionally high esteem.


As successive conference anthologies reveal, seeing our elections expounded upon by diverse observers and direct participants reveals or reminds that the components of influence that are in play are necessarily multi-faceted (taking, to cite one example, academic Morgan Godfery’s influential essays citing diversification and flux in the voting preferences of Māori voters—who were construed, for a long time, to be enamoured almost solely of Labour—and the impact of these changes the fortunes of the major parties). All in all, there are always numerous factors intervening in the array of flexing economic trends, the cherishing of stability versus a yearning for change, irresistible developments created by serendipitous changes of party leadership, and the flaring up of controversies in the election cycle that often that leave less of a trace than expected in final results. 

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Stephen, with a copy of
'Politics in a Pandemic: Jacinda Ardern and New Zealand's 2020 Election', 2021.



*               *               *


Of the most recent books to come out the post-election conferences, the most recent two—Stardust and Substance: The New Zealand General Election of 2017 and Politics in a Pandemic: Jacinda Ardern and New Zealand’s 2020 Election—appeared at when global interest in the New Zealand political scene had been unusually heightened. This, due in no small part to former Prime Minister Ardern’s high profile in the aftermath of the 2019 atrocities at Christchurch’s Masjid al-Noor and Linwood Islamic Centre, with the subsequent efforts to implement more effective gun control policies in New Zealand, and the “Christchurch Call” strategy, aimed at combating the profile of extremists in online spaces. New Zealand’s sure-footed handling of Covid-19 had also attracted considerable attention. A moment, Stephen wrote, in Politics in a Pandemic, when critical measures has been put in place,


… so that together all would be able, as best we could, to survive and ultimately prevail over the deadly challenge that had suddenly arisen to confront us.



When Parliament resumed, limits were placed on the number of members able to sit in the debating chamber. Those allowed to be there practised social distancing, keeping their distance from adversaries and allies alike. The novel sight of “masked candidates, appealing for votes.”


Both the opening and closing pages Politics in a Pandemic carry epigraphic reflection of Stephen’s Jewish values and upbringing. Expressing gratitude to those striving to protect New Zealanders from Covid-19, the volume was dedicated is “to all those responsible for keeping us safe and healthy in troubled times.” This was preceded by a quote from Psalm 91: “No harm shall befall you, nor shall any plague come near your tent.” The Preface began also with words from the same Psalm: “Thou shalt not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flieth by day; nor of the pestilence that walketh in darkness …”.


More than five hundred pages later, Stephen’s concluding chapter closes with quotes from the former Commonwealth Chief Rabbi, Professor Jonathan Sacks, taken from his commentary in his Passover Haggadah—no doubt the first time that a sacred Hebrew text has been cited in a book on a New Zealand election! Altogether, Stephen is proud of his Jewishness—proud of his participation as a Jewish-American New Zealander in a society whose spectrum continues to diversify, with that ever-burgeoning flavour being reflected increasingly in the make-up of our Parliament.


And yet, the participation of Stephen Levine in his Jewishness traverses a considerable way beyond pride in his identity. A committed Orthodox Jew, he has, over decades, had a high profile in service to his own community. So familiar has Stephen Levine been over the years to fellow members of his Webb Street shule in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, that many may have forgotten that his particular Jewish roots lie faraway—in a city that happened to boast, for much of the latter part of the twentieth century, the largest Jewish community anywhere on earth.

This feature continues shortly with "An Upbringing in Brooklyn," concerning Stephen's early life, prior to his arrival in Aotearoa New Zealand.

© The New Zealand Jewish Archives Trust 2024. All rights reserved.


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