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New Zealand is voting National - but why?

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

 New Zealanders appear to have made up their minds about Saturday's election. It appears that National will form the first majority government of the MMP era and also will be the first to win an absolute majority of votes for 60 years if the polls are anything to go by.

I want to say first off that I do believe the polls, especially those conducted by reputable market research companies. Therefore, sadly, many of my fellow New Zealanders are preparing to re-elect the present government which has promised more asset sales, public service cuts, welfare reforms and ridiculous national standards for primary school kids. 

But does this mark a shift to the right on the part of many New Zealanders? According to opinion polls, they overwhelmingly endorse welfare reforms and public service cuts. The incessant propaganda war waged by the New Right has, I fear, won over many more New Zealanders. The ordinary public believe that the growing numbers of unemployed and poor are simply lazy and indolent. They believe that the public service bureaucracy is overstaffed (which is nonsense if you look at the stats) and that the sacking of civil servants is justified.

Yet, on the other hand, opinion polls have also shown that New Zealanders by a 60/40 margin oppose National's plans to sell off state assets. They want more spending on key areas like health and education. They don't back Labour's regressive plan either to raise the retirement age to 67 (although the margin is closer on this issue). They remain strongly concerned about the environment, which has been something of a problem for National with its botched plan to mine the Conservation estate and its poor handling of the Rena spill. 

So, why are New Zealanders still preparing to vote National despite all these factors?

1.) If one looks at the historical record, Tory Governments tend to be re-elected during times of economic crisis and Labour/left-leaning governments during years of relative prosperity. In fact, paralells can be drawn between this election and the 1931 election. Back then, New Zealand was also in the economic doldrums due to the Great Depression. Similarly, another city (Napier) had been flattened by an earthquake in the early part of that year and needed reconstruction. Thus, the Tory 'National Coalition' Government of the United and Reform parties was able to play on the electorate's fears and insecurities to a large extent by continuously stating that any change to the left would spell doom. Ditto, the 2011 election. National has been able to successfully seize on the ongoing crisis of international capitalism that is the Eurozone crisis to scare voters into submission. They have been able to paint Labour and all other left wing parties as potentially debt loving and fiscally irresponsible, never minding the fact that both the deficit and public debt have increased under the Tories during this current parliamentary term.

2.) The person of John Key. Never before have I seen a Prime Minister (let alone a Tory one) enjoy such high personal and job satisfaction rankings. Admittedly, many New Zealanders warm to Key at a personal level. Many on the left meanwhile (including myself) only see the smug, arrogant side but the electorate still prefer to see only the 'Nice Mr Key.' I have to hand it to National's propagandists though in that they have done a magnificent job of selling the PM over the last five years since he became party leader. Conversely, Labour have really been handicapped by having a totally unsellable leader in Phil Goff and as for the other party leaders, they have been left in the dust. Having a very popular, presentable leader has enabled National to get away with more policy lapses and failures than they should have. 

3.) An inept parliamentary opposition. Apart from the Greens, the Labour Party has tried to push issues like asset sales, rising unemployment and our ongoing poor economic performance but to no effect. As I said in the previous paragraph, this poor performance comes down to Labour having an almost unsellable leader in Goff. The Labour leader also has a political past as a Rogernome when he was one of the key cheerleaders for asset sales during the Fourth Labour Government's time in office. However, the segment of the voting public who still remember the 1980s have been judging Goff solely on his performance as Leader of the Opposition in more recent times and have found him wanting. Therefore, I have been surprised as to why National hasn't exploited this historical fact by running attack ads illuminating Goff's earlier support for asset sales. The Nats and John Key have been successful in mounting such attacks on Goff in the House but not in the wider public arena. National may have shied away from doing so given that asset sales remain their achilles heel and furthermore they have long realised that Goff will not win this election anyway. But if the Nats were really determined to bury Labour, then they should have considered something like this.

4.) John Key's handling of crises. In this regard, I have to give Key credit for his calm handling of political and natural disasters alike - at least until the Rena disaster and the teapot tape saga soured things. If Key and National win Saturday's election by the margin predicted, I think he might have won it on the night of February 22 when he appeared very calm and assured on national television in the wake of the second Christchurch earthquake. I even said to myself when watching his performance that "Key has won the's settled!" On that occasion, he was sombre and reflected the popular mood well. Furthermore, just a few days beforehand, a political storm had broken over the Government's purchase of new ministerial cars and the opinion polls were beginning to register some small, but not insignificant slides, in National's popularity over this. Had the second Christchurch quake not intervened, then I would have been sitting here today speculating on a far closer election race.

I have my doubts, however, as to whether this election marks a long-term shift to the right in New Zealand politics. I expect that at some stage, the left (encompassing Labour, the Alliance, Te Mana and provided they don't get any closer to the Nats, the Greens) will all enjoy a resurgence in support. Another reason is that many left-leaning voters will not turn out due to the feeling of inevitability around the outcome and also to send Labour a message about its poor performance in opposition. Hence, the size of the non-vote should be seen as an indicator of the Left's real support within the New Zealand electorate. Another thing to factor in is that the next three years will be difficult for National and New Zealand. How a re-elected National Government handles the fall out of the Eurozone economic crisis, the Canterbury re-build and the recovery of the Pike River miners bodies will determine whether it is re-elected or not in 2014.

For all the above reasons, the voters of this country are preparing to re-elect National as a stand alone government. But the Left remains in wait to vigorously oppose it should things (as they inevitably will) go wrong for the Nats.






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