The National government’s triumphant win on Saturday, and Labour’s corresponding loss, has broken at least three records, and the pundits are still counting. First, National has won sufficient seats to govern in its own right, a rare event in any proportional representation system, and a first in New Zealand’s comparatively short history of mixed-member proportional voting, or MMP. Even Germany, where MMP has been a feature since 1949, has only once experienced a majority government (in 1957). Interestingly, the result in New Zealand was achieved by a party that just three years ago held a government-initiated referendum on whether New Zealand should keep MMP or return to first past the post. Some of National’s most ardent supporters actively campaigned for what they called a “Vote for Change.” There was no vote for change, but clearly National needn’t have bothered.
The second record involves National’s winning margin of 48 per cent of the vote, which was larger than their vote share in both 2008 and 2011. This is the first time that a third-term government has increased its margin in almost ninety years, and the increase is underpinned partly by the significant inroads National has made in the Auckland and Christchurch city electorates that used to be Labour’s heartland.
Third, Labour’s vote share of 24.4 per cent is its worst result since 1922. Even when Helen Clark was defeated after three terms in office, Labour’s party vote was 10 percentage points higher than it was on Saturday.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised by the result, as there are at least three elements of the win that are reminiscent of what has become traditional in New Zealand politics. The first is about leadership. John Key has experienced exceptionally high preferred-prime-minister ratings over the past six years. In July 2014, according to one Digipoll survey, his popularity stood at 73 per cent. And his ratings remained resilient despite the publication of independent journalist Nicky Hager’s book, Dirty Politics, which claimed the scalp of minister Judith Collins three weeks before the election. Key’s rating a week before the election, at 61 per cent, was still almost 45 points ahead of his closest rival, Labour’s David Cunliffe.
NZ Labour has endured a number of leadership challenges in the years since Clark retired (not unlike Australian Labor’s experience during the Howard years), with limited success in terms of electoral support. As in most parliamentary elections around the world, the pulling power of presidential-style strong leadership is increasingly important; and this is particularly so in the New Zealand system, where voters have two votes, one for their local candidate and one for their preferred party. Leaders have long been central to any party’s “brand,” but this role has intensified with the introduction of MMP, under which the leader is the face of the party-vote campaign.
Alongside this, Key has presided over a long period of relatively slow but steady economic growth. While theories of voting that highlight economic factors may no longer have the same predictive capacity as once thought, the fact remains that the National government has overseen an economy in which middle New Zealand feels comfortable. In the first quarter of 2009 the annual growth rate reached a record low of minus 3.4 per cent, but the economy emerged from this trough to reach 3.9 per cent in the second quarter of 2014. A survey of CEOs published as a special supplement, “Mood of the Boardroom,” by the New Zealand Herald a week before the election revealed that 97 per cent of the 114 CEOs questioned supported a National government. Issues of housing affordability and increasing inequality might have played on some voters’ minds, but these issues were not sufficiently of concern to most. National’s claim to be the party of good economic management was accepted largely without question.
Third, NZ voters are, like their Australian counterparts, predictable souls. Seventy per cent of us identify with one of the two major parties; 30 per cent of us make up our minds during the campaign; and 30 per cent split our two votes between parties. In addition, and again like Australia, National has long been New Zealand’s “natural party of government.” (The Clark government was the first Labour government to win three terms since the Savage–Fraser government of 1935–49.) As a party, National has become less socially conservative over time and tends to sit just to the right of centre on most policy issues; the ferocious neoliberal urges it displayed in the early 1990s have been tamed by the reality of public opinion.
Finally, New Zealand had become a country of three-term governments even before the advent of MMP. With the exception of David Lange and Roger Douglas’s six years of whirlwind reforms, NZ voters have, since 1975, granted each of their governments nine years in power. Given that National headed into this campaign with more than 50 per cent support in the polls, the signs were that it would win a third term.
But this was no ordinary election campaign. The (in)famous Kim Dotcom had helped to create and then significantly fund a new micro party, the Internet Party, which campaigned against breaches of privacy and civil liberties, and against mass surveillance, and sought to mobilise the missing million voters who have failed to turn out at recent NZ elections. In alliance with the Mana Movement, the Internet Party also championed left-leaning policies on poverty reduction, wage equality and tertiary education reform. Although the policies had merit, and some support, this two-party alliance was unable to disentangle itself from Dotcom’s presence and largesse. Many voters were nervous about his political motives and National played to these fears, relentlessly suggesting that he was buying the election.
Then came Dirty Politics, which alleged that ministers in, and advisers to, the National government were engaged in apparently corrupt practices. Labelled by the US-based broadcaster CNN as the “House of Cards in the South Pacific,” the book made headLines for two weeks of the campaign and was a potential disaster for National’s re-election chances. But the revelations also took airtime away from the opposition parties and their substantive policy alternatives. Key and his party continued to run on their record of stability and growth, and arguably voters chose policy over politics. Moreover, a good proportion of voters chose to vote early in 2014, and so avoided the dirty politics.
Despite the categorical result, one important question remains: what has happened to the “left” vote in New Zealand? How is it that the country that gave the English-speaking world its first universal welfare state is no longer able to support the party of the labour movement? For not only did National win 48 per cent of the vote, but four small parties to the right of centre won another 13.5 per cent. By contrast, Labour, the Greens and Internet–Mana managed to attract only 36 per cent.
What led to this decline and what lessons should be learnt by the left? There is much analysis still to be done, and there remain very real concerns about who is not voting and why. (There may even be some discussion about the value of introducing compulsory voting.) Labour has already begun, once again, to battle with itself in public. But it’s safe to say that the right, rather than the left, best understands how to do politics under MMP. There will always be parties on the flanks of Labour and National; Labour should leave the left to the issues it does best, just as National leaves the arch neoliberal economic and socially conservative rhetoric to those on its right. Under MMP, Labour needs to pitch to the centre to win back New Zealand’s version of Howard’s battlers, both women and men, and to regain the voters it has lost to the populist and popular Winston Peters’s New Zealand First Party. This will involve much soul searching, and more leadership challenges. And they have only three years to sort it out. •