Honestly, John's Victory Was This Big! The ease with which false information can be transformed into an ostensible statement of fact is unnerving. Simply by appearing in print, Steven Joyce's boast to National's annual conference about the scale of its electoral success made the transition from falsehood to factoid.
HAVE YOU EVER witnessed the birth of a political “factoid”? A fact-what? A factoid, which is defined by the Free Merriam Dictionary as “an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print.” In this instance, the “invented fact” made its first appearance last Saturday in Steven Joyce’s speech to his party’s annual conference in Wellington.
As National’s key campaign strategist, it was Mr Joyce’s job to drum home to conference delegates the extreme political danger of complacency. National must maximise its Party Vote, he warned them, because all of its potential coalition partners are so very, very small.
“We have got to look at matching the number we got last time which just happens to be the highest ever under MMP and I think the highest single vote for a party since the Waterfront Strike in 1951.”
And there it is – the factoid: National’s 2011 Party Vote was the highest ever under MMP and the highest vote achieved by any single party since 1951.
Now a factoid wouldn’t be a factoid if it didn’t bear some resemblance to the truth – and this example is no exception. At 47.31 percent, National’s 2011 Party Vote (and let’s remind ourselves here that the “Party Vote” is a measure specific to the MMP system) was indeed the highest ever recorded. It was also an astonishing achievement. Proportional voting systems hardly ever deliver so decisive a result.
Had he been of a mind, Mr Joyce might have expanded upon National’s 2011 performance by pointing out that it was 2.38 percentage points higher than its record 2008 result. After all, how often is it that a party, seeking re-election, actually registers an increase in its popular support? Rubbing salt into the floundering Opposition’s polling wounds, Mr Joyce might also have drawn delegates’ attention to Labour’s best performance under MMP: the modest 41.26 percent of the Party Vote it attracted in 2002.
So, National’s record Party Vote of 47.31 percent really is worth bragging about – and that’s a fact. But the second part of Mr Joyce’s boast – about it being the highest vote any party has achieved since the snap election of 1951 – well, that isn’t true at all.
Now, to be fair to Mr Joyce, he did only say that he thought National’s was the highest single vote for a party since the Waterfront Strike in 1951. He did not state it as a fact.
What he did do, however, and very cleverly, was associate John Key’s remarkable electoral achievements of 2008 and 2011 with the event that stands in National’s institutional memory as the party’s greatest ever victory over the forces of the Left.
Held in the bitter aftermath of the tumultuous Waterfront Dispute – New Zealand’s worst ever industrial confrontation – the snap election of 1951 marked the beginning of the National Party’s long ascendancy in post-war New Zealand politics. In the 33 years which separate 1951 from 1984, Labour held office for just 6 years.
National’s share of the popular vote in 1951? A decisive 54 percent. Ominously for the Labour Party, that election also took place in September.
Perhaps it was the latest Faifax-Ipsos poll showing National on 56.5 percent that reminded Mr Joyce of the 1951 election – the last in which a political party would take over half the popular vote.
Which is not to say that Labour and National haven’t in the intervening years come pretty close. In 1972, for example, the Norman Kirk-led Labour Party secured 48.4 percent of the popular vote. National’s Rob Muldoon romped home in 1975 with 47.6 percent. In 1987 David Lange lifted Labour’s 1984 total of 42.9 percent to 47.9 percent. Jim Bolger swept into office in 1990 with 47.82 percent of the popular vote – National’s best effort since 1951.
Mr Key’s 47.31 percent was an excellent effort (especially considering it was achieved under an electoral system designed to prevent a single party getting anything like half the votes cast) but it was NOT the highest single vote for a party since the Waterfront Strike in 1951.
Except that, by the following day, it was. Overnight, Mr Joyce’s thought had become a factoid, with Tracy Watkins writing in the Sunday Star-Times:
“He does not need to remind them either that at 47.3 percent support on election night 2011, National got the highest vote ever under MMP – and the highest vote achieved by any single party since the 1951 Waterfront Strike.”
It was that simple – and that quick. And you may be sure this new political factoid will be deployed by National supporters throughout the forthcoming campaign. Let the voters beware, because it won’t be the only one!
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the highest vote ever received by a New Zealand political party was Labour’s triumphant 55.8 percent – way back in 1938.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 1 July 2014.