Colin James, one of the most astute political journalists, analyses the 2014 election.
An election in a bubble
But within New Zealand as the election campaign wended through August and September there was no general public sense of impending or actual tectonic change, either at home or abroad. So to examine the election we need to put aside the seismic instruments and reach for the GPS locator and the microscope.
New Zealand was in a little bubble of fortuitous economic growth. Rapidly expanding demand for dairy, and to some extent other primary, products, coupled with sky-high dairy prices was one factor. The rebuilding of Christchurch, by early 2014 fully in gear, was another. They generated numbers that built very strong business confidence. The commentary was optimistic.
This fed into improved household finances, which are the marker for how the economy plays in elections. There had been modest gains in income and jobs and there was cautious to modest confidence the improvement would continue. Consumer confidence was strong through 2014, though it peaked midyear.
And the government projected confidence in itself and competence.
At its apex was a tight trio. John Key was the presenter. Bill English was the fiscal manager and policy wonk who at the ministerial level was associated with most reforms, including the public service (“more with less”, then a set of quantified “results” stretching out several years and in some cases crossing portfolio boundaries), tax, water policy (using the “collaborative governance” technique involving all interest groups to generate a consensus), education and social assistance (welfare). For welfare English imported from ACC the actuarial-investment approach which may be the National-led government’s most important innovation. Steven Joyce was the project manager, focused on short-term measures designed to lift GDP growth (a way of thinking akin to business quarterly reporting) and quick to heavy those who got in his way, overshadowing the ministers in related economic development portfolios such as energy and ensuring other initiatives didn’t get in the way of GDP growth.
These three formed a strategic inner cabinet with Gerry Brownlee, who brought the “ordinary person’s” perspective, and Murray McCully, billed as a political strategist though actually more of a tactician with a touch of Rasputin in his manner. Paula Bennett and Simon Bridges occasionally looked in.
Down the cabinet Tony Ryall squeezed more from hospitals and kept the pips from squeaking too much, Chris Finlayson set a cracking pace in Treaty of Waitangi settlements and Tim Groser did trade, with aplomb, and climate change, hampered by conceptual and Joycean difficulties.
Failures and lapses of oversight management of weaker or blinkered ministers didn’t detract significantly from public confidence (though did raise questions about Key’s management). Likewise, growing agitation about “inequality” didn’t translate into a shift in support for opposition parties riding that issue. And when something went badly wrong, as in the collapse of the badly managed Pike River coalmine in 2010, the response was remedial legislation.
Moreover, Key proved remarkably adept at getting underperforming or ageing ministers and MPs to contemplate life after politics. Come election time 2014, 15 of those elected in 2011 had moved on, with zero fuss. No such regeneration of a major party has been done in “peacetime” (that is, while in power) before.
And a macro-personality
Key himself was the fourth main factor working for the government. He is likeable, blokey and jokey and at home with radio “shock jocks”, good with his family, an easy mixer, moderately pleasant-looking and plausible. He was trusted to get things more or less right, even if some things he did were not entirely in accord with proper process. (That is how trust works in politics: Australian Prime Minister John Howard was re-elected in 2007 despite being exposed as having larded the facts in the 2004 campaign over an incident involving would-be illegal immigrants.)
Key, in short, is a macro-personality. A macro-personality personifies the party and attracts votes to him/herself, including many who would not otherwise vote for the party. [Anderson 2014]
Voters are prepared to give such macro-personalities the benefit of the doubt – as they did in Key’s case over the revelations by the self-regarding Nicky Hager in his book of emails detailing grubby behind-scenes National party machinations, launched on 13 August [Hager 2014]. This was despite Key’s evasive responses to the book’s charges and his implausible labelling of the controversy it caused as a “leftwing conspiracy” and despite, or because of, his firing of Judith Collins on 30 August when a rightwing blogger publicised claims (not upheld in the subsequent government inquiry) that she had helped undermine a senior public servant. Voters told focus group pollsters they didn’t understand the implications of the Hager assertions and their relevance to the election and few deserted National on that score. (The relevance to the election is that proper conduct and process according to the rules – that is, a well-functioning democracy – is the issue in an election [James 2014, 1]. But that would be likely to play a decisive part in people’s decisions as to how to vote only if it stripped trust off a party or leader.)
The improved economy and household finances, the picture of government competence and Key’s macro-personality added up to very strong positive readings in the UMR and Morgan polls that the country was on the right track, going in the right direction. Such a high reading normally points to re-election of the incumbent government in some form, though possibly with a more complicated coalition than in the first two terms.
And no visible alternative government
There was a fourth factor: the lack of a clearly visible alternative government.
Through 2013 the combined polling by Labour and the Greens headed National’s polling by 0.5%. This suggested there was a genuine choice between a Labour-Green-led government and a National-led one.
It also suggested, given reasonable polling for New Zealand First, that the outcome could very well depend on the choice Winston Peters made after the election.
By April or May – and certainly by July – Peters was looking more likely to go with National. This was even though he harboured a deep resentment at Key’s treatment of him in 2008 over his acceptance of business donations, which probably contributed to New Zealand First party’s exit from Parliament in the 2008 election. The likely choice of National was also despite New Zealand First’s manifesto being much close to Labour’s policy line than National’s, its conference-delegate-level rank and file likewise being nearer Labour than National and some serious sticking points with National, including over immigration and inward foreign investment.
Labour could at best offer Peters only third in a Labour-led lineup after the Greens – and even then might need Internet Mana votes for a majority. With National, New Zealand First would have been second biggest, far ahead of National’s three micro-party supports.
Moreover, by April-May Labour’s support was sliding. There is a range of reasons for that but one is that David Cunliffe as leader fluffed his lines on several high-profile occasions, was exposed as having a secret trust to fund his campaign for the Labour leadership in 2013, accused Key of having a house in a leafy suburb when he did too and said different things to different audiences. Cunliffe, though personable, a capable debater of Key on television and an orator with presence, was no macro-personality. If anything, he was a negative factor.
In addition, Cunliffe had drawn back from the cooperative relationship with the Greens that had been developing in 2013 under the previous leadership of David Shearer. When the Greens tried to resuscitate the cooperation in May, proposing the two parties campaign as a coalition, Cunliffe rejected that – but then did not fill the void with a formulation that would have given a clear voting option to those looking for an alternative government to vote for.
That turned away those looking for an alternative government and set a spiral. Labour slid in the polls and the more it slid the less attractive it looked and the more it slid.
Populism and poison
And as Labour slid, some voters wanting a brake on National shifted to New Zealand First, which climbed from a poll average of 4.9% at mid-August to 8.7% in the election. There may also have been an element of brake-seeking in the Conservatives’ 4.0%: while the Conservatives were to the right of National on moral and social issues, they were not market-liberals: they were against open foreign investment and asset sales and wanted binding referendums as a restraint on governments.
There was also probably an element of populist response in the rise in these two parties’ votes: populism is a channel for voting “against” policies and people, especially the elites, or just in protest at financial and other stress. But, compared with the populists waves in Europe and the United States, the 2014 election in New Zealand was very mild. (Unless Key’s macro-personalisation of National could be interpreted as a brand of populism.)
Might the Hager exposures have generated a quasi-populist surge to Labour away from National? If anything, polling suggested Labour was damaged as much as National. Voters seemed to read the phrase “dirty politics” as a tautology: all politicians do it, so what? Key rode it out, even though initially handling it ineptly.
In addition, Kim Dotcom administered what he himself on election night called “poison”. The more Labour slid in the polls, the more it looked to voters it would need Dotcom’s faustian Internet-Mana concoction: Dotcom’s lavish funding of a joint campaign in return for leveraging some seats on the back of Hone Harawira’s Te Tai Tokerau seat. The poison killed Harawira’s hold on his seat. It attracted few of the young freedom-and-idealism voters whom Internet leader Laila Harre (ex-Alliance, ex-Green) discerned as potential recruits (as the Pirates had briefly in Germany). Those it did attract were mainly in the “university” seats where the Greens do best. At one of the rock-concert parties Dotcom put on to attract young people he got them chanting “Fuck John Key”. His trumpeted king hit on Key on 15 September which featured United States spy leaker Edward Snowden, Snowden write-up journalist Glenn Greenwald and Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange detailing spy cooperation with the United States fell flat. An alleged 2010 Warner Brothers email of a secret plan involving Key about Dotcom’s extradition appeared to be a fake.
Dotcom’s achievement, apart from destroying Mana and tainting Labour, appears (from discussions with National activists) to have been to add weight to National’s campaign to persuade National-leaning potential non-voters to vote. That, plus dumping Mana’s support into the wasted vote, was likely the difference between National forming a government with its three lapdog support parties and needing New Zealand First.
Targeting the vote
After the 2011 election there was much talk, especially on the Labour side, of the “enrolled non-vote” and of declining overall voter turnout. On 29 May 2014 the Electoral Commission sponsored a one-day conference to discuss this and promote, especially to young people, the value of voting.
In the runup to the 2014 election National worried that its supporters might become complacent and deprive it of the votes needed to form a stable government post-2014. At the party’s annual conference on 28-29 June John Key and campaign manager Steven Joyce hammered home the need to activate every possible National vote. That message was repeated at the launch on 24 August. According to party officials, twice as many phone calls were made to actual and potential supporters as in 2011. By using electorate demographic data from the election study and coupling that with the party’s own extensive canvassing data, National was able to target its calls and the content and vehicle of its messages and follow-up contact better.
Labour drew on United States techniques [Issenberg, 2013] to run an even more targeted campaign than National, trialled successfully in the Ikaroa-Rawhiti and Christchurch East by-election campaigns in 2013 and drawing on meshblock-level data (as described in detail elsewhere at this conference by Rob Salmond). The voters targeted were those who had not voted in 2008 and/or 2011 who had characteristics likely to tip them into the Labour camp if they voted. Labour officials say around four times the calls were made than in 2011.
Logically, if the two main parties were equally effective in getting sympathetic non-voters to vote, Labour should add more votes to its total than National. That is because past experience indicated more Labour-leaning people were likely not to vote than National-leaning voters. One argument is that those in lower socioeconomic and minority ethnic groups perceive less of a stake in the system than those in higher socioeconomic and those of mainstream ethnicity, as evidenced, for example, in the low turnout in successive elections in Maori electorates and general electorates with a high proportion of Maori and Pasifika.
But the broad results suggest National was more effective than Labour: the biggest swing to National in a block of seats was in its strong seats on the Auckland isthmus. Labour could not counter the strong tide running for National and against itself.
The Greens also did far more canvassing, in keeping with their status as clearly the third largest party and their greater political professionalism.
National’s small parties – and the going home of the Maori vote
In the election voters did serious damage to National’s three small support parties.
ACT, which early in 2014 had grandiose visions of nine MPs, [ACT 2014] finished with only the Epsom seat, by grace of National indicating to its supporters that they should cast their electorate vote for ACT’s David Seymour, and 0.69% of the party vote, down from 1.07% in 2011. United Future got Peter Dunne’s Ohariu seat, also by grace of National’s nudging its supporters Dunne’s way. But Dunne won only narrowly and United Future won only 0.22% of the party vote, so low that Dunne’s is an overhang seat. ACT might well survive and even possibly grow a bit in 2017. But United Future is close to extinction, which was in effect acknowledged by Dunne himself in an address to the United Future board on 15 November in which he said the party needs to go back to basics and focus afresh on core principles – though Dunne also said in that address that membership had grown. [Dunne 2014]
For the Maori party the election spelt near-asphyxiation: down to two seats and only one electorate seat from a high point of five of the seven Maori electorate seats in 2008. The Labour party is in control with six of the seven – or is it?
From a Maori perspective the logic is that a Maori party or grouping holds the Maori electorates. This has been the case three times in the past 100 years: after 1935 when the Ratana movement progressively won all four seats (the total at the time); in 1996 when New Zealand First’s “tight five” held all five seats (the total at that time) in a party led by a Maori, Winston Peters, who was endorsed by Tuwharetoa paramount chief Sir Hepi te Heuheu; and in 2005 and 2008 when the Maori party won four, then five, of the seven.
In each case the Maori grouping lost its independence. Labour over time absorbed the Ratana movement and the seats became Labour seats that happened to be Maori, not Maori seats that happened to be Labour-aligned. Labour lost one of the seats in the 1993 election, then all five in 1996. Four of the “tight five” split from New Zealand First when it left its coalition with National in 1998 and all five lost their seats in 1999. The Maori party, which entered National’s governing coalition in 2008, split in 2010 when Hone Harawira formed Mana, then lost support.
The bulk of voters in Maori electorates, if pushed to a choice between Labour and National, choose Labour, as the party votes since 1996 reflect. In effect, New Zealand First’s “tight five” and the Maori party delivered Labour-side votes to National.
The Maori party’s decision to formally support the National-led governments of 2008 and 2011 was logical. It gave the Maori party some influence with the government and it used that to advance specifically Maori cultural or self-management ambitions. Among the gains were: the whanau ora Maori-run social services programmes; New Zealand’s signature to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; and a rewrite of the 2004 Labour-led government’s legislation which overrode the Supreme Court decision that iwi and hapu could argue traditional ownership of stretches of foreshore and seabed – the trigger for then Labour MP Tariana Turia’s defection to form the Maori party.
Despite the cost to its support, the same logic continued to apply even after the 2014 election – principally to preserve and develop whanau ora, out of respect for Turia whose policy it was and for fear that if the Maori party was absent from the ruling coalition, National would let whanau ora atrophy. Yet there was a strong view within the party, expressed vigorously at the post-election annual general meeting on 1 November, that the National link was toxic, that the Maori party was seen as in effect an arm of a National-led government which had not operated in the interests of lower socioeconomic strata where the bulk of Maori electorate voters were. That only 55% of Maori opted for the Maori electorate rolls after the 2013 census compared with 58% in 2006 (from 55% in 2001 and 54% in 1997) may reflect disenchantment with the Maori party; the percentage had been expected to rise, not fall; the eighth seat hoped for did not eventuate.
Come 2017 it is possible the Maori party’s vote might lift a bit if some of Mana’s voters return. More likely, it will either stay at two seats or contract on to Te Ururoa Flavell’s Wairiki electorate or even possibly lose that seat if Labour continues to pick up votes there and if Mana’s Annette Sykes is not a contestant. If Flavell were to hold his seat and join a Labour-led government, that would de facto deliver that seat to Labour.
But that is not to say that Labour has the seats back for good. There will be more Maori movements. To develop a durable hold on the seats, Labour will have to learn to treat those it holds as Maori seats that happen to be Labour.