Sunday, October 15, 2023

The (political) end is here

The 2020 New Zealand General Election is over, and the preliminary results have made clear that the result is not what I wanted or voted for: Labour won’t be leading government. There are a lot of reasons for that, the biggest one being that voters were incredibly angry this year, and for a lot of different reasons, so the National Party winning government was always by far the most likely result. However, many commentators can’t seem to perceive much beyond the headlines of who’s in and who’s out. Naturally, I look beyond that for the bigger story the election told.

First, some basics about this year’s election. The preliminary count is based on 2,244,380 ordinary votes, of which 1,368,830 were cast before Election Day (approximately 61.0% of total ordinary votes cast). In 2020, 68% of votes were cast early.

Some voter enrolment applications are still being processed, but by 5pm on Saturday, 3,585,232 people were enrolled, which is 92.6% of the estimated number of eligible voters (in NZ, registering to vote is mandatory, but voting itself is not). The final enrolment rate in 2020 was 94.1%. Voter turnout for 2023, then, is estimated to be 78.4% of those enrolled as at 5pm Saturday. The final turnout of those enrolled in 2020 was 82.2%.

The next category is what’s called “special declaration votes” (or just “special votes”), which are counted after Election Day. This category includes people who registered immediately before before voting, overseas voters, and those who used dictation services to vote. This year, it’s estimated there are 567,000 special votes (20.2% of total) yet to be counted, of which around 80,000 are overseas and dictation votes. In 2020, there were 504,621 special votes including 62,787 overseas and dictation votes.

These statistics show us that 2023 voter turnout wasn’t dramatically lower or higher than 2020—there was no massive turnout of voters seeking change. This means it’s just the distribution of the votes that changed, and it wasn’t just about National picking up votes and Labour losing them.

This year’s story is really about the rise of smaller parties. In the preliminary results, the combined vote for the two main parties—Labour and National—was only around 65% of the total votes cast, something I’m pretty sure has never been that low before.

The Green Party not only held onto an Electorate (Auckland Central) for the first time, they also appear to have added two more, the first time they’ve won more than one Electorate at a time. Of the two new ones, Wellington Central seems certain to hold, and the other, erstwhile Labour stronghold Rongotai, the Green candidate, Julie Anne Genter, has a lead of 792 votes—large enough to suggest it will hold when the special votes are counted. It’s worth noting that in the past, overseas votes have helped parties on the Left, the Greens in particular, so they could theoretically, at least, pick up one more MP from their Party List, and/or ensure that Genter wins.

The rightwing Act Party won an Electorate from National without doing a deal like the two parties have have in the Epsom Electorate. That makes this the first time since 1996 they won an Electorate on their own, without a deal with National, and it’s also the first time they’ve won two Electorates at the same election. Their second electorate, Tāmaki, has been held by the National Party for about as long as I’ve been alive, but the MP there, Simon O'Connor, was too much of a religious conservative even for that sort of district. When the USA’s Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, O'Connor Tweeted his happiness about it, leading to strong and immediate backlash, causing him to delete the Tweet. His social conservatism, and his opposition to abortion rights in particular, led the Act Party’s Deputy Leader, Brooke Van Velden, to announce a challenge. The Act Party is hard right on economic issues, crime, and taxes, but it’s generally liberal on social issues. For example, their party Leader sponsored the party’s only piece of legislation that I can remember thinking was good (and I strongly backed it), the ”End of Life Choice Act 2019” to allow people with less than six months to live the option to choose the time of their own death with assistance from medical professionals (it was ratified by a binding referendum at the 2020 General Election; I voted in favour of it).

The other party to have a really good night was Te Pāti Māori, which defeated two long-serving Māori Labour MPs in Māori Electorates: Rino Tirikatene lost the South Island’s Māori seat, Te Tai Tonga. He was the MP since 2011, and family members have held the seat for most of its existence. On the preliminary results, he should be back in Parliament on the Party List.

The other defeated Māori Labour candidate was Nanaia Mahuta, who lost her Hauraki-Waikato seat (which includes Hamilton). She entered Parliament on the Labour Party List in 1996. She was an Electorate-only candidate (not on the Party List), and so, is now out of Parliament.

The conservative populist New Zealand First Party got pack into Parliament, yet another time they’ve come back from electoral defeat to re-enter Parliament. This time, they’ll probably end up with eight MPs, all of them List candidates—they failed to win any Electorate seats. They appear to have benefitted from angry voters more than any other party, in part because they made overt appeals to the loons, goons, and cartoons, along with pandering to those with anti-Māori sentiment, and social conservatives. The fact that the National Party Leader suggested that a Party Vote for NZ First would help National gave all sorts of rightwing voters license to vote for Winston’s party instead, and it sent a message to the loons, goons, and cartoons that they could safely vote for NZ First rather than throwing their votes away on some tiny fringe party. This doesn’t suggest long-term or stable support for NZ First.

No other minor party won either an Electorate seat or 5% of the Party Vote, the two ways that parties can get MPs in Parliament. In fact, if the Party Votes for ALL the minor parties were added together, they only managed 5.29% of the vote. The far-right tiny parties collectively won 2.62% of the Party Vote, but the most worrying was the 1.15% won by a party called NZ Loyal. a party set up by ex-TVNZ presenter Liz Gunn to promote a whole laundry list of conspiracy theories: Anti-fluoridation, anti-1080 poison (which is used against possums), against Bill Gates, against "gender programming", against the World Economic Forum, against the news media (unironically…), against 15-minute cities (again?!), among others. We can hope that most of the 26,141 people who voted for it had no idea what it was, that maybe they just liked the name, and not that New Zealand has that many hard-core cookers (a slang term for those who believe and actively promote conspiracy theories, often no matter out idiotically absurd they may be). The reason that 1.15% figure matters is because if there was no 5% Party Vote threshold, the cookers would have at least one MP, and we’ve all seen from the US House of Representatives the horrific consequences of allowing such people into a serious legislative body.

The biggest share of votes for a party that won’t have any MPs is The Opportunities Party. The party’s leader, Raf Manji, ran as an independent in the Christchurch Electorate of Ilam in 2017, and came in second, behind the National Party MP, and ahead of the Labour Party Candidate, who was third. In the 2020 Labour landslide, Labour easily won Ilam, and TOP had no candidate. In 2023, he ran as the party’s candidate in Ilam, and again came in second (and the incumbent Labour MP came in third). It’s probably unlikely the Labour MP would’ve won if Manji wasn’t in the race, because it’s unlikely she would have received all of Manji’s votes (given the results in other Electorates, it’s probable that the Green candidate would have benefitted enough to still give the Electorate to National.

Taken together, all of this means that this election, while a rejection of Labour, wasn’t a massive switch to National because there was FAR more going on. National won with a good margin of victory, but it didn’t win the sort of landslide that Labour did in 2020. Instead, many voters moved to minor parties, not National. The Greens, Act, and NZ First all benefitted, and of those three, the Greens took the most votes from Labour, Act from National, and NZ First from National, and from rightwing sometime Labour voters, as well as extremists who otherwise would’ve wasted their votes on fringe parties.

A question I think needs to be thought about carefully is, why did so many Labour voters vote Green? In my opinion, the most likely answer is that Labour was running a staunchly centrist campaign—essentially competing with National for the same centrist and centre-right voters. The Greens never do that. Labour could’ve embraced tax reform, for example, like a capital gains tax, but it didn’t. The Greens backed such a tax as well as a wealth tax, and their votes increased. I think it seems likely that Labour lost its more progressive voters to the Greens, and that was enough to lead to such a crushing defeat. Had Labour not tacked rightward, it may still have failed to win government (there was still all that anger, after all), but, if so, it would’ve been lost by a very slim margin.

In the weeks ahead, there will be a lot of arguments over what went wrong for Labour, though there’s a lot of information we simply don’t have (because, among other reasons, exit polling is illegal in New Zealand, so we have no good data on why people voted as they did). In fact, I’m sure I’ll be part of that, quite possibly arguing against myself.

In the meantime, however, one final thought: Since I moved to New Zealand in 1995, Labour and National have both won five elections. That goes to prove, “you win some, you lose some”. It’s inevitable that in the future I’ll again be celebrating an election win. It’s the way of things.

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