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Dr Muriel Newman

Election 2011 – the final countdown

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Election 2011 – the final countdown!

Last month, with the Rugby World Cup in full swing, the country was painted black in support of the All Blacks. Now, the country is painted blue in support of a National-led government.

Almost half of the population voted for National, but due to the vagaries of MMP, John Key still needs coalition partners to enable him to govern.

United Future’s lone MP Peter Dunne, and ACT’s now lone MP John Banks, have both stepped up and pledged their support so that National can form a government.

The numbers of crucial party votes tell the story of this 2011 General Election:

  • 958,000 votes were cast for National giving 47.99 percent and 60 seats in Parliament
  • 541,000 votes were for Labour giving 27.13 percent and 34 seats
  • 212,000 votes were for the Greens giving 10.62 percent and 13 seats
  • 136,000 votes were for NZ First giving 6.81 percent and 8 seats
  • 27,000 votes were for the Maori Party giving 1.35 percent and 3 seats
  • 21,000 votes were for ACT giving 1.07 percent and 1 seat
  • 20,000 votes were for Mana giving 1 percent and 1 seat
  • 12,000 votes were for United Future giving 0.6 percent and 1 seat in Parliament

The new Conservative Party picked up 55,000 votes or 2.76 percent of the Party vote, but because it failed to win an electorate seat, those votes were wasted and re-allocated to the other parties.

The 2011 General Election was run against the backdrop of a deteriorating global economy. Throughout the campaign the crisis in the Euro zone has continued to escalate as Greece, Italy and Spain all face calamitous debt defaults that have threatened the European Union and the stability of world economies. Each of these countries are faced with the similar problems of incompetent governments that have failed to impose effective austerity measures to reduce government spending and reign in government debt. As a result their economies have stalled and rising unemployment is making their problems worse.

With all of this in mind, the Labour Party’s main campaign message of more borrowing and spending did not resonate well with voters. It appeared to be more of a threat to our future, than the promise of a better way. In addition, their negative campaigning based on envy and greed did not appeal to many New Zealanders, who at heart are aspirational in nature. From their darkly oppressive advertising images, to the nasty and bitter rhetoric – Damian O’Connor in Labour’s opening televised address described National’s tax cuts and the ‘trickle down’ theory as “the rich pissing on the poor”, David Cunliffe on the campaign trail and on youtube described the Prime Minister as “the greasy little fellow in the blue suit”, David Parker in the closing televised address described people on welfare as “sitting on their arses” – Labour’s negative campaigning drove voters in search of alternatives, bringing the worst rout since MMP began, as voters abandoned them largely for the Greens.

With the biggest question on people’s minds being who would provide the safest pair of hands to guide the economy through the difficult times ahead, National’s more aspirational campaign promising a brighter future struck a chord. Their focus on strong economic management, reducing government spending, and more effective welfare reform, resonated with voters. They ran a tight presidential campaign and achieved their goal of 48 percent of the party vote.

The star performer of the 2011 Election Campaign has been the Greens. They have successfully shifted their brand from the radical left positioning epitomised by likes of former MPs Sue Bradford and Nandor Tanczos, to the centre ground of politics occupied by Labour. Their masterful campaign content was an effective balance between policy and the emotional imagery of playful children, clean freshwater streams, and towering windmills on outstanding landscapes. They managed to enter the economic debate with credibility and didn’t miss a beat with their trademark stream of relevant news stories designed to keep them in front of the cameras and the public.

All parties could learn a lot from the Green’s propaganda machine, which is so slick that it effectively deflects close scrutiny – but one would have thought the lessons should have already been learnt, since the Greens have always been extremely effective at campaigning.

ACT on the other hand was unable to throw off the infighting and innuendo that had continually dogged the party over recent years, and the resulting lack of traction for its campaign messages left the ACT of today in a very different position from that of 1996, when it promised to breathe fresh air into New Zealand politics.

That fresh air instead came from the new Conservative Party. With a largely leaflet based campaign, the Conservatives – like many new parties – struggled to gain media traction. However, in spite of that it managed to achieve a party vote better than the combined vote of ACT, United Future, and the Mana Party! It remains to be seen whether the founder Colin Craig will move the party from being one based around him personally to being a fully functioning democratic party ready to contest the 2014 General Election.

The major surprise of the election campaign, has of course, been the return of New Zealand First. Written off by the media and demonised by many politicians, Winston Peters has been working under the radar to spread his message around the country over the last three years. The straight talking style of Mr Peters on issues of concern to many New Zealanders  – in particular the rise of the Maori sovereignty movement – is undoubtedly a key factor in his return. In this politically correct world in which we now live, where anyone who criticises Maori sovereignty activists are accused of being racist, many New Zealanders would have supported the return to Parliament of a politician prepared to speak out strongly against the growing racial divide that deepened and widened during the three years that the Maori Party has had its hands on the levers of power.

In looking at the Maori vote, as with ACT, it appears that their infighting has turned supporters away. The Maori and Mana parties between them gained only 47,000 votes from the 230,000 enrolled on the Maori electoral roll. In fact, these two parties split the radical Maori sovereignty vote in two. On the one hand are those who support the Maori Party, which is the voice of the iwi leaders, an elite group that according to a recent government report, control some $37 billion worth of assets in New Zealand. And on the other hand are those activists represented by Hone Harawera and his Mana Party. So when John Key strikes his coalition agreement with the Maori Party, it will be to give the Maori aristocracy a “voice at the top table”, not struggling Maori.

In the lead up to an election, the polls play a major roll in indicating where voter support is moving. To some extent government funding for campaign purposes is tied to how the parties are ranking in the polls, and some media networks use the polls restrict the appearance of low ranking minor party leaders in their televised debates. As a result, political polls can have a dramatic influence on the outcome of an election.

This week’s NZCPR Guest is Frank Newman, an economic commentator and NZCPR Director, who has examined the winners and losers in this year’s election – including the pollsters – in his article Winners and losers: “The politicians were not the only ones being judged on election night. So too were numerous polling companies. In this election there was a marked difference between the polls. Horizon, for example, predicted National would poll around 33% and the Conservative Party over 5%, while Fairfax had National support at 54%.”

Frank concludes: “Clearly the standout best predictors were the TVOne Colmar Brunton poll and Ipredict. The worst performer, and to a very large degree, was Horizon. This is probably explained by their self–selected sampling which creates the opportunity for parties to “gate-crash” and some were openly doing so during the campaign”.

Looking to the future, if National is to win a third term in 2014, parties will need to emerge that can represent the views of voters on the centre right of New Zealand’s political spectrum. It is in National’s interest to ensure that they have viable partners that are strong enough to give them the support they will need at the next election. Whether that will be through a rebuild of ACT, a strengthening of the Conservatives, or a new political force, remains to be seen.

On the left, Labour has the problem that it has shifted itself out of the centre-ground by promoting unpopular policies like a Capital Gains Tax that failed to resonate with middle New Zealand voters. Seizing the opportunity, the Greens have rushed headlong into that centre-ground with their friendly faces and sunny disposition. This creates additional problems for Labour, especially if Phil Goff falls on his sword before a careful succession plan is put in place.

However, none of that is fatal. Over the next three years Labour and Greens will undoubtedly sort themselves out and will once again present a cohesive force for change in 2014.

Finally, with the public voting to retain MMP as our voting system, the political machinations and public frustrations look set to continue. Here at the NZCPR, we will be monitoring the promised MMP review process closely and will keep you well informed of progress.

We hope that whichever way you voted in the election that you have found something to be positive about. If not, don’t worry, in three years time we will all be doing it again.