THERE IS LITTLE to be learned from most of the analyses of the Tauranga By-Election results. Those on the Right continue to present 2020’s general election as a normal contest. It wasn’t. The 2020 General Election was in fact an aberrant political event. Labour’s majority was the product of Jacinda Ardern’s world-beating response to the Covid-19 pandemic: a hearty “Thank you!” from at least half of her “Team of Five Million”. The Tauranga By-Election was always going to register the return of traditional National voters to the conservative fold. The result for Labour did not spell “catastrophe”. Nor did a represent a “failure” on Jacinda’s part. The percentages won by the two principal contenders closely matched the 2017 result – exactly as anticipated.
The return of those traditional National voters, while anticipated, nevertheless poses a series of very difficult questions for Labour’s strategists. While there is comfort to be drawn from the proximity of Saturday’s results to those of 2017, there is absolutely no comfort to be taken from Labour’s overall 2017 result.
Five years ago, Jacinda Ardern did extremely well to lift Labour’s Party Vote from 25 to 37 percent, but she still found herself 7 percentage points shy of National’s extraordinary (after three terms!) Party Vote of 44 percent. Jacinda’s rather flat speech on Election Night 2017 reflected her understanding that, by failing to win a plurality of the votes cast, she could not expect to become New Zealand’s next prime minister.
Winston Peters changed all that, but, as the photographs taken of Jacinda and Grant Robertson listening to Peters’ speech make clear, they really didn’t know if they had successfully persuaded him to put Labour into power – or not. Certainly, Peters’ choice ran counter to New Zealand’s informal, No. 8 wire, post-MMP constitution, which, up until 2017, had decreed that the party with the most votes got to supply the next prime minister.
Had National not been in power for the previous 9 years, it is very unlikely that Peters would have installed Labour in 2017. Certainly, a repeat performance (even assuming NZ First surges back into Parliament in 2023) is out of the question. Peters reprising his kingmaker role only makes sense in the political context of an electorate that has undergone a pronounced shift to the right. An important part of that shift has been the dramatic re-casting of the Prime Minister: from faerie queen and national saviour, to pantomime demon – and worse. A minor party opting to keep Jacinda Ardern on the Ninth Floor of the Beehive would provoke nationwide fury.
Well aware of this possibility, it is also unlikely that the Māori Party would opt to keep Labour in power – even if it could. Between them Rawiri Waititi, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and John Tamihere have more than enough nouse to discern what would happen if they backed a Labour Party beaten into second place by National. Yes, they might secure another three years in which to implement the He Puapua blueprint, but it would be against a backdrop of racist rage that would not be stilled until te Tiriti and all its works had been cast into the fire.
If the Māori Party’s votes could make it possible for National and Act to rule – moderately – then it would be well advised to let them. The ultimate threat: to pull the pin and bring them down with Labour and Green support; need never be spoken. Christopher Luxon would have the muzzle he needed for Act – without ever having to ask.
There are no friends in politics – only interests to be defended, and opportunities to be seized.
That said, the victory that now looms ahead for National and Act will not be founded upon an enthusiastic right-wing majority within the electorate, but upon the fatal absence of left-wing support. Christopher Luxon is set to become prime minister not on the strength of those who turned out to support him, but on the disillusionment of those who opted to stay at home.
The historical record tells this story in the most unequivocal terms. In 1972, when Norm Kirk romped home to victory, the turn-out was 89.1 percent. Three years later, when Rob Muldoon steamrollered Labour’s hopes for “A New Society” to dust, it was 82.5 percent. In 1984, when Labour again won the Treasury benches, the turnout was a record 93.7 percent. In 1990, when Jim Bolger defeated Mike Moore, it had fallen to 85.2 percent. National Party victories are almost always built on the defeat of Labour voters’ hopes.
Is there anything Jacinda and Labour can do to avert the National-Act triumph that looms ahead? Of course there is! In the simplest terms, they can give their supporters a compelling reason for turning up at the polling-booths. This time, however, it will take more than rhetorical gestures and snappy slogans. This time Labour’s programme will not only need to spell out a clear sequence of reforms, but also the mechanisms required to implement them. And it must be a compelling programme: one that makes losers out of those who have spent the last three decades winning all the prizes; and winners out of those who have spent the same 30 years chewing on their leftovers.
“Bottom rail on top!” That’s how freed African-American slaves described the transformation wrought by General Army Order No. 3, which on 19 June 1865 – “Juneteenth” – gave effect to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Māori New Zealanders have never been so close to seeing te Tiriti o Waitangi honoured in practical and enduring ways than they are today. For this country’s bottom rail to make its way to the top, however, this government must frame the next election as a straightforward battle between the entrenched colonial legacy of “old” New Zealand, and the enlarged democracy of a new “Aotearoa”.
The mission of Labour’s Māori caucus is clear: to persuade their Pakeha colleagues that they must give rangatahi – young New Zealanders of all ethnicities – a reason to get out and vote. Not only is this the only way that Labour can win another term, but it is also the only guarantee that it will not fade into historical oblivion.
Jacinda and her caucus need to take a look around the world and note what is happening to those political parties who still cling to the idea that the centre-ground is the safest place to play. Look at what has just happened in the French legislative elections – where the Far-Right and the Far-Left have both made huge gains. Observe the fate of the business-as-usual candidates for the Colombian presidency, and the historic victory of the former revolutionary guerrilla, Gustavo Petro: Colombia’s first left-wing President.
In his victory speech, Petro thanked the party workers who had fanned out across the nation to “seduce” Colombia’s voters. An interesting choice of words, and an accurate one. Victory for the Left has always been a matter of seduction: of making the voters lust for what the Left is offering. And if that is not, as Petro told the thousands gathered before him in Bogota, a government of love and hope, then what good is the Left? What is it for?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 21 June 2022.