Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Missed Opportunities In Ikaroa-Rawhiti

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.

13 comments:

Pete said...

There's a good post-general election study done after every election since 1990 (http://www.nzes.org/). Sadly it doesn't look into by-elections, but I suspect this is the kind of scrutiny you are demanding.

Anonymous said...

Well, IMHO there is no discernible message in an election. Individual voters have their own agendas, but this doesn't add up to a collective "message". The media like to say it does, because they get to make it up.

You expect more of democracy than it can deliver. It can get rid of catastrophically bad representatives, but that's about the limit of what it can do.

Anonymous said...

You are letting your knickers show on the Shearer thing :-). If there had been a stinging rebuke from that election, it would have been rebuke to Labour's actual Maori policies, which have been a betrayal of everything they promised. Nothing much to do with Shearer as such, but the whole kit and caboodle of the modern Labour Party. Or the old Labour Party for that matter.

David said...

Collecting signatures for the Keep Our Assets petition only confirmed what I already suspected, people are very ideosyncratic as to why they vote for who they do. Rather than a left to right continium, it is more a case of odd reasoning heading off on infinite tangents.

Scouser said...

And here was I thinking it was the split in the Maori party leading to the Hone party and the Maori party getting enough votes to win the seat between them but not individuality.

Whether you agree with Hone's approach or not the frequently predicted outcome of this split resulting in the death of Maori parties looks accurate.

I see Pita has decided either the Maori party is dead or the best thing he can do is get out of the way. I have a strong suspicion he is an honest man and is trying to do the honourable thing. Hone appears to be a self centred bigot.

Labour must be licking their lips as this implies they will get most Maori seats in the next election.

Victor said...

Beautifully put, David.

We all seem to have our own totally distinct visions of reality.

True, ideologies used to mitigate this tendency by imposing rival meta-narratives on large segments of the populace.

But their capacity so to do is much reduced by information overload, perpetual distraction, the waning of the public space and the remorseless triviality of our lives.

Anonymous said...

Maybe increasing numbers of people are waking up to the fact that a vote for a parliamentary representative is not a sufficient substitute for democracy and are refusing to play that game anymore.

peterpeasant said...

Now, now Chris, you are sounding grumpy about an outcome you are not happy with.

Democracy is a bit like that, especially by elections.

The subtleties and nuances of Maori electorates are way beyond my ken. I am sure they do not give a proverbial about internal LP politics.

Anonymous said...

As the Nats no longer run in Maori electorates, one guesses that the residual Brown Tory vote would go to the Maori Party. I can't imagine such people voting Mana, even to keep Labour out.

Victor said...

anonymous@7.09pm

The problem is that, in terms of both representing what people want and providing a semblance of effective government,constitutional democracy (poor and inadequate thing though it is) remains the only possible game in town, a point that might be eluding some of those currently gathered in Tahrir Square.

peter petterson said...

There was no rebuke for David Shearer. He actually worked very hard to get Meka elected. He will be Labour's leader til after the next elections.

Anonymous said...

is that true!!!!!!!!!!

danial young said...

I think it would be fair to assume that the Maori Party are heading to political oblivion.

Given the results in Ikaroa-Rawhiti,although a apathetic one third turn out of voters, at the end of the day, the numbers told a certain positive story for the obvious future for Maori,and that is in the only way forward for them ,and that is Mana Maori or Maori Mana,and if that were to come to fruition that would be their first battle and hopefully not a stumbling block of what party name should be first.