Monday, November 26, 2007

Election lessons

As soon as the results of an election are known, the pundits swoop in to declare what it all means. They can't help themselves, but sometimes I really wish they would.

Most of the mainstream media on both sides of the Tasman have been focusing on concrete things, like Prime Minister-elect Kevin Rudd ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. This pledge earned him an invitation to a UN meeting on climate change in Indonesia, which Australia had been banned from because of Howard's intransigence on Kyoto.

The Australian media have also been speculating on who Rudd will appoint to cabinet, while being fascinated that Australia will have its first female Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard (when Rudd is in Indonesia, she will be Acting Prime Minister, the closest Australia has gotten to a female Prime Minister).

In New Zealand, which has had two female Prime Ministers in a row, the reaction to the Rudd election has been positive. In particular, the Prime Minister must be looking forward to having a neighbour and close ally working on climate change and an agenda very similar to her own party's.

The only silliness on this side of the Tasman has been from amateur pundits or, predictably, the Opposition. The song goes something like this: Both Howard and Clark have been Prime Minister of their respective countries for around a decade, both are formidable campaigners and forceful leaders of their governments, and in both countries the Opposition led in the polls after changing leaders. So, therefore, Helen Clark will be toppled.

This is utter nonsense—and wishful thinking on the part of the Opposition and the Grumpy Brigade (made up of people who like to complain about Labour and Helen Clark almost reflexively).

First, the obvious: The two countries are separate and different. In 1996, Australia's Labor Government was defeated by Howard's conservatives. That same year, New Zealand re-elected a conservative Government led by the National Party. New Zealand's Labour Government wasn't elected until 1999.

A year is a long time in politics. The Opposition imagines it can go through an entire year without making a single mistake, without someone in their caucus saying something stupid. Those are pretty incredible assumptions.

Which is not to say that Labour will be reelected; again, the election is about a year away. Labour can do or say something stupid, too, of course. But no one should write Labour's obituary yet, and for one very good reason: Labour has plenty of options for coalition partners, but National would probably have to win enough seats to govern alone, and no party has been able to do that since elections under MMP began in 1999.

There was certainly a high level of anti-Howard voting going on, but it's simplistic in the extreme to suggest that was the only motivator. Australian voters simply liked Labor's message better. That's the way elections work: The party that best presents what voters want will win.

So, the results in the Australian election mean nothing for New Zealand (or the US presidential elections either, for that matter). Not that that will stop the pundits from trying to say it does mean something. They can't help themselves.

Update 28/11/07: A new poll published today by the New Zealand Herald claims that if the election were held right now, the conservative National Party would win enough votes to govern alone. The story was splashed large on their front page (no surprise, that), but despite the hype, it doesn't really mean what the Herald implies since Labour was barely down and National was barely up. They could also probably use a gentle reminder: The election is still a year away and any poll numbers today won't stay the same. The only thing that was interesting about the poll results was the sudden drop in support for the Green Party. If that continues, it could possibly indicate trouble for the Labour-led government—a year from now.

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