Tuesday 12 October 2010

Making Connections

Big-ups to the new Super-Mayor: Len Brown’s mayoral campaign provides a text-book example of "the politics of connection".

HAD THE EARTH not moved on 4 September, it’s highly likely New Zealanders would have woken up on 10 October to find four new mayors in the four main centres.

The devastating earthquake which struck Canterbury, and Mayor Bob Parker’s response to the crisis it created, dramatically changed the electoral equation in Christchurch City.

In Mr Parker’s own words: "During the earthquake enough people saw something in me that they thought was worthy of their support. The community had a chance to see me experiencing all of the same trauma and getting on with the job, just like they had to, and I’m sure that did me no harm."

Few would dispute that assessment, and in a curious way Mr Parker’s explanation of why Cantabrians flocked to the incumbent’s mayoral banner also explains why in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin so many voters deserted theirs.

Right across the country there is a growing sense of disconnection between ordinary citizens and the people who govern them.

For democracy to work, voters need to feel that their communities and their country are being run by people committed to serving their interests. More importantly, they strongly believe that big changes – the sort that have a real impact on their day-to-day lives – should never be made without their prior consent.

Before the earthquake, most Cantabrians were of the view that Mayor Parker had shown insufficient deference to the wishes of Christchurch voters, and that too many important Council obligations were being undertaken (or set aside) behind closed doors.

Mr Parker’s challenger, Jim Anderton, tapped into this vein of popular discontent with considerable success: the one big poll conducted prior to the earthquake placed him well ahead of his opponent.

It was only when Christchurch voters were able to see with their own eyes that their Mayor was experiencing the same intense emotions as themselves; that he, too, was worried about his family, his home, his neighbours and his city; only when their shared suffering had transformed him into one of them could Mr Parker be reconnected to the democratic power-grid.

And the moment that reconnection was made, Mr Anderton’s cause was lost.

In Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin, however, there was no natural disaster to reconnect the rulers with the ruled. In these cities (and many others besides) the voters’ growing disaffection with unaccountable politicians and bureaucrats was given dramatic political expression.

In Auckland, particularly, Len Brown’s mayoral campaign provides a text-book example of "the politics of connection".

From the get-go he aligned himself with the majority of Aucklanders who were either opposed to or uneasy about the way the amalgamation of Auckland’s eight local authorities into a single "super-city" was being managed.

Many people feared the new entity would become a political vehicle for the sort of far-right economic policies associated with the Act Party leader (and Minister for Local Government) Rodney Hide. They were angry that the new structures of local governance were being imposed on them without a clear democratic mandate.

Mr Brown became their champion. He promised to make the new super-city work for everyone – not just a wealthy few.

It would be futile to deny that there was a left-wing flavour to Mr Brown’s rhetoric, but what mattered much more was the strong connection which existed between the Manukau Mayor and Manukau’s voters.

In many ways Mr Brown is the antithesis of a modern-day leftist. He is a devout Christian who evinces what the Americans like to call "traditional family values", and he’s old-fashioned enough to use expressions like "for the love of the people" when explaining his political motivation.

Mr Brown’s traditional values are, however, the reason why so many Pasifika and Maori voters living in South Auckland look upon him as one of their own. It’s why so many Samoan ministers and Tongan pastors stood up in their churches and urged their congregations to go home and vote for the Palangi lawyer who – more than any other Mayoral candidate – makes a genuine connection with their people.

Some commentators are characterising the victories of Len Brown, Dunedin’s Dave Cull and (possibly) Wellington’s Celia Wade-Brown as harbingers of a 2011 Labour victory.

I’ve yet to be convinced.

The question that must be answered before predicting a change of government in 2011 is whether or not Labour, and its leader, Phil Goff, are making the sort of vital connections with their electoral base that swept Mr Parker and Mr Brown to victory.

The pollsters suggest that Labour’s not there yet. More importantly, they’re saying that the Prime Minister, John Key, still is.

Unless and until Labour and Phil Goff (or some fresher face) can bring about a seismic shift equal in magnitude to the real one of 4 September, any connection between the voting behaviour of 2010 and 2011 must remain moot.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 12 October 2010.


peterpeasant said...

It was nice that Banks lost.
It was nice that Banks lost comprehensively.

To extrapolate from that to to national politics is extremely foolish.

given MMP the next government is still an open question.

There will be a new (and very important) bargaining chip, the Auckland City Council.

The next election looks to be exceedingly interesting.

Despite very healthy polling results National has to face the fact it is unlikely to get an outright majority at the next election.

It is going to have cut deals with other parties.

All parties will be looking to Auckland.

I am reminded of the Chinese comment..
"May you live in interesting times".

Anonymous said...

I was involved in the Anderton/2021 campaign and it was heart-breaking to knock on people's doors in the poorest deciles to have them tell us they were either not interested or voting for Parker.

Nine years of Labour government and they're still in the same shitty position they were when Labour started with no hope of upward mobility or improving their lot, just a cold house, the inability to read and an insufficient benefit.

Victor said...

The sort of personality that Len so admirably displays is quintessentially non-Wellington, non-Beltway and non-Beehive.

And it's this personality that has so attracted voters of all ethnicities and quite a range of income groups.

Unfortunately, the senior Labour parliamentarian who most resembles Len is the party's current leader and he has been declared unelectable by the Tory media.

So don't expect much to change at national level.

Steven Cowan said...

Undeniably the earthquake saved Sideshow Bob's mayoralty but I'm not sure if you can say that he 'reconnected' with the people of Christchurch. After all, over 50,000 people voted against him.

Bob won because he was all over the media and he he turned the election into a sideshow because he refused to participate in it.

On the rare occasion he emerged from the Palace, he stipulated he would only talk about quake issues and he wouldn't debate with Anderton.

So he denied people the opportunity to question him on his dismal behaviour over the past three years.

As for Parker's 'outstanding' performance in the immediate aftermath of the quake - what the hell did he do other than front up to the media?

The civil defence action ran entirely independent of Bob - but it provided him with loads of photo opportunities. Bob with John Key, Bob with Richie McCaw, etc etc.

Bob milked it for all its worth - him and his bloody orange safety jacket.

Anonymous said...

Voting for me is like sexing chickens. All I see is smiley faces of people who want to "serve the community". I make an assumption that the business community gets people on for the inside running.
I live in an older part of town with rentals around me and I'm assured that neighbors "can't possibly" go higher than "x" as it is residential 1. I think however that a zone change would do the trick.
While progressive fight for peoples rights in our urban areas they ignore the reasons behind population growth and very large projections are made. John Banks calls this a "great opportunity", but for whom? In my experience many Japanese who live here want to run a mile from the type of density they experience and love our back yards and sunshine.

markus said...

Nothing wrong with being a Wellingtonian, Victor !

I'd agree with Steve Cowan that Anderton's 51,000 was surprisingly high given the almost impossible circumstances.

Is Dave Cull of the Centre-Left ? I thought he might be a little Right-leaning given some of the things I've heard/read.

Bruce Thorpe said...

I think the council elections demonstrated that people want representatives they can relate to, and when the opportunity offers they will vote for somebody who they have identified over time as working for their welfare.
It is not a question of traditional political ideology, and despite the best efforts of the media it is not about "presidential" campaigning.
Helen Clark had worn out her welcome with a great number of Kiwi votes by the time Don Brash made his notorious Orewa speech, but Brash was too distant a figure to quite bring about the electoral win. John Key was much more successful three years later, but the worry for the national Party is that there seem very few of their allies actually participating in the communities, developing the relationships that win the support of current voters.
The message of local government elections 2010 is people will vote for those they can relate to, and those people tend to be local residents who are part of their community.
Perhaps Phil Goff will survive bad polling figures and show the way, as he did in the Mt Roskill by election with sleeves rolled up,putting up hoardings and knocking on doors.

Victor said...


Of course there's nothing wrong with being a Wellingtonian. Some of my best friends are etc. etc.

But there is a certain kind of Beltway personality that's different to the rest of us (including many Wellingtonians).

Len isn't like that. He really does come across as one of us provincial or suburban types. That's one of his strengths.

Anonymous said...

"Is Dave Cull of the Centre-Left ? I thought he might be a little Right-leaning given some of the things I've heard/read".

My thoughts exactly.

Anonymous said...

Len Brown's campaign tapped squarely into popular resentment with the "Mayor of ALL of Auckland" slogan by implication telling the story that John Banks only represented some kind of self-serving social elite. Anybody who places themselves beneath another race, class or geographic region was going to vote for Brown by default. The Banks campaign concentrated on dry unemotive subjects few voters cared about or understood.

The economic situation would have influenced the local election results too. The politics of "aspiration" fall flat when the economy is stagnant and the government is presenting no plan to change that. If there's no hope the pie will grow bigger the popular mindset will shift towards the politics of taking pieces off someone else. While the national mood may have shifted leftward, that hasn't translated to increased support for Labour because National is showing few neo-liberalist instincts and Labour as a party is still so unelectable.