Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Braving The Snow

Insufficient Deterrent: Even snow could not dissuade electors from turning out to defeat Sir Robert Muldoon's National Government in the snap winter election of 14 July 1984. If people are given a reason to vote - they'll vote.

IN DUNEDIN, on 14 July 1984, it snowed. One of those raw Southern days when the wind blows straight from the pole, Election Day 1984 arrived with the sort of weather most elderly people could have been forgiven for avoiding. But, bundled up against the cold, I found myself trudging up Carroll Street behind a very old woman. Bent against the wind, with snow in her hair, she put one foot in front of the other, using her walking stick to push her frail body up the hill toward the polling booth. As I overtook her, I paused and asked if I she needed any help.

“No thank you, Dear,” she smiled, “I can get rid of that bastard Muldoon all on my own.”

It was the high water mark of voter participation in New Zealand: never before, and never since, have so many registered voters participated in a General Election. One or two electoral contests had come close, but the turnout of 1984, at 93 percent, was the all-time record.

How, then, to explain the record low participation rate of 2011? Barely two-thirds of eligible voters bothered to cast a vote at last year’s election. For one reason or another, an astonishing one million New Zealanders never made it to a polling-booth. Not since the years prior to the introduction of universal suffrage in 1893 has New Zealand recorded such a poor democratic performance.

Sharp explanatory differences have emerged between political scientists in relation to last year’s abysmal turn-out. The veteran psephologist, and Professorial Fellow in Political Science at Victoria University, Nigel Roberts, seems to think the fault lies with us, the people. Too many of us, he suggests, have failed to fulfil our democratic duty, and for this failure we must be punished by Parliament. That’s right, the former professor believes New Zealanders, like Australians, should be legally required to present themselves at the polling-stations.

Mandatory participation, argues Professor Roberts, would have the (presumably beneficial) effect of negating the political advantages accruing to well-organised and well-funded political parties. If we’re all legally required to turn up at the polling-stations, then all political parties will compete for votes on the same footing: the least effective having as much chance of winning support as the most effective.

This approach doubtless outrages Dr Bryce Edwards, a political scientist teaching at the University of Otago, who places the blame for the low turnout of 2011 squarely on the shoulders of the politicians themselves: “It should be embarrassing for politicians and political parties because they’re the people that aren’t having their product bought.”

The findings of a survey of 272 non-voters conducted on behalf of the Electoral Commission tends to support Dr Edward’s contention. Roughly a third of non-voting respondents stated that they either did not trust politicians, or that they “just [weren’t] interested in politics”.

It is instructive (and not a little depressing) to contrast the findings of the Electoral Commission’s survey with the attitude of that elderly woman trudging up Carroll Street in the snow to cast her ballot.

Clearly, she placed no trust in the Government of Sir Robert Muldoon, but that lack of trust, far from being a reason not to vote, was her prime motivation for weathering the snowstorm. And, equally clearly, this woman was interested in politics, and knew exactly what was at stake in the Snap Election of 1984. Her faith in the power of her vote burned brightly on that grey Dunedin day, and so did her faith in the political alternative to the Muldoon-led National Party Government.

On 14 July 1984, David Lange led a Labour Party which had yet to openly embrace the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Not even I – a Labour activist responsible for the publicity of one of Dunedin’s Labour candidates – had any clear idea of the terrible betrayals that lay ahead (although there were disquieting signs). As I made my own way up Carroll Street I was relishing the prospect of New Zealand being declared nuclear-free; of compulsory unionism being restored; of the wage/price freeze being lifted; and of a decisive break with the apartheid regime in South Africa.

And it is here that my own views, and those of Dr Edwards begin to mesh. On Bastille Day 1984, for those who did not subscribe to Sir Robert’s ideas about how to run the New Zealand economy; for those who rejected his interpretation of the ANZUS Treaty and were furious at his refusal to sever all ties with the South African racists; there was a political alternative.

Or, so we thought.

The Chief Electoral Officer, Roger Peden, says he is deeply concerned at the long-term steep decline in voter participation since the record turn-out of 1984.

The year when voting was still worth braving a snowstorm.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 1 May 2012.


Anonymous said...

Is this "blame the politicians" again? If so, it is unfair as none of this is their fault.

You cannot realistically win a modern election without expensive and detailed polling that allows you to formulate an electable "brand" for your party. You just can't do it, because if you don't, the other side will and you will get hammered.

So it's no surprise that political parties end up like fast food: bland, same-y, not particularly nutritious and just inoffensive enough for most people to put up with.

This is just what democracy looks like and there is no reasonable way of changing it. You can't change the customers and nobody wants to change the system, so McDonalds it is.

I don't vote. Then again, I don't eat at McDonalds either.

Victor said...

I think we have to beware of single cause explanations for the decline in the percentage of New Zealanders voting.

The lack of clear ideological differentiation between major parties may well be one of the causes. Likewise the smaller role ascribed to Government, which therefore appears less relevant to the lives of the citizenry than heretofore.

But I strongly suspect that there are other factors at work. For example, we live in a culture of distraction, with our one-time national or communal conversations fragmented by technology, along with our attention spans.

And we are also a country that has undergone profound demographic change. This is particularly true of Auckland but also, to some extent, of much of the rest of New Zealand.

Not all of our immigrants come from places where participation in free elections is the norm. Others do. However, the messages put out by our traditional political tribes may nevertheless lack resonance for them.

In addition, people work longer and harder than in the benign decades of the late mid-century. Their minds are cluttered with responsibilities and with infinite but inescapable trivia. They may just be too tired or preoccupied to vote.

And we're increasingly losing a sense of the community as a patchwork of clubs, societies and other outlets for voluntary effort. This was hitherto one of New Zealand's glories and a natural school of good citizenship.

What is to be done? How do we restore the concept of active participation in the nation's governance? Perhaps the whole concept is outdated. But I certainly hope not.

And, if it's any comfort, our voter turnout is still reasonably respectable by global standards.

Unknown said...

Those were the days my friend! But we have an almost revolution ahead of us when an old fellow like myself, not yet on a walking stick, will brave the wind and rain in Lower Hutt to struggle to our nearest polling booth at Taita Central School in Churton Crescent, Taita. You betcha I will!!

I give David Shearer until the end of the years to get his act together, to learn a bit of oratory, and to put some policy forward.

KjT said...

Swapped Muldoon for ACT. If only we knew. Come back Rob all is forgiven!

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Perhaps it has something to do with too many people these days having no sense of responsibility for anything.

cheesefunnel said...


If you think Muldoon and ACT are the same thing I can only deduce that you divide the world into 'Labour' & 'Not Labour', sophisticated thinking at work there.

guerilla surgeon said...

"Perhaps it has something to do with too many people these days having no sense of responsibility for anything."

More likely the don't see themselves as able to make a difference. Justifiable cynicism I call it. Or votercide :-).

Anonymous said...

Very simple really. When 57 polls and dozens of supporting commentaries keep insisting that one party is unbeatable, then it is not only perfectly correct to conclude that one's single vote will make no difference, but perfectly logical to eschew the fruitless effort of voting.

It's the result and nauseating irony of mass indoctrination of individualism.


Anonymous said...

Over the past 40 years, three of the four biggest decreases in electoral participation have occurred after the first term of Labour governments. The masses have always “walked” when their party betrayed their hopes and trust. The 1984-1990 Labour government holds the record for the most kiwis walking away from the political process with an increased 8.5% of electors opting to not vote in 1990.

The largest desertion of electors over a single parliamentary term occurred after the Labour / Alliance coalition term of 1999-2002 with 7.8% staying away from the polls. The only time that a similar drop in participation occurred was in 1951 where an additional 7.6% decided not to vote and dissatisfaction with Labour sharply increased while being in opposition.

Since the 1940's the non-vote has almost exclusively increased as a disillusioned or angry response to Labour - not National. The greatest increase in participation occurred during the Muldoon years with an additional 10.5% of the population voting in 1984 than had in 1975 (although turnout increased progressively in every election of that period). Under Holyoake and Bolger’s respective governments there was almost no change with the overall vote. Until now, when the non-vote is looked at in relation to governments of the past 70 years, the top 3 periods of significant increases in “non-vote” took place under Labour governments.

Internationally, the largest increase in "non-vote" in the history of the UK occurred after Tony Blair's first term when 12% of the voting population decided not to bother again. It’s no coincidence that voters have been walking away from Labour when they throw-in-the-towel on the whole system.

National's share of the available vote in 2011 was 34.5%, in 1981 it was 34.3% and in 1978 was 33.6%. National's share of the votes roughly the same as it was 30 years ago. Similarly, in 1984, Labour attracted 39.3% of the available vote. In 1969 Labour received 39.4%, 1960 was 38.8%, 1950 was 40.4%. Until 1984, Labour's share of the vote was as constant as National's.

Only since Rogernomics has Labour's vote has been collapsing at a proportional rate to kiwis turning off politics completely. In 1990, support for the party had dropped to 29.1% of the available vote. It dropped to 26% in 2008 and was only 20% support last year.
The Electoral Commission survey into New Zealanders not voting had a full third stating that they don't trust politicians. With most of this "non-vote being ripped out of Labour's support base it should be clear that it's the politicians of the left who hold responsibility for the situation we are currently in.


Sparky said...

Perhaps we should do what the French do. Ban all polls for a period before an election. That would stop the media steering that went on before the last one here.

Paulus said...

The MSM have a lot to answer for in turning people off from voting.
They have assumed a role to which they are not competent - they lack the skill of fair balance - 30 second soundbites only. Without the MSM Winston would not have been in Parliament (I don't think he ever expected to).
The major newspapers in New Zealand are seriously losing their circulation - and no wonder when they get a story, do not check their facts, and go hell for leather, irrespective of consequences. Copy is all that metters, and the standard (as repeaters) has gone below the belt line often in this direction.

Victor said...

You make a good case, Loz

Anonymous said...

"The MSM have a lot to answer for in turning people off from voting."

That's unfair. The news is the way it is because that is how you get the maximum number of viewers. Similarly, big budget films are typically awful because that's the sort of thing that a lot of people will pay to watch (even people who would like something better will often stoop to going).

If you want real news to have some definite effect on politics, you will have to get people to watch it, and since that will involve making people listen to things that they would rather not hear, you will have a tough time doing that.

News used to be better because people had no real alternative but to watch it. Now that they have a choice, it sucks.

Russell said...

Love your snowstorm anecdote Chris

Radio NZ's latest Insight programme is on the voter turnout. I was surprised to hear Nigel Roberts pooh-pooh online voting on the grounds that going into a polling booth gives the voter ultimate power and privacy, unlike someone hovering over you at the computer telling you what to do.

In this day and age we should be able to use online technology to cast our vote. If it can be done for banking, why not for voting.