There Can Be Only One: The ingredients were all there for a major political upset. Just under 60 percent of the voters of Ikaroa-Rawhiti supported somebody other than the by-election's eventual winner, Meka Whaitiri (Right). Had the voters thrown their weight behind the Mana Party candidate, Te Hamua Nikora (Second from Right) they could have sent a powerful message not only to the Maori Party (which has received the message that was sent loud and clear!) but also to the Labour Party (which, arguably, needs it the most).
IMAGINE A BILLIONAIRE with an interest in psephology (the academic study of elections and electoral behaviour). It’s by no means a far-fetched notion. The billionaire Koch brothers in the USA have invested millions in their quest to master the American electoral system. The billionaire currency speculator, George Soros, has similarly poured huge sums into US organisations dedicated to “getting out the vote”. So long as our leaders are elected, wealthy individuals will always have an interest in learning as much as possible about how democracy works.
Watching the Ikaroa-Rawhiti results come in on Saturday night, it occurred to me that with a little help from a friendly billionaire it would be possible to interview every person who participated in the by-election and ask them to explain their choice.
Ikaroa-Rawhiti is, of course, a Maori seat and is prone, like all Maori seats, to low voter turnout. Last Saturday’s by-election proved to be no exception, with only 10,519 of the approximately 33,000 registered electors participating in the ballot. Assuming one had the funding, 10,519 individuals is a small enough sample for a well-resourced team of professional researchers to interview in its entirety.
It would be a fascinating exercise. Most of us have, at one time or another, looked at an election result and scratched our heads. Why do people vote the way they do? What makes them support candidates representing parties with such a poor record of defending their interests? Why don’t more voters use their ballot strategically to secure effective representation – or simply to deliver a shock to the political system as a whole?
Last weekend it was within the power of the Ikaroa-Rawhiti electors to really upset New Zealand’s political apple cart. By shifting their support away from the Labour Party they could have delivered a stinging – perhaps fatal – rebuke to the Party’s lacklustre leader, David Shearer. At the very least, a rejection of Labour’s candidate would have precipitated a period of intense soul-searching within both the caucus and the wider party organisation. Labour’s entire approach to the Maori vote would have been up for review.
Wouldn’t that have been a more useful result for the people of Ikaroa-Rawhiti?
The voters of Ikaroa-Rawhiti also had the chance to deliver a sharp rejoinder to the Maori Party’s endless internal dogfighting. The leadership tussle between Dr Pita Sharples and the Waiariki MP, Te Ururoa Flavell, has weakened the Maori Party to the point where the likelihood of it retaining even the seats it holds currently is now in question. Had the electors put to one side the obvious personal qualities of the Maori Party candidate, Na Raihania (the strongest, individually, of all the contenders) and collapsed the Maori Party vote, the message to Dr Sharples and his colleagues would have been unmistakeable: “Get your act together – or this will be your fate!”
To be fair to the electors of Ikaroa-Rawhiti, they sort of sent a message to the Maori Party by demoting it from second-place-getter in 2011, to third-place-getter on Saturday. It was not, however, a very compelling message. Mr Raihania’s strong campaigning held his party’s vote together sufficiently well to limit his rival’s, the Mana Party’s Te Hamua Nikora’s, lead to just 500 votes.
Had the 2,104 Maori Party Voters, and the 1,118 electors who gave their vote to the Greens’ Marama Davidson, thrown their support behind Mr Nikora’s Mana Party, then the combined tally of votes (5,899) would’ve been more than enough to defeat the Labour candidate, Meka Whaitiri’s, winning total of 4,368.
Yes, they would have been taking a rather large punt on the colourful Mr Nikora, but it would only have been for 18 months. Had his performance as a Member of Parliament not been up to scratch they could easily have replaced him at the end of next year. In the meantime, the powerful messages his election would have sent – both to the Labour and Maori parties – would have benefited not just the people of Ikaroa-Rawhiti but the whole of New Zealand.
Sadly, that was not what happened. Rather than upset the apple cart, the electors of Ikaroa-Rawhiti (or, rather, just over a third of them) collectively kept it trundling along.
In electing a worthy, but pretty colourless, bureaucrat-cum-manager to represent them, Ikaroa-Rawhiti’s voters have bolstered the position of Mr Shearer and his supporters. Ms Whaitiri’s “respectable” win will allow the party to stumble on for another couple of months – or until the next disaster. By giving so many votes to Mr Raihania they have muted the message that a decisive shift of support to Mana would have sent to the Maori Party. It, too, has been permitted to stumble on.
So, if any public-spirited billionaires happen to read this – please get in touch.
We’d all benefit by discovering why democracy is so hard to master.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 2 July 2013.