Friday, 7 November 2008

New Zealand elections last time around...

. In honour of the fact that it looks likely the Helen Clarke's Labor shuffling out of government I thought I would reproduce this article I wrote on the last elections in New Zealand...

Outsider looking in...

I have a track record of involvement in British elections since the tender age of 11. My primary school was one of the few places where the words ’Liberal Democrat’ and 'landslide could be used in the same sentence. However, 2005 will register as a blip in terms of my activist history. Living in Hamilton since the end of January meant I missed Britain‘s general election this time around.

Watching an election campaign in another country can be a slightly disconcerting experience for somebody with an activist mentality. You are there, it is happening but it is not something that you have a stake in yourself. It is rather like a compulsive gambler watching a race he hasn’t bet on.

My sympathies to Labour activists currently thrusting pledge cards into largely indifferent hands. In 1997, 2001 and 2005, both as starry-eyed hopeful and then incumbent government, Labour in Britain produced pledge cards. A one trick pony constantly repeating itself is more than a little lacking in originality and the last thing as an incumbent New Zealand Labour should want to do is appear hackneyed and bland. Or is it? Writing on there web-site Steve Maharey extols the virtues of a no frills approach: “Our motto is to say what we will do and then delver.
No surprises.” No dictionary either.

Looking through the pledges themselves the ‘solid not spectacular’ approach is definitely the favoured one. However there are a few eye-catching moves like the abolition of interest on student loans. Also tax relief for families is a bold attempt to take on National on its own turf. National’s response to the abolition of interest on student loans - to about ‘bribery’ are hard to stomach. Are we seriously expected to believe that Don Brash and National are offering tax cuts out of the goodness of their hearts?

If pledge cards can be filed conveniently in the bin then television advertisements are harder to avoid. My political sympathies lay with the left/centre/left, call it what you will, but I couldn’t help chuckling at National’s ‘Taxithon’ ad. It is witty and compared to Labour’s yawn inducing efforts worthy of praise. In response, perhaps Helen Clarke should ask to borrow the Ingham chicken kids light sabre and cut through some cataract’s.

In Britain party political broadcasts, or PBB’s as they are affectionately called, are restricted to 5 minute affairs, usually shown before or after each stations major evening news program. They normally consist of immensely bland background monologue against the backdrop of either twee music or the national anthem with loads of ‘happy’ images of families, people working, cute animals etc. Not a few political incidents have arisen from PBB’s.

Famously in 1992 the Labour Party ran one attacking mismanagement of the National Health Service. Unfortunately for the Labour Party the subject of the broadcast was the granddaughter of a Conservative party member whom tipped the party off. In the subsequent fire fight across the pages of the British press Labour and its hapless leader, Neil Kinnock, were sunk without trace.

A major difference between Britain and here is the leaders debates. In Britain there is obviously some secret pact between the leaders of the three main parties that prevents them being in the same TV studio at the same time.

Sadly, I missed the first leadership debate due to work commitments. However, I did watch the analysis and it took me roughly half an hour to work out what the worm actually was. When I eventually did I couldn’t help but wonder if it was possible to be too fixated on the worm at the expense of watching the actual debate.

When I fly home, what will I take home with me politically?

I genuinely believe New Zealanders can be proud of possessing a more modern democracy than Britain. One thing that has struck me about this election is the diversity of opinion that is given a relevant voice by a proportional election system. 8 leaders featured in the first televised leadership debate. Looking beyond the big three in Britain it is hard to see where you would muster 8 leaders from were such a debate to take place on its television screens.

The need to build coalitions clearly does not constrain the main two parties in putting forward a clear program. Nor, to my mind does it obviously make them hostages to the agenda of smaller parties. Winston Peter’s pariah status due to his hardline on the question of immigration is proof that neither of the two major parties feel the need to offer concessions where they do not want too.

In practice it seems to me that smaller parties focus on one or a couple of issues that they would give prominence too in a coalition deal. Witness Act on tax cuts, United Future on families or the Greens on the environment. This is most likely to occur in areas in which they have something in common with the two major parties like Act’s ‘buddying up’ to National on tax cuts.

Proportionality isn’t meant to make things simpler - just more democratic. Coalitions can of course complicate voting decisions with the voter for a smaller party having to second guess who there vote may end up in practice putting in power. As a leader of a potential coalition party you are faced with at some stage the risk of alienating a significant section of your voters. In that regard Tariana Turia’s advocacy of canvassing voters for her Maori Party as to which way they would like it to jump seems the wisest move.

In Britain a proportional system as things stand would clearly benefit the centre-left as two of the three main parties are of that orientation. Britain’s Labour has however lacked the political will to implement change. Given that the last election delivered it a third term on 36% of the vote you can at least see why, in a narrow self interested way, its democratic spirit faltered.
The second major impression I will take home with me of this election is the limits of ideological conversion between the left and right and how old ideological division is resurfacing in new forms.

For example, spending on public services versus tax cuts is becoming a common theme in political discourse. Increasingly voters are expecting more for there tax dollars in terms of delivery from the state but remain untrustworthy of the centre-right on these questions. Centre-left thought is hamstrung by an unwillingness to match the radicalness of the right with radicalism of its own but of a totally different variety, assuming that the best way to defend the welfare state is through no change.

Michael Cullen however has far more fiscal leeway than Gordon Brown had prior to 2005. At the time of the last Budget Mr Brown was faced with the headache of creeping public sector debt and in parrel creeping revenue requirements by the government. Superannuation seems to me to be a piece of forward planning worthy of immense praise. Demographical shifts are increasingly likely to make themselves felt at a political level both in Britain and New Zealand.

Foreign policy enjoyed fifteen minuets of fame at the beginning of the campaign. The terms of the debate over here are totally different to those in Britain. Nuclear armament simply isn’t an issue that appears on the agenda at all, neither largely are relations with the US. Dealings with Europe are considered a separate issue and here there is a major divide between hesitancy (Labour), enthusiasm (Liberal Democrats) and agnosticism (Conservatives).

Iraq, however was an issue that caused Tony Blair much personal embarrassment during the 2005 campaign. In contrast, New Zealand Labour managed to use Iraq to its advantage. Obviously this was due to the conflicting stances taken by the two organisations but as well to a different cultural dynamic. It has been my observation that New Zealand is proud of its independence of the American world order. Walking into Hamilton city centre confirmed this when I was confronted by a billboard advertising Hells pizza bearing the legend: Hell, Too good for some evil ******** next to a picture of a smirking George Bush.

Here is an issue that again will grow as a presence in the traditional right/left political discourse. As the ‘war on terrorism’ continues more and more people will I believe come to question its prosecution.

In the humble opinion of this outsider there is allot to be proud of in this election for New Zealanders and allot I would like to see my country learn from politically.

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