Politics? ZZZZZZ: New Zealand’s political culture is nothing like as vibrant as it was 25 years ago. Most people have little in the way of contact with either politicians or political parties, and very few remain loyal to the great ideological narratives of the twentieth century. On the contrary, for many electors deciding who to vote for is as simple as asking: “What’s in it for me?”
DUNEDIN NIGHTS are often cold, observed James K Baxter in the opening line of his celebrated “Ode To Mixed Flatting”. He should probably have added that the days can be pretty darn chilly as well. Saturday, 14 July 1984 was one such day. In France it was Bastille Day. In New Zealand it was the day of Sir Robert Muldoon’s final folly – the Snap Election. And in Dunedin it was snowing.
I remember the snow because of the old woman who was doggedly making her way through it to the polling-booth. The scene is imprinted on my memory both visually and aurally. That’s because her response to my offer of assistance was not easily forgotten:
“No thank you dear, I’m quite capable of getting rid of that bastard Muldoon all by myself!”
That indomitable old dame was not alone in her determination to have her say that icy election day. The turnout on 14 July 1984 was a staggering 93.7 percent – the highest in our history.
What a contrast we find when we turn from the election of 1984 to the election of 2011. Two years ago there were 3,070,847 New Zealanders registered to join in the precious democratic rituals of electing a government. The number who ended up actually casting a vote, however, was just 2,278,989. At 74.21 percent, the turnout was the lowest since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1893.
Cui bono? Who benefited from this extraordinarily low (by New Zealand standards) turnout? That’s easy. Out of the 2,278,989 citizens who did their democratic duty, an astonishing 1,058,636 voted for John Key’s National Party.
I say astonishing because Mr Key actually increased his party’s share of the vote. From 44.9 percent in 2008 the Government’s plurality jumped to 47.3 percent in 2011. (Interestingly, only 5,238 more actual votes were cast for National, but with the record low turnout that relatively small number was enough to lift the party’s vote-share by an impressive 2.4 percentage points.)
The big question for the 2014 General Election must, therefore, be: Will the number of citizens entering the polling booths return to a figure approximating the average turnout of the past quarter-century (82.6 percent) or will it continue its downward slide towards the much lower participation rates characteristic of the USA and the UK?
Putting the question another way: What will it take to rouse the 791,858 abstainers of 2011 from their political slumber and thus prevent the National Party from winning an outright majority of seats with fewer actual votes than it received in either of the past two elections?
It’s a question that looms much larger for the leader of the Labour Party, David Cunliffe, than it does for the Prime Minister, Mr Key. Those on the right of politics are, by and large, much more conscientious and reliable voters than those who, when they can be bothered voting at all, tend to support the parties of the left.
To win in 2014, Labour must find some way of rousing its dormant electoral base. By contrast, to remain prime minister, Mr Key has only to hold the voters he already has. If Mr Cunliffe cannot devise a strategy which appreciably inflates the turnout of “traditional” Labour voters he cannot hope to defeat the government.
This is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. New Zealand’s political culture is nothing like as vibrant as it was 25 years ago. Most people have little in the way of contact with either politicians or political parties, and very few remain loyal to the great ideological narratives of the twentieth century. On the contrary, for many electors deciding who to vote for is as simple as asking: “What’s in it for me?”
For the farmer, the business person, the property owner, and the financial investor it’s all pretty straightforward. What’s in it for National’s electoral base is economic growth, low inflation, reduced taxation and a reasonable rate-of-return. What they’re not looking for is more economic regulation, higher taxes, rising prices or inflationary wage demands.
Getting the attention of those who feel that their stake in New Zealand society is much too meagre to matter is a considerably more daunting task. Contemporary politics mocks their lack of anything to lose – not even Marx’s chains.
It will be a cold day in Hell before they vote again.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 1 November 2013.