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September 25, 2017 | by  | in Politics |
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Political Round Up

Election Campaign Performance

Fourth terms are hard to win; the last time a party gained a fourth term was when National won the 1969 general election. But while the well-known adage that “oppositions don’t win elections, incumbents lose them” has been true for a number of New Zealand elections, 2017 was never going to offer an easy victory.

National was in an awkward position, having to convince voters that it could fix New Zealand’s problems, while maintaining that the problems which did exist were not its fault. On housing, National lost political points to Labour when the latter promised to build 100,000 houses in its Kiwibuild policy, compared to National’s 34,000 new houses in Auckland.

But National did well to highlight its economic record during the campaign. During the first TVNZ leaders’ debate on August 31, Labour leader Jacinda Ardern was asked whether she thought the economy under National was doing well: she agreed that it was in “good shape.” While National suffered setbacks, like when Steven Joyce’s remark that Labour’s fiscal plan had a “$11 billion hole” was debunked by economists, its constant attacks on Labour’s vague taxation policies ensured they were seen by voters as strong on economic policy.

The “Jacinda Effect” certainly would have taken some votes off National based on personality politics alone, but National did well to make up for its leader’s “Boring Bill” nickname by focusing on his achievements in office as Minister of Finance from 2008–16. When Labour’s deputy leader Kelvin Davis described English as having “the personality of a rock” on August 6, National attempted to turn it around, saying that English had run a “rockstar” economy. The line that English had “brought us out of the Global Financial Crisis” in 2008 was often repeated to good effect.

Labour began 2017 in an unenviable position, polling in the mid-20s. By September, it had resurged, with much of its new-found support arising out of its leadership change on August 1. New leader Jacinda Ardern did well in galvanising youth support for the party by talking of “generational change.”

Labour ran what Ardern called a “relentlessly positive” campaign, in doing so influencing voters who were getting tired of a third term government. Ardern’s charismatic personality was a political force which saved the party from the electoral ruin it had appeared to be heading towards.

But Labour could not rely on personality politics forever. For weeks they had been secretive about tax, saying that a “working group” would decide tax policy during their first term. After near constant attacks from National on Labour’s vague policy, Ardern belatedly decided to rule out any tax changes until 2020. The U-turn made Labour look indecisive on economic matters.

NZ First, which has been flitting between National and Labour since the 1990s, erected election billboards this year with the slogan “Had Enough?” in an attempt to appeal to anti-establishment sentiments. In an RNZ interview on September 14, Winston Peters railed against “the economic revolution [which] turn[ed] this country upside down,” describing the current neoliberal economic order as “stupid” and “ridiculous.” While for much of the campaign Peters was labelled by news media as the Kingmaker who would decide which party forms the next government, the uncertainty around which way he would go put some voters off.

Gareth Morgan of The Opportunities Party (TOP) also tried to harness voters’ anger over the current economic system. When he launched the party in August last year, Morgan said TOP would “light a fuse” beneath Parliament to solve the inequality crisis which “establishment parties and career politicians” had ignored. Morgan donated $500,000 to finance TOP’s campaign, reminiscent of Colin Craig’s Conservatives in 2014. However, TOP suffered under the rules of the TVNZ multi-party debates, which required parties to have a seat in Parliament or be polling at 3% to participate.

TOP’s signature taxation policy, where a 30% tax cut for wage earners was offset by an asset tax on all houses, was never going to sit particularly well with voters clearly averse to the idea of a capital gains tax on the family home. Despite its relatively radical policy, TOP managed to get its message heard, consistently polling at round 2% — at some points more than ACT, United Future, and the Māori Party combined.

The Greens, smarting from Metiria Turei’s electoral and benefit fraud controversy earlier in the year, continued to stand by its former leader; James Shaw said repeatedly that, despite lower polling rates, he did not regret Turei’s disclosures, because they highlighted the issue of child poverty.

Despite the Memorandum of Understanding between the Greens and Labour, the Greens’ credibility as a stable coalition partner was damaged twice by Labour, first when Jacinda Ardern ruled out a ministerial role for Turei in a potential Labour government before her resignation, and again when Labour Party president Nigel Haworth denied on September 13 that a vote for Greens was a vote for Labour and Ardern.

After its leadership change, Labour also commandeered two of the Greens’ key policies. At a rally on August 20, Ardern said that global warming was “[her] generation’s nuclear-free moment,” sucking the oxygen from the Greens’ campaigning on climate change. The Greens’ core policy of cleaning up New Zealand’s waterways was also “stolen” by Labour when Ardern announced a water tax to considerable media attention, and when Labour’s television ads constantly featured a commitment to “cleaning up our rivers.”

The Māori Party had a fight on its hands. Co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell had a tight race in his Waiariki electorate against Labour’s Tamati Coffey, and co-leader Marama Fox gave strong performances in the televised multi-party leaders’ debates. The Māori Party hinted throughout the campaign that it could work with a potential Labour-led government, assuaging the misgivings of some party members about working with National again.

With the housing crisis weighing on voters’ minds, ACT offered solutions to fix it, focusing on regulatory reform and house building. At his book launch on August 6, leader David Seymour said that by scrapping regulatory restrictions 600,000 homes could be built in Auckland alone.

ACT tried to change its image to become a “millennial party” by campaigning for “intergenerational fairness.” Number three on its party list, Brooke van Velden, was described by Seymour as a “Chlöe Swarbrick with an economics degree.” ACT’s chance of capturing the attention of young voters was strained, competing against a number of politicians trying to court the youth vote and offering some policies against the interests of students, for example the reintroduction of interest on student loans. When Jacinda Ardern took over the Labour leadership, she became the second millennial party leader in Parliament — a title Seymour once had solely for himself.

The eighth MMP election was far from boring, and it bodes well for New Zealand’s democracy that so many parties were able to passionately articulate their policies in the lead up to September 23.

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