Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The New Zealand election

The results of the New Zealand election weren’t exactly what I would’ve chosen. I gave the NZ Labour Party “two ticks”, meaning I gave them my Party Vote and voted for their candidate in my electorate. I’ve done this ever since I was able to vote in New Zealand, starting with the 1999 election. But there’s more to this story.

When the Labour Party lost the election Saturday, at first it seemed that New Zealand was heading toward a decidedly conservative government with an alliance of the National Party and the neoconservative ACT Party. Things now appear to be heading in a different direction, but more about that in a minute.

After conceding defeat, Prime Minister Helen Clark announced that she was resigning as Leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and so, would not be Leader of the Opposition. As it happens, Helen Clark was Leader of the Labour Party in Parliament since before I arrived in New Zealand in 1995, when she was Leader of the Opposition, so she's the only Labour leader I've known.

After a disastrous flirtation with the far right in 2005, the National Party selected a new leader, John Key, who worked at pulling his party back toward the centre. He adopted many policies similar to Labour’s, and pledged to actually keep some of Labour’s. He made his party less scary, in other words.

So Labour’s loss on Saturday wasn’t a repudiation of Labour’s policies, since so many of them will be retained. The constant talk has been that this was the year of “change”, with our elections coming three days after Barack Obama’s historic win in the US. Change was certainly a factor, but mainly it was New Zealanders’ legendary boredom with any party that’s been in power three terms, as Labour was. The party always had an uphill battle on its hands.

Figures from the Chief Electoral Office also demonstrate that National’s win was also partly the result of a distinct lack of enthusiasm from Labour voters. Turnout dropped in some 15 seats that Labour won in 2005, and the biggest drops of all were in strongly Labour seats.

What this all tells us is that National doesn’t have a mandate to jerk the country to the right. John Key’s behaviour so far indicates he doesn’t intend to.

After the election, the neoconservative ACT Party started gloating about what it would do, as if it’s tail, bent sharply to the right, would wag the National dog. But prior to the election Key declared that ACT Party founder Roger Douglas would not be in a National-led cabinet. As the architect of the economic reforms of the 1980s, Douglas became one of the most despised politicians in New Zealand because of the suffering his policies inflicted on ordinary New Zealanders. This past weekend’s Sunday Star-Times seemed to imply that Douglas thought Key would have to put him in cabinet. Then on the TVNZ programme Sunday, ACT Leader Rodney Hide was, by all accounts, gloating, talking about how they’d “slash spending”, among other things.

Things have turned out rather differently. It now appears that National won’t enter into a formal coalition with any party, but have confidence and supply agreements with ACT, Peter Dunne (a one-man party now) and even the Maori Party, with members of their caucuses becoming ministers outside of cabinet. This is the same way Labour was successfully governing. The arrangement allows the minor parties to remain independent and, perhaps more importantly, free to criticise the government when they don’t agree with it; in a formal coalition, disagreement isn’t permitted.

What National gets out of this is no small thing: It can remain in the centre and avoid being pulled to the far right, as ACT would want. Strategically, involving the Maori Party as a foil to ACT was near genius on John Key’s part.

Yep, that was a compliment for Key, from this diehard Labour partisan. I never disliked Key personally; in fact, he seems like a nice enough fellow. It’s other members of his caucus I don’t like or trust (or both in some cases, like Bill English). But so far Key has stuck to his promise that Douglas won’t be in cabinet, and he’s stuck to his promise to retain a carbon-trading scheme (albeit with revisions from Labour’s version). Both positions would have pissed off ACT, but Key knew there was no way they’d stand in the way of a National-led government, and Key’s overtures to the Maori Party means he doesn’t need ACT for a majority on anything; Key even told the media it was possible that ACT might not get any ministerial portfolios. All of these are very good signs.

I’m sure I’ll criticise the National-led Government, but it’ll be on specific issues or policies, or maybe only aspects of policies. How refreshing it is to feel that I won’t have to be in complete opposition to the other party as I was in US politics.

And one final bit of wonderful news from Saturday: All three of the supposedly major attempts at fundamentalist “Christian” parties were soundly trounced. The Kiwi Party, “Family” Party and Pacific Party were distant also-rans. There’s nothing new in that, as no attempt at a fundamentalist “Christian” party has succeeded in New Zealand elections.

So, there were some sad things about the New Zealand elections, some that appear to be promising and some that are downright fantastic. Pretty much like any election in any true democracy, really.


patrick foster said...

This is really pretty heartening to read. While I was convinced there had to be center-right politicians who weren't crazy, I'd never seen one before. Considering I just submitted my Expression of Interest to the Immigration folks last night, this was about the best thing I could have read this morning. Thanks Arthur!

Arthur Schenck said...

No worries, Patrick! While I certainly would have preferred a Labour-led Government, so far John Key is making all the right noises. And, it's important to note that New Zealand simply doesn't have the kind of rightwing nutcases that the US does. So when we talk about "conservative" in New Zealand, it means somewhat to the right of centre and definitely not batshit crazy. You can definitely relax!