The issues

NZ Politics Research Group election conference: 18 Februrary 2000

The issues

“Issues” is a slippery topic. Allegedly, voters decide elections on “issues” and surveys are conducted to find out what they were. Until the official programme arrived I had thought my topic was “policies”, which would have been much less challenging – a scan of what the parties said, when campaigning, they would do if in or sharing power.

For a proper analysis of the “issues” we will need to await Jack Vowles’ erudite exposition of voter opinion captured in his pre-election and post-election surveys and set them in an ideological framework. At the other end of the electoral food chain are the parties’ focus-groups, from which parties try to fashion a strategy to work “issues” to their advantage by judicious choices of phrase and emphasis.

I will not attempt to second-guess Jack’s raw material or erudition. And I have only hazy knowledge of what the focus-groups told the parties. So I shall instead take some unpoetic licence with the phrase, “the issues”, and hazard some guesses at the main factors in voters’ decision-making. I should add, given the subtitle of this section of the conference, that these are taken from my observations, not an analysis of the media.

1. The “correction”

Since 1987 large numbers of voters have pined for a way to stop or “correct” the policy direction established in the late 1980s. The Labour government’s vote share was cut 13% in 1990. The National government’s vote share was cut 13% in 1993, enough usually to ensure a change of government, except that Labour was still too discredited and there was an escape valve, the MMP referendum, for the disgruntled vote. In 1996 a majority voted for parties it thought would replace National but that majority was finessed by Winston Peters.

The National cabinet began to apply a “correction” in early 1999 but Prime Minister Jenny Shipley had intensified the deregulatory policy agenda in her first year in office in 1998, so her 1999 manoeuvre was too close to the election to register in the minds of any but close political observers, was too timid to count as a genuine “correction” and in any case co-mingled with an equivalent desire in the electorate to get rid of National as having been too long in office and too little prepared to listen.

By “correction” I am using a term used in the financial markets: a market “corrects” when it has gone far in one direction and reverses slightly. By 1999 the electorate had by and large accommodated to the policy direction set in 1984 – not enthusiastically, but as a matter of realism. Rollback to 1984 or even 1990 was no longer realistically expected or wanted but some token acknowledgement of discomfort with the direction was demanded. This was a powerful issue in the election. It was “time for a change” – in fact, so long past time for a change that even a mild change would suffice.

2. “Real” government

Helen Clark got her biggest applause at campaign meetings when she promised to legislate against party-hopping. This illustrates public dislike of the fluidity of government majorities from 1994 onwards. The New Zealand political culture is to re-elect or un-elect governments. The majority’s frustrated attempt to get an alternative government in 1996, coupled with cynical cabinet and coalition remakes by Jim Bolger and Jenny Shipley in order to cling to power with any support, however incongruent, gave an advantage to any grouping which could show it was a block with some visibly common directional goals. Labour and Alliance fulfilled that condition from August 1998 onward with their commitment to form a coalition. There was no comparable block on the right: National and ACT were on the point of holding a joint press conference three days before election day when an immigration scandal broke. The press conference was instead used by Shipley to announce she was sacking the Immigration Minister, Tuariki Delamere.

3. Trust and legitimacy

Even when her ratings as preferred Prime Minister were below the margin of error in 1996, Helen Clark was perceived by focus-groups as likely to do what she said she would do. This was a plus after 12 years of governments which once in office had acted in contravention of pre-election promises or out of traditional character. When in 1999 Helen Clark insisted she would do what she promised she was believable. She is now determined to run a WYSIWYG government – “what you saw is what you get”.

4. A disgruntled electorate/the “spiritual” dimension

Voters have consistently told pollsters for years that the country is “on the wrong track” and “is becoming a worse place to live”. This negativity is not unique to New Zealand – there are similar readings in Australia. Also, those poll readings do not automatically translate into a vote against the incumbent government. They do, however, provide an underlying basis for change if a credible alternative is available – one was – and if the government in office is erratic, unstable or strategically inconsistent – the Shipley-led government was all three.

The disgruntlement of the electorate is a puzzle to some analysts, especially in Australia where the 1990s have been an golden decade of economic growth. But it probably stems from the curtailment of governments’ ability to ensure or engineer security amidst the rapid changes forced by the swirling international tides of highly mobile information, money and capital. If this is so, only when voters recognise governments can do less than politicians pretend and adjust their expectations of governments accordingly (as the under-40s may be doing) are voters likely to confer more legitimacy on governments and politicians. By promising or at least implying it can restore security, Helen Clark’s government may have made itself hostage to forces beyond its control. Waiting in the wings in the National party is an astute 38-year-old, Bill English, who has a different feel for the electorate from that of his elders at the top of both his own party and Labour.

5. The spiritual dimension and nationhood

An Australian journalist earlier this week told me of a “very senior cabinet minister” who had said to him over dinner that perhaps the Howard government needed to focus on the “spiritual” as a way out of its current poor reputation with voters. The journalist relayed the story with contemptuous disbelief, but the minister’s idea was not necessarily as bizarre as it sounds.

Some Labour strategists were arguing as early as 1998 that the key to winning the 1999 election lay in promoting “nationhood” for which they detected signs of a public yearning. The ingredients of such a yearning are notoriously difficult to identify accurately and even more difficult to harness for electoral purposes but Helen Clark had a go. By stating in May she would take the arts and culture portfolio, she gave herself scope to talk about “national identity” and “nationhood” and from mid-October on she did include such an aspirational dimension in speeches. But this dimension was little reported (partly because her press officers made almost no attempt to promote them) and Labour’s campaign did not make much of nationhood either, so it is doubtful Labour turned the nationhood key.

Since she became Prime Minister Helen Clark has continued with her nationhood theme. It will be interesting to see how well she is able to develop it. There is potentially a big prize if she pulls it off.


6. The “values” variant

Associated with, although different from, “nationhood” is another shadowy notion, “values”. ACT cottoned on this in 1996 in its slogan, “Values. Not politics”. Its 1999 launch, developed from some sophisticated polling and focus-group work, paraded a range of key words against a backdrop of scenes of the nation: “changing”, “free”, “prosperous”, “secure”, “spirited”, “competitive”.

Jenny Shipley as Prime Minister sporadically veered into values but muddled the message between her own “one-of-us” small-town, middling values and a superficial characterisation of New Zealand as “clever” and “smart” and a nation of “winners”.

7. Disgruntlement revisited

What are the elements of disgruntlement and how did they play?

a. “Sovereignty”

As indicated above, a big ingredient of voters’ disgruntlement is a sense that governments no longer have the capacity to protect their citizens from international economic forces. As a result, many voters no longer feel they can exercise, either themselves or through their government, control over their fates. In a very loose way one might describe this as sensing a loss of “sovereignty” – to big companies, to foreigners, to shadowy forces they do not comprehend.

This sense of a loss of sovereignty is not a characteristic of the “right” or the “left”. In 1993 it helped swell the Alliance’s peak vote of 18%, with another 8% going to Winston Peters’ New Zealand First; then in 1996, deserting the Alliance, it helped build New Zealand First’s vote to 13%. A year later it was an important ingredient in the rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party in Australia.

In 1999 it is unclear how this factor operated, if at all. New Zealand First was discredited, the Alliance lost ground and no other party campaigned on “sovereignty” grounds. It is unlikely to have evaporated, however. Maybe Helen Clark will finesse it with “nationhood” – if not, it will probably be available for some new Jim Anderton or Winston Peters in 2002 because the new international economy is not going away.

In policy terms the sense of a loss of “sovereignty” is linked in people’s minds with deregulation. Deregulatory parties – ACT and National – were sure in 1999 to suffer from the “sovereignty” factor.

b. Curbing the treaty

The Treaty of Waitangi process since 1985 has been sustained by a liberal consensus of the Wellington political and bureaucratic elite. This has ensured a redneck backlash has been bound to fail. However, in 1997 ACT broke ranks, opposing legislation to overturn perpetual peppercorn leases that were denying Maori use of their land. In 1999 ACT hardened this into “sunset” demands for a deadline for filing and processing treaty claims. The wording appealed to principle and was relatively mild but when ACT relaunched the policy in mid-October on the very spot where Maori activists had twice attacked an Auckland landmark, the lone pine on One Tree Hill, and code-phrased it “one country”, with obvious Hansonite overtones, it gained powerful iconic strength.

ACT’s polling climbed – and Labour’s dropped by a comparable amount. ACT seemed for a couple of weeks to have identified the factor that would enable it to add to the right’s vote by striking at Labour’s soft underbelly of conservative wage workers. But those people inhabiting this soft underbelly most likely to be tempted by a “one-country” treaty policy are in the same general voting grab-bag as those bothered by a sense of loss of “sovereignty”. As soon as voters tempted into ACT’s corner on the treaty policy re-registered ACT as the arch-deregulator party, its vote share dropped.

c. Security

A common factor of both “sovereignty” and curbing the treaty as political issues is that they in some way reflect threats to personal security – from foreigners and big business in the former case and from cultural diversity in the latter. Personal security was also a factor in the election in other ways, notably:–

crime, which both ACT, banging the populist drum, and Labour, suppressing its liberal instincts to run an uncharacteristic hard line, exploited to National’s cost; crime most affects the not-well-off;

–access to health and education services; Labour and the Alliance worked these issues very hard, promising to different degrees to rebuild the welfare state to more nearly meet demand; National’s heavy spending from 1994 on took some of the sting out of these as issues but they still played negatively for the incumbent government

jobs and income, under constant threat from business closures and restructuring and imports; the Alliance promised increased border protection (though less than half what it promised in 1996), heavy re-regulation of workplace relations and an ambitious business assistance programme; Labour proposed partial re-regulation of workplace relations and a modest business assistance programme; ACT and National took the minority line that business needed that flexibility to generate wealth in an open economy.

d. Rural distress

In the wake of the by-election in May 1997 in the rural seat of Taranaki-King Country occasioned by former Prime Minister Jim Bolger’s departure to be Ambassador to the United States – a by-election in which ACT ran National a close second and the Alliance won the two main towns, Te Kuiti and Stratford – ACT mounted a nationwide campaign to win over farmers and the Alliance set out to woo country towns. National countered with rural tours by teams of MPs in mid-1999 and special attention during the campaign. Election returns indicate farmers stayed put and overall in rural seats National recorded a lower-than-average fall in vote share. Rural distress therefore seems either to not to have been an issue or to have been neutralised.

8. National’s rearguard action

National tried to scare small businesses and their employees off Labour by highlighting the workplace relations re-regulation and Labour’s proposed renationalisation of accident compensation and claiming those moves would cost jobs and exaggerating the influence of the immoderate Alliance. Much of National’s last-minute negative advertising was on these themes. How effective this was in causing some voters to reassess their leaning towards Labour is unclear but there is anecdotal evidence that small business operators did not get the message (and were consequently surprised to find the new government doing what it said it would do).

National also tried to drive a tax wedge between itself and Labour, launching a “tax attack” in August and making Labour’s 6% tax increase on incomes over $60,000 one of its main negative targets during the campaign, contrasting it with its own proposals for modest tax cuts. Again, anecdotal evidence suggests the effectiveness was limited.

9. ACT’s populist digression (and downwards envy)

ACT began its political life as an advocate of much more extensive deregulation: very low income tax, more private funding and delivery of health care, personal choice in education, including of private providers, low government spending, rapid privatisation of government assets and extensive dismantling of economic and planning regulations.

During the 1996-99 Parliament, however, ACT increasingly focused its pitch on populist issues, aimed at less-well-off voters who might normally be expected to lean towards Labour: lower taxes (sold as a populist measure), cuts in welfare (aimed at stirring “downwards envy” towards able-bodied people who were not working), harsher measures against criminals and the Treaty of Waitangi sunset targets.

The deregulatory and populist strands don’t mesh because, as noted above, the voters to whom populism appeals are likely also to be voters scared or made insecure by deregulation. ACT as a result appears to have picked up very few of the voters who were disenchanted with National, raising its vote share only 1%. And it appears to have lost corporate funding, reduced to only a $700,000 campaign, compared with $1.8 million in 1996. ACT faces some hard choices if it is to remain a significant force, especially if anti-Labour voters reassemble behind National in the 2002 election.

10. The green dimension

The environment is a “yes, unless” issue: most voters reflexively support green policies but only if they are not inconvenienced. However, for a small pool of voters the environment is a central issue and as the Greens gained profile in the campaign these voters probably were progressively activated. Labour’s strong stance against logging native beech on the West Coast may also have helped swell Labour’s vote nationally.

The Greens seem also have benefited from a youth factor. When marijuana-smoking Rastifarian Nandor Tanczos, No 5 on the Greens’ list, was catapulted on to the 6pm television news after Jenny Shipley made a vitriolic personal attack on him and other Greens as (implausibly) dangerous radicals 10 days before the election, the Greens began reporting a surge in late enrolments by young people who said they had taken no interest in previous elections: Tanczos suddenly made parliamentary politics relevant for them. The result was a disproportionately high Green share of the special votes, netting the Greens the Coromandel seat and putting them over the 5% barrier.

11. Leadership and management

Jenny Shipley’s attack on the Greens worked in another way, as a factor of leadership – or, rather, management. Leadership was not an issue in the sense that Sir Robert Muldoon was a central figure in campaigns from 1975 to 1984. Neither of the two main-party leaders had vote-swinging charisma; Jim Anderton and Richard Prebble were more engaging figures but were not central to the election. But Jenny Shipley’s political management – or, rather, mismanagement – was an issue.

From September 1998 onwards Jenny Shipley’s prime ministership was marked by a string of easily avoidable blunders. For most of the campaign she acceded to party strategists’ wishes that she play safe – until her attack on the Greens. This both was a blunder (it activated dormant Green votes) and was portrayed in the media as a blunder. Labour focus-groups immediately began to recall her earlier political ineptness; ACT recorded a negative reaction also. The contrast this highlighted between a blundering Shipley and a careful, sure-footed and increasingly “prime ministerial” Helen Clark worked to Labour’s advantage, as evidenced in polls in the following few days.

12. The manifestos

At the post-election conference in 1996 I noted that most parties presented their policies as if they were expecting to win a majority in their own right. National’s manifesto was couched in general language, indicating a partial adaptation to an electoral system in which parties can only state what they will strive for, not what they will do. ACT best understood the new system with its focus on “values” rather than detailed policies.

Little changed in this election. The Greens added a new dimension by stating in their slogan that “This is not an election campaign. This is our life’s work” – implying thereby that they were promoting a belief-system, not a set of policies. They also made it clear they expected at most to influence a Labour government in a small, prioritised list of items. The Alliance acknowledged junior coalition status in its slogan, “the heart of a new government” but its policies were very detailed and promised that “an Alliance government will …”. Parties have some way to go to adapt to the new environment.


Detailed examination of the issues and how they played in the election must await the academic studies. But I hope I have indicated that the role of “issues” in the campaign is complex and multi-layered and that quantitative studies tell only part of the story.