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Chris Ford: National - the key reasons why they won

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

I've been thinking about why National won on September 20. There are a whole host of reasons but I'll go into the key elements (pun intended) from a left perspective of why they did so.

To be honest, despite being a Green candidate this year, I always felt a National-led government was on the cards. The one thing that shocked me though about the result was my expectation that it would be a National-New Zealand First Coalition Government. In the end this did not eventuate as I thought it would. During the campaign, however, National had a white knuckle ride (post-Dirty Politics) and it looked as though it's support was dropping - that was until Judith Collins's sacking on August 31 - but more on my thoughts about that later. First, I want to talk about the factors which contributed to National's victory:

1.) The great electoral shift rightwards: this has been an ongoing phenomenon of the last thirty years since Rogernomics. The Labour-led victories of the 2000s may have masked this trend and slowed it down but still the political, economic and social changes wrought since the time of the Fourth Labour Government have remained largely in place. This has effected a huge shift in popular attitudes towards such things as welfare, for example. The main cause of this shift has been the growing social and economic inequality generated by the neo-liberal reform process. This is so as books such as The Spirit Level  have argued that more unequal societies (such as New Zealand's) tend to have greater levels of community breakdown which, in turn, produces less social solidarity and empathy towards the poorest and most marginalised in our society. Therefore, it is probably middle-class voters in Auckland and Christchurch, who have seen their property values rise (at the expense of locking out lower and middle-income earners) - in other words mortgage belt voters - who contributed significantly to National's victory on September 20.

2.) The 'I Don't Believe This Happens Here factor' - the Dirty Politics counter-effect: I thought that Nicky Hager's brave expose Dirty Politics would be an electoral game changer. It almost was for some people as National's poll ratings dipped by anywhere between 2 and 4 points in the week after the revelations emerged. But John Key's survival instincts kicked in and he effectively scapegoated Judith Collins by handing the electorate her head on a plate on August 30. This politically convenient move obviously diverted attention away from the claims made against the PM in the book that staffers in his office (notably Jason Ede) fed the Dirty Politics gang's attacks and also the allegations surrounding the mysteriously quick release of an Official Information Act request made by blogger Cameron Slater about information held by the Security Intelligence Service on briefings made to Phil Goff - all this in order to allegedly discredit the then Labour leader in 2011. By also doing this, the PM made sure that he was kept pure and clean (as per the two-track strategy outlined in Hager's book) and was seen to be distancing himself from those associated with Slater and Co. This appears to have worked with many wavering voters moving back to National following the former justice minister's sacking. In my view, this fed a belief among the wider electorate (who had largely not read the book) that the level of political skullduggery written about could not happen here (or was happening on all sides) and that nothing could or should fault Key. And this made it easier for the next factor to come into play which was...

3.) Kim Dotcom and the failure of the Moment of Truth: I thought Kim Dotcom could not have stuffed up what was an otherwise brilliant opportunity to expose John Key more spectacularly. His production of an email purporting to show that the PM acted in cahoots with Hollywood entertainment moguls to entrap him in New Zealand sounded preposterous (even though Dotcom claims it's still l true and I believe that an independent authority should still investigate to rule firmly and finally on its validity). In saying all this, it overshadowed the otherwise excellent presentations of Wikileaks whistleblower Edward Snowden (the main hero of the night in my view) and journalist Glenn Greenwald on New Zealand's acquiescence with the illegal activities of the American Five Eyes spying network and its use of XKeyscore. Undeniably, these useful revelations were all undermined by Dotcom's spectacular failure which caused huge delight on the Right. At the very same time, if not by coincidence, a series of controversial anti-terror raids were conducted in Australia against suspected Islamic State sympathisers. These raids and Key's and Crosby-Textor's laughable (if still somewhat effective) line that 'Don't let foreigners (i.e. Kim Dotcom) interfere with our election' saw potential Tory voters (who might otherwise have stayed at home or given their votes to NZ First) flock to the booths. And while elements of National and the Right have almost no love for Dotcom, they may be thanking their lucky stars for his presence. That means that if Dotcom were to ever leave our shores, the Right would be deprived of someone they can whip their supporters into a frenzy over, once again, in 2017.

4.) The failure of the Labour Party and David Cunliffe: early in the year I heard rumours about the shambolic organisational state of both the local and national Labour Party organisations through the Greens. I can say that the Greens gained some members from Labour due to not only its disorganised state but its confused policy stances, particularly over deep sea drilling (which it largely supported). Labour tried to be everything to everyone - and massively failed in the process. This was evidenced in their messaging and policy which tended to vary from week to week. Speaking of policy, they persisted with some pretty right-wing stuff including the raising of the retirement age from 65 to 67 and their plan to use Kiwisaver contributions as another monetary policy tool. These policies gave National plenty of attack space to play with. Added to this, the Dirty Politics gang, sensing the organisational turmult within David Cunliffe's office in particular, launched smear attacks (via Jason Ede) to undermine the former opposition leader's credibility, the most memorable being over the support letter written on Cunliffe's behalf regarding Donghua Liu. These 'revelations' caused him to loose face in the eyes of the public - which was exactly the intent of Ede and his Beehive masters. I believe that the Dirty Politics crew should not have bothered really. While Cunliffe had energy, vision and good debating skills, he, most importantly lacked the support of much of his caucas. In this sense, the Anyone But Cunliffe (ABC) brigade essentially insinuated that there was a bit of the Kevin Rudd about him and that were we to elect him as our PM, many voters might come to experience buyers regret in a year's time - hence, the lack of enthusiasm on the part of many electorate-based ABC MPs to campaign for the party vote. Evidently, this was selfish on their part as these and other factors condemned the Left to another defeat.

5.) The rock star economy: yes, if voters are told to believe that everything is great economically, then they will believe it is. No doubt during the year there were some economic stats which looked good on the surface. If you owned a house, your property values (while slightly eroded from their historic highs) were still pretty good. This has fed the consumer confidence that was experienced in places like Auckland and Christchurch. Add in the ongoing Christchurch rebuild and good dairy and log prices and the economy was supposedly coasting along fine. This was communicated in the unemployment stats too (mind you many of the jobs created in today's labour market are more insecure, low-paid, and casual than ever). During the campaign (and moreso afterwards) National made great play of these factors. Even so, and during the campaign itself, the limits of basing an economy on dirty dairying, logging and a rebuild came home to roost with the first indications that business and consumer confidence was beginning to decline from their post-GFC highs. Added to this, the global markets began to get shaky during election week and the fiscal surplus it hoped for looked to be evaporating. All this leads me to think that Key, in planning the September date and given his currency trading experience, thought that the economic tides would turn before year's end, so best to get the election done and dusted before Christmas. It turns out that if this were his intention, then he was right on the money!

6.) What the Nats didn't tell us: it's now becoming clear that the Nats didn't tell us some things before the vote. Governments are sometimes opportunistic in this way and the Nats are no exception. Key and Bill English didn't tell us about their intention to being privatising the state housing stock. They didn't tell us about their intentions to consider sending troops to battle the Islamic State. The Nats probably didn't tell us a host of other things which they wanted to keep quite as they didn't have much of a programme to run on. And the lack of a programme largely explains their reliance on dirty politics to destabilise the opposition and distract the country's attention from this fact.

7.) The low turnout: one of the most significant and telling comments I saw on FB came from a Tory supporter who said they were 'relieved' that few non-voters had bothered to turn out. That comment was more telling than anything else. I have no doubt that nearly every ardent National supporter and MP alike knew of the threat to the centre right that a higher than average voter turnout represented to them and their interests. Dirty Politics in fact cited a Young Republican presentation in the United States which stressed that negative campaigning was a crucial tool in depressing both electoral registration and turnout, particularly among politically disinterested and disconnected groups such as young people and those on low incomes. While voter turnout improved slightly from 74 percent to 77 percent, this was based on a lower enrolment figure of 91 percent in 2014 (compared to 94 percent in 2011). Therefore, while efforts such as the Council of Trade Unions-sponsored 'Get Out and Vote' campaign had some success, this was countermanded by the still low levels of enrolment and engagement, particularly among students, the manual working class and among Maori and Pasifika. If more people in these demographic groups had enrolled and turned out, then the gap between the centre-left and centre-right would have been even narrower, if not diminished. In other words, National is still quitely appreciative for all the voters who don't turn out.

As you can see, there are many explanations for National's success three weeks ago. Despite all that transpired on the campaign, National were lucky to survive and get the result they did - which in the end was little different than the 2011 result. They held steady - they neither advanced greatly but nor did they go backwards. If the miniscule votes of the ACT and United Future parties are added on and, more significantly, the wasted votes of the Conservatives, the Right enjoyed a nearly 51% majority of the vote in the final count and if you consider NZ First a right-wing party (as I do) then that rises to nearly 60%. Very depressing figures for anyone on the Left to digest. At the end of the day, National still dominates for all the reasons I've outlined. And some of these reasons either may or won't exist in 2017. The Left has an opportunity to seize the day once again - it has the ability to do so!


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