Sunday, 9 November 2008

On the New Zealand general election result

Polina Andrejevna: Our time is passing.

Arkadina: What can we do?


After nine years in office, Helen Clark’s Labour government has been defeated. The centre-right bloc, led by John Key of the National Party, won 65 seats in the 122 – member parliament.

I have been feeling a bit sad about the result. That is more than a little surprising, given that I have not been involved with the NZ Labour Party for many, many years now and am seldom sentimental about it. Perhaps it’s the old ties that bind. I went to my first party meeting in 1977, when still at school, and remained involved for some sixteen years. This included some time working at the NZ Parliament as a ministerial aide and head of research. My mother was a long-time activist, as were her mother and grandmother before her.

Perhaps it’s because the Clark government did a lot that liberals of my ilk can support. New Zealand had its longest run of continuous economic growth in sixty years. Those in the middle of the pile saw bigger growth in their incomes than those at the top, reversing the trends of a decade or more. People in the lower income groups were also better off and specific government policies (for instance, on health care) were designed to help them. Even her opponents acknowledge that Helen Clark is highly respected on the international stage, where she may have been New Zealand’s most capable leader ever. Helen Clark kept New Zealand out of the Iraq war. Earlier this year, her government signed a free trade agreement with China. Helen Clark made New Zealand one of the first countries committed to a carbon neutral future. This was backed up – after some delays – by some important policies, such as the emissions trading scheme.

The Clark Government succumbed to electoral wear-out on Saturday. After three terms, most people wanted a change. History was against her: only once since the Second World War have the New Zealand public granted any prime minister a fourth mandate. But some of Labour’s problems were self-inflicted, or were delivered by their allies in government. [See my earlier post, this eve-of-poll article by the respected NZ political pundit Colin James and Jafapete’s post-election comment]

There is, as yet, no evidence that Kiwis’ basic political attitudes have moved to the right. And Key and co did not win a major debate over the country’s direction. As Jafapete says:

"[John Key] sleepwalked his way to power, winning an election notable for the lack of excitement and charisma on display. The small parties provided the interest. Otherwise, it was a tawdry, uninspiring affair.

"His party’s win was not a triumph of policy. National has spent the last couple of years frantically trying to convince people it would not undo much of what has been achieved over the past nine years. The party won, but its ideology lost. (Although not completely. Labour’s third-way social democracy has been a corporatist compromise with neo-liberalism rather than a repudiation of it.)"

Still, many New Zealanders may want a break from certain types of policies, such as the anti-smacking legislation that was passed in the last parliament.

The results also provide food for thought about what proportional voting systems mean for third and minor parties. We often hear that PR lets the “ tail wag the dog” and gives minor parties too much power. But voters will punish minor parties if they misuse their power. Look at New Zealand First, a populist, personality-based party that has drawn much of its support from older voters. NZ First has played king or queen maker a few times. Before the 2005 election, their leader, Winston Peters, one of the more colourful characters in New Zealand’s political history, did not indicate a preference for coalition with either of the major parties. Peters declared that he would not seek the "baubles of office". But after the votes were counted, he helped to sustain Labour in office – and then became foreign minister. Earlier this year, Peters became mired in a series of controversies over party funding. NZ First disappeared from parliament on Saturday, after the party failed to clear the 5 per cent hurdle and Peters did not win back his old constituency.

The challenge for minor parties is about branding as much as conduct. United Future, a micro party, also backed Labour from 2005 to 2008 but promised to support National in office this time, acting as a “centrist, moderating influence” [click here]. They got away with the change, as the swing to National gathered pace. But only one United Future MP was returned, compared to two in 2005. This may have been because National was already perceived as a middle-of-the-road party.

By contrast, ACT, a market liberal party, offered supporters the chance to push the National-led government to the right. In return for voting ACT, supporters were offered a "three strikes" sentencing policy, cuts to government spending and an end to the emissions trading scheme. These will be ACT’s main demands as it sets down terms for supporting the new government. The narrative worked well enough. ACT won five seats, an increase of two.

The Greens can also claim a victory in the battle of the narratives. They went from six to eight seats (it may yet be nine). They offered supporters a chance to “save the planet”. In contrast to the red meat that ACT held out to its voters, the Greens had a vegetarian quiche, based more on emotive appeals, symbols and images than a list of policies. But the Greens already had a strong brand. It’s in their name.

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