It's a matter of security

Do you draw up a household balance sheet? Not likely. But chances are it is subconsciously influencing your vote on 27 July.

The state of household finances is the lens through which most voters see and judge “the economy”. Whether across the nation household finances are getting better or worse or are beset by uncertainty is a big election decider.

What? Not crime? Not the Treaty of Waitangi? Not “family values”? Not genetic modification and two-headed fish? Not poor kids? Not Asians teeming across our borders? Not jet fighters? Not tax cuts for every worker?

Not whether Helen Clark might get a majority and whether that would be a good or a bad thing? Not how to stop the Greens? Not that Labour might need prodding to fully fund health and education?

Well, yes, actually. All of those will play some part with some people. And you might add some special interests: abortion or guns or hunting and fishing rights.

But past research has shown most voters have only hazy notions of parties’ specific policies. They work from a general impression of parties’ directions.

And top of the issues list, often subsuming some of those other issues, is something you might loosely call security.

That is why Helen Clark on Sunday, seeking re-endorsement, summed up her government as “steady, reliable, predictable, progressive”, the fourth element subordinate to the first three. It is why the opposition leaders, from Richard Prebble and Bill English to Winston Peters, Laila Harre and Jeanette Fitzsimons, highlighted a variety of insecurities, fears and scares.

A secure populace is likely to re-elect a government, especially if it has served only one term. An insecure populace is likely to throw a government out.

How did Michael Joseph Savage acquire near-sainthood in hundreds of thousands of households in the 1930s? Labour (with help from a reviving world economy) restored security to household and small farmer finances.

Why could National rule hardly challenged for 20 years after 1949? Because, after a bumpy start, its offered stable policy amid a prospering economy.

Why did Sir Robert Muldoon lose his huge 1975 majority in 1978? Because the economy wobbled in 1977 and the security he had promised eluded him and the electorate.

Security sounds defensive: erecting walls against marauders. And, indeed, one way to convince voters you can keep them secure is to conjure up or magnify marauders. After 1978 Muldoon identified enemies and fought them day after day on the television news. It worked for a while.

In 1981 he tried to finesse worsening economic insecurity by creating new taxpayer-supported industries to generate wealth. This was known as “think big” and was the issue given most prominence in the 1981 election campaign.

But it was not what people voted on. I ran a panel of 50 voters over six months, whom I had questioned in depth on events and issues. While 35 said “think big” was the biggest campaigning issue, all but three said they were not influenced by it. Muldoon had created a blind which obscured debate on issues people really were bothering about, among them rising unemployment.

The lesson for voters from that election is: look through what parties say are the issues. You know better.

There is another lesson. Muldoon played on, and probably owed his wafer-thin majority to, another insecurity which partly offset economic insecurity.

Security is not only an economic issue, a matter of the household balance sheet. It is also a matter of culture, of personal safety, of access to education for children and health care and sustenance in old age and in hard times.

In 1981 the Springbok rugby tour brought weekly street battles and divided families and neighbourhoods. It undermined cultural unity. By defending the right to play rugby against traditional foes, Muldoon sided with the majority who wanted to preserve or restore the cultural certainties they had grown up with and which were under attack from the anti-tour protesters.

But 1981 signalled that cultural unity could not be maintained. With cultural and economic security crumbling, the 1984 election was a foregone conclusion against Muldoon. That ushered in 15 years of even greater insecurity as, first, 40-something revolutionaries in the Labour party and the bureaucracy cut loose across the whole gamut of policy and then the revolution’s apparatchiks tried to bed it in.

Labour’s vote plunged 13 per cent in 1990 amid policy mayhem and steeply rising unemployment. National’s fell 13 per cent drop in 1993 as it continued the shredding of the security blanket. In 1996 a majority voted for parties voters thought would stop the revolution. In 1999 Helen Clark’s election put in that stopper.

Stir in two good economic years from mid-2000, with sustained low unemployment and rising real wages and rising house values. Result: there is a greater feeling of security than for a long time. Household balance sheets are in good shape.

That shows in strongly positive majorities on poll questions on expectations for household finances and whether the country is going in the right or wrong direction.

So the electorate feels more secure than for a long time and Clark happens to be the incumbent.

But is that the end of the matter? Not at all. There are other insecurities which bother parts of the electorate.

One is cultural unity in this once overwhelmingly European nation. This is Winston Peters’ special niche.

Focus groups are telling us that many are uncomfortable about and some feel threatened by the impact of migrants from non-European cultures.

Mere discomfort is not enough to shift support from the mainstream parties which back migration. National and ACT are busily wooing votes of ethnic east Asians, for example.

But those who feel threatened have only one party to turn to in this election: New Zealand First. Right now his numbers look to be relatively small. But if before a future election economic insecurity grows, some who now feel mere discomfort about migration may come to feel threatened. It is a sleeper issue.

The Treaty of Waitangi likewise threatens conservatives’ notions of cultural unity and stirs rather larger numbers than immigration right now. Exactly how the Treaty will play in the election has yet to be seen. But it is instructive that National and ACT are alongside Peters wanting boundaries.

Then there is law and order. Three decades ago this was not much of an issue. But now many feel unsafe, or at least uneasy, in a society they fear is becoming lawless.

No party can ignore this pervasive fear. Even usually liberal Labour has made gestures of tougher sentences and appointed more police. Has it done enough to neutralise crime as a detractor from economic security? We have yet to see.

Yet another dimension of security is access to health and education services and assurance of support in hard times and old age. National and ACT, which have come during the 1990s to be thought of as “economic” parties, are emphasising health and education this election.

So far, however, these do not seem to be playing big, though ironically concerns to secure health and education access may explain why tax cuts promised by National and ACT don’t seem yet to be registering as a big vote winner.

Perhaps Labour also is getting the benefit of the doubt at the end of only its first term. Perhaps the terrible twins will bite in a second term.

So is that it? Are there no compelling counter-insecurities to the economic security swaddling this government?

Actually, yes. And the Greens own it: safe food.

The code name for this is genetic modification (GM) and it has become central to the big parties’ tactical manoeuvrings.

Nearly a quarter in the Herald DigiPoll late last month said they wanted a complete ban on commercial release of genetically modified organisms. This is too big a minority for the big old parties safely to dismiss.

And they are not ignoring it. Because it is an emotional issue, beyond the ministrations of rational argument, the big old parties have been heaping abuse on the Greens.

This is risky. It is not only people’s dreams politicians should tread softly around; it is also their fears. Scorn their fears, as Clark did on Monday by scoffing at Greens as “goths and anarcho-feminists”, and there may be a price to pay. Sure of a Labour-led government, safe food worriers have the option of voting Green and some appear likely to take it.

That is about nightmares. What about dreams?

Secure people allow themselves dreams. In 1972 an economically, socially and culturally secure nation voted in a Labour government promising social democratic nirvana. Thirty years on the economic security is too new-found and fragile to encourage dreaming.

Which brings into focus another central issue: leadership. But this election leadership is not an issue of vision or a promised land. Leadership is competence and the promise of respite from change. Clark (and Jim Anderton) can promise that.