Fighting the Papyrus: The New Zealand Election in Four Acts

Jon Johansson

With just over a week to run, it is a shame New Zealand’s 2014 election campaign is being showcased only in our Shaky Isles rather than, say, the Folger or the Globe. The vagaries of history you see have cast together a glittering array of characters that could easily grace the stage of a Shakespeare production. New Zealand’s triennial human play also embraces the Bard’s full range, for the election is part history, part comedy, with a tragedy thrown in for good measure.

Act I - Forget the sideshows – three more years  

The history has always favored National’s re-election. Since first coming to power in 1949, no National Party Prime Minister has failed to secure a third term, ever. Add a Labour Party in disarray; thoroughly out of joint with its times, and the strongest underlying driver of this election has always been an inexorable march toward National’s third term. National is currently polling at 48.9 percent but no-one, National included, thinks this number will hold on Election Day, so the campaign is therefore mostly about voters determining the form and shape of #teamkey’s return, hence the spotlight at the business end of the campaign turning to National’s possible coalition and support partners among various minor parties.

            For the prime minister, time must feel like it’s standing still. His usual sense of cheerfulness, reinforced by countless selfies, as befits our first celebrity prime minister, was badly disturbed by the publication of investigative journalist Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics. Lights burned late inside the Wellington’s motorway exits the night of Hager’s book launch, with the government anticipating the release of New Zealand-specific Edward Snowden material. When instead the book revealed, amongst other things, links between the prime minister’s office and right wing ‘attack’ bloggers running smear campaigns, alongside other members of his Cabinet, Key was caught on the back-foot. It took two weeks and the announcement of two formal inquiries (to report after the election) and the resignation/forced sacking of one of Key’s most likely successors, the highly ambitious Justice Minister Judith ‘Crusher’ Collins–alleged to have colluded in co-ordinated attacks against her own Serious Fraud Office chief–for National’s campaign to regain some semblance of control.

            Polls show National has emerged largely unscathed as a result of Hager’s expose. The longer-term damage to brand Key, however, with the election only one discrete data point in a likely ongoing series of post-Dirty Politics fall-outs, is another thing. Key looks very much like he’s suffering through his last election campaign.    

Act II - Moon walkers           

The election is also part comedy because the dance around coalition or support partners for National has thrown up some interesting characters. The Conservative Party (currently polling at 3.6 percent), a vanity project of its leader, Colin Craig, owner of a successful commercial property management business, is vying with the ageless veteran of New Zealand politics Winston Peters, leader of the economic nationalist New Zealand First Party (polling at 5.8 percent but surging), to position itself to decide the nature of the next government. Craig has expressed an open mind about whether man landed on the moon, or not, as he has about chemtrails, and he is virulently anti-science, so Key has not been able to embrace him without risking losing liberal voters scared off by the craziness of our own Koch-type-but-village-scale zealot.  

            Winston Peters, about whom Key previously said he would rather sit in principled opposition to, than share power with, looks the minor party leader most likely to give Key his third term. He is the safe bail-out vote for the soft centre voters who will decide this election. Peters can be trusted to keep the Key government going should it stay on the straight and narrow. He can also be trusted to wreck it should it need to be wrecked. This will be the third time Peters has propped up a third term government. He will hope that the history turns out differently this time, with the first National/New Zealand First coalition imploding in 1998 and Winston’s party voted out of parliament after propping up Helen Clark’s third term Labour Government between 2005-08.

            The Internet-Mana Party (currently polling 2.0 percent), an ideological combination so unnatural that it attracted rare media interest from as far away as Russia, combines its German-born, FBI-wanted, so fighting extradition motivated, resident Kim Dotcom’s wealth (millions gained from file sharing site Megaupload) with poverty activist and Maori nationalist, Hone Harawira’s, fight on behalf of New Zealand’s dispossessed. Designed to maximise representation under New Zealand’s proportional representation electoral system (MMP), it has resembled rather Caligula’s army attacking the papyrus.* That is, it has no useful purpose beyond being a manifestation of its founder’s desire for revenge against Key and his government’s (contradictory, hostile and, at times, illegal) actions taken against him.

            As I write, Pulitzer Award winning journalist Glenn Greenwald is stumping for Kim Dotcom at a public event to launch election week, a play within a play where Dotcom intends to prove that the prime minister has mislead the public about Dotcom’s personal circumstances and the extent of domestic mass surveillance. Julian Assange is going to be beamed in from Ecuadorian Knightsbridge for a cameo appearance, as is Edward Snowden himself, live from Russia. Claim and counter claim will fly, but no-one will be any the wiser. The New Zealand voting public have mostly adopted a mentality of blithe indifference in response to all of this madness.

            I haven’t mentioned National’s two current 1-seat regime-support parties, Act (currently polling 0.5 percent and led by a libertarian philosopher who defended incest in one ill-fated interview) and Peter Dunne’s United (polling 0.1 percent), or the Maori Party (its other support party, polling 0.8 percent), but unless National maintains its 2011 proportion of the vote, which is highly unlikely, these bit actors are likely to survive a while longer, but they are all on varying paths to obscurity.   

Act III – Love Labour’s Lost           

And this election campaign is part tragedy because voters have not had much of a contest. They’ve had the entertainment of the tragi-comedy described, but not much more. The policy difference between National and Labour were sharper than in a generation, to the extent that many commentators thought this could prove the most exciting choice election in 30 years. It has not proven so, however, with substantive policy differences drowned out by trivia and scandal and dirty politics. 

For this tragedy the Labour Party is most responsible. It may have interesting policies to talk about but voters aren’t listening to it. Since Clark left after her election defeat in 2008 fifteen years of surpressed factional animus have burst forth, frequently in public. Labour infighting has helped fuel leadership instability (David Cunliffe is Labour’s third leader since 2012), new leadership succession rules that publicly codify its factions rather than unify various interests of the labour movement, and a disconnect between its representatives and the public. One recent poll showed Labour recording only 18 percent support from males.

The best explanation for National’s continued popularity has thus been the absence of an alternative. While (possibly) restoring the budget to balance by next year (undoubtedly its best success), on most measures New Zealand is no better off than when the Key Government first won power in 2008. Arguably we’re worse off because of the opportunity costs of the Christchurch earthquakes, the $60 billion worth of borrowing National undertook since 2008 to balance our economic imbalances and, strategically, no greater economic diversity than National inherited back in 2008. 

Labour (currently polling at an historic low of 25.3 percent) shunned the Green Party (polling a record high of 12.6 percent) and any notion of co-operatively presenting an alternative Red-Green government. Instead, they allowed their relationship with the Greens to be defined for them by their opponents. Labour will, in a week’s time, face exactly the same set of strategic questions they did after the last election, except from a position of even greater weakness while the Greens, in contrast, are poised to further strengthen its hand.

Act IV - The final scene

One possible innovation to look for is Key attempting to run a minority government if he thinks Winston Peters is asking too high a price in coalition negotiations. Styled on Stephen Harper’s minority governments in Canada, Key may challenge other parties to vote him down and trigger another election and, by his calculation, the peoples’ wrath. More likely, however, is a coalition arrangement with Peters and New Zealand First. Washington may not have seen the last of Foreign Minister Winston Peters.

We shall see, but after this weird campaign, and a sober look at the politics ahead, my last thought is that our politics is moribund. The concerted post-Rogernomics consolidation rolls on and there is little new energy about as the rising generation are still making their way up through the major parties. It is instructive that the only new generation party, the Greens, have had the best campaign. We are on the cusp of change but not there yet. The next election therefore looms as a more interesting one so for the next six days its best to just sit back and enjoy the human drama on show.

Jon Johansson is a political scientist at Victoria University of Wellington and was Fulbright’s Visiting Scholar to Georgetown in 2009.  

* The Roman Emperor Caligula (AD 37-41) is thought to have ordered his army to collect sea shells and fight coastal papyrus is an expression of despotic boredom.