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Dr Muriel Newman

Labour Closes In

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If the pundits are right, we could have an election within eight weeks. All around the country, halls which are traditionally used for polling booths have been booked for October 18th. With some public opinion polls showing that the gap between National and Labour is narrowing and tax cuts due on October 1st, many believe that Labour will be anxious to capitalise on the “feel-good” factor that tax cuts will generate.

Other potential election dates are also somewhat problematic. October 25th is Labour Day, and November 1st is the Bledisloe Cup. That leaves November 8th – four days after the US Presidential Election – or November 15. Since this is the last possible date for an election, it could not only look like Labour is “clinging to power”, but it would also clash with the Canterbury Show, creating a possible distraction in one of Labour’s strongholds.

In 2002, the Prime Minister announced the election six and a half week’s ahead of voting day, and in 2005 seven and a half weeks notice was given. So all in all, while we should expect an announcement about the election within the next few weeks, thanks to the draconian Electoral Finance Act, many people are completely unaware that an election is just around the corner!

The Electoral Finance Act has imposed on New Zealand the most restrictive election year censorship rules in the western world. The twin effects of uncertainty over what is permissible under the Act and fear of breaking the law have resulted in not only an effective ban on free speech in the public arena, but total confusion over what is and is not permissible amongst the politicians. With the critics effectively silenced, the government has had a clear run.

Labour’s strategy is to improve its poll rating to within 10 percentage points of National ahead of the election campaign.[1] They are banking on the fact that, with a strong campaign and the support of minor parties, they may once again have the numbers to govern. And they are ruthlessly throwing everything they have got at discrediting National, through seemingly fair means or foul.

According to the latest Colmar Brunton poll, their strategy appears to be working. While Labour is still well behind National, the gap has closed from the maximum 26 percentage points two months ago, to 14 points.[2] Given Labour’s propensity to outperform National in an election campaign by offering powerful election bribes – in 2005 it was a $300 million plan to abolish interest on student loans – they are edging closer to their goal.

It is interesting to speculate on what ‘clincher’ Labour might be planning to offer this time around. While some consider the introduction of a universal student allowance is on the cards, others believe that the bigger objective of abolishing student debt for New Zealand based graduates, could well be in their sights.

The Maori seats are still very important to Labour, despite the prospect of losing all or more to the Maori Party this time around. It is interesting to note that in 2005 the Maori Party received 49 percent of the electorate vote, but only 28 percent of the party vote. In comparison Labour gained 43 percent of the electorate vote and a whopping 55 percent of the party vote.[3]

Labour knows that the key to attracting support from Maori voters is to be ever more liberal with taxpayer resources. That’s undoubtedly why recent settlements – including forestry assets worth half a billion dollars, rights over the Waikato River worth more than $300 million, and the on-going transfer of foreshore and seabed rights – are becoming increasingly generous.

The Maori Party is in a different situation to most of the other minor Parliamentary parties in that their strength is in the electorate vote, not the party vote. They are therefore going to be less affected by the battle between the titans which is squeezing out the minor players.

Back in 1996, when MMP was first introduced, the minor parties in Parliament gained 34.3 percent of the party vote. By 2005 that had fallen to 18.5 percent, and in the latest Colmar Brunton poll, their support has fallen even further to 10.5 percent. Now, while minor party support invariably rises during an election campaign, there is no doubt that they have struggled to remain relevant.

The 2005 New Zealand Election Study, carried out by political scientists just after the last election, found that 55.6 percent of respondents thought that New Zealand had too many political parties in Parliament, 34.5 percent said there were about the right number, 0.9 percent said there were not enough, and 9 percent did not know.[4] And with the passing into law of the highly unpopular Green Party law to ban smacking, concerns are growing that the minor parties in Parliament are the tail wagging the dog.

In a democracy, while politics is essentially a battle for the hearts and minds of the voting public, it is in effect a numbers game. The major party that can cobble together 51 percent of the country’s total party vote – with help from the minor parties – will gain the Treasury benches.

This week’s Guest Commentator, journalist, commentator and former Dominion editor, Karl du Fresne, looks at some of the options:

“Let’s assume that the polls are correct, and that Labour is going to take a bath in the general election. And let’s assume further that it won’t be able to cobble together enough support from the minor parties to outnumber National (an assumption supported by some poll results that suggest voters are deserting the smaller parties, with the possible exception of the Maori Party). Shouldn’t all this give heart to those who are ideologically at odds with Labour’s Big Government approach and redistributionist, the-rich-are-pricks philosophy? Well, not to me, because I have little confidence that National will be radically different. Elections are supposed to be about choices, but I can’t think of any general election in my voting lifetime when the choices seemed less clearcut. The only sense in which the choices are clearly defined is that Labour has forgotten how to engage reverse gear while National, which has progressively ditched many of the policies that clearly delineated its differences with Labour, seems unable to get out of it”.

In his article The Tipping-out Point for Labour, Karl goes on to say, “Here’s the problem, then: Key seems a genuinely decent and affable sort of bloke – but should we elect our leaders on the basis of their apparent decency and affability? I look for something deeper. At the very least I look for some clear indication of what a party stands for, philosophically. I know what Labour, the Greens and the Maori Party stand for, and even if I don’t agree with them I can at least respect them for having some sort of coherent ideological framework. But when I look at National all I see is a party that seems prepared to make whatever trade-offs and compromises are necessary to win office. That may be realpolitik, but I don’t believe it’s enough to inspire confidence and respect from voters”.

Karl raises a very interesting point. In past years, if there was significant public angst over a policy issue, it appeared that there was always a minor party prepared to champion the cause. But in these days of consensus politics, with many minor parties following National’s lead and converging on the soft political centre ground, there are deep ‘underbelly’ issues of grave public concern that are now totally lacking political leadership.

In his Orewa speech in 2004, Don Brash exposed the widespread public concern about the growth of Maori privilege and an overgenerous Treaty settlement process, asking the question: “What sort of nation do we want to build? Is it to be a modern democratic society embodying the essential notion of one rule for all in a single nation state? Or is it a racially divided nation, with two sets of laws, and two standards of citizenship, that the present Labour government is moving us steadily towards?” [5] Yet in spite of the situation getting worse, no political party now appears prepared to campaign on one rule for all.

Nor is there a champion for the growing number of New Zealanders who believe that the government have got it wrong on global warming. With man-made greenhouse gas emissions rising over the last decade, but global temperatures cooling, the bulldozing through of policies to reduce anthropogenic emissions by cutting living standards is simply reckless. Yet, fearful of a voter backlash, no minor party has the courage to take a lead in this highly controversial area.

The reality is that the only way to turn this situation around is for the public to regain their voice and challenge the politicians to take their concerns seriously. If enough people put on enough pressure, the politicians will respond. After all, with an election just around the corner every candidate knows that they ignore voters at their peril!


1. Therese Arseneau, Why Labour thinks it can win again

2. TVNZ, Colmar Brunton poll results

3. Chief Electoral Office, Votes by Electorate

4. Jack Vowles, NZ Election Study

5. Muriel Newman, Where others fear to tread