Two million voters in search of a rationale: The campaign, factors and issues

Draft paper by Colin James to the Victoria University post-election conference, 23 August 2002

“They haven’t settled down yet.” So said Barrie Leay, the National party secretary, at the 1978 election, which decimated the National government’s huge 1975 majority and slashed its vote by 9% to below Labour’s. Ditto for the 2002 election.

The logic of the Clark government between 1999 and 2002 was consolidation. After the 1984-92 revolution (1) there was a strong public desire for stability and moderation. Both in policy and tone this is for the most part what Helen Clark and her ministers supplied after 1999. That set the lie of the battleground in the 2002 election.

This had two important effects on the campaign and the election. First, it assured Labour of leadership of the next government. Second, because the electorate reached that conclusion, many supporters of the National party went in search of a vehicle to make their vote effective.

In the hands of voters still learning MMP’s levers this search produced an amazing campaign and equally amazing result. There had been a rule of thumb under FPP that the underdog major party made up ground during the campaign. In the 2002 campaign underdog National steadily lost ground. MMP prompted many non-Labour voters to use their votes in ways they would not have in an FPP election. (2)

In short, tactics were an issue. They were much discussed among parties, in the media and by voters.

Time and again during the campaign people of widely varying views and walks of life puzzled to me as to how they could or should use the party vote. I have had similar conversations since election day. My usual reply was to ask: “Why don’t (didn’t) you vote for the party that is nearest to what you believe in?” That was an MMP question, predicated on people voting for the party nearest their beliefs. The answer often was: “But that might give me the government I do not want.” That was an FPP answer, predicated on people voting for a government or to block the election of, or to reshape, a government they disapproved of.

So there is some way to go yet before we have an election we can pronounce to be the first truly MMP election, as some people did of this one. (3)

Moreover, the ethos among MPs remains predicated on a winner-takes-all government. While minority government is now becoming the norm and forms of non-coalition arrangements with supporting parties are being experimented with (an MMP phenomenon but also possible under FPP, as in the 1910s-20s) and the chairing of select committees is being more broadly spread around other, including opposition, parties (an MMP phenomenon), the negotiations for support were still predicated on obtaining a majority to keep the government in office and majorities for its programme; there is still little attempt in budget-making, policy development and legislating to broaden the parliamentary constituency for a proposed course of action beyond the numbers needed to get a measure through the House.

Whatever the tissue of pretexts offered by the government for calling an election four months early, the actual reason was to capitalise on benign polls at the very least to maximise Labour’s vote and preferably to obtain a majority in combination with Deputy Prime Minister Jim Anderton’s Progressive Coalition. (4) Part of the calculation the electorate then made during the campaign, quite independently of policy considerations, was whether an absolute majority was desirable if Helen Clark was going to exercise it or at all. Clark attempted to counter this in her opening and closing television broadcasts and at other times and in other ways with declarations that it was a “privilege every day to serve” but she and humility are not obvious or convincing bedfellows.

So one tactical conundrum pondered by many voters was how to ensure a Clark government but not leave it unfettered.

This played initially into the hands of the Greens, especially among those who wanted a government influenced by a party to Labour’s left but discounted the Alliance as an option. But disunity got in the way: the Greens threw rocks at Labour over genetic modification (GM) and Labour threw rocks back, with some ferocity after the “corn” affair, to which I will refer later. Disunity is usually punished: Labour in the late 1980s, National in the early 1990s, New Zealand First in the late 1990s and the Alliance in late 2001/early 2002 are recent examples. The open warfare between Labour and the Greens over GM may well have cost both parties votes among those who had thought of Labour and the Greens as a government combination.

GM highlighted the difference between Labour and the Greens. That difference is part of the point of voting Green in support of a Labour-led government: to get more action on the environment and more commitment to “free” and extensive social services and to restrain Labour’s enthusiasm for free trade and military alignment with the United States. But the difference was also the trigger for a different tactical conundrum mulled over by a second sort of voter: how to stop the Greens influencing a Labour government. Anecdotal evidence from as far back as mid-2001 suggested many National voters were planning to vote Labour for exactly this reason.

For some National supporters voting Labour was not difficult: two good economic years plus some solicitous attention from the cabinet’s top brass to business and farming leaders had softened antipathy and even in some cases generated warmth. Other National supporters had to hold their noses to vote Labour yet still did. Still others drifted off to New Zealand First and others again found a merciful release from apostasy late in the campaign when United Future emerged as an option. United Future and New Zealand First in fact explicitly campaigned as a mechanism to blunt the Greens. The United Future option incidentally had the added advantage of injecting a right-of-centre influence on economic and environmental policy, given leader Peter Dunne’s generally pro-National voting record on those matters since 1996.

A third sort of voter wrestled with yet another tactical conundrum. This was triggered by dismay at National’s performance, prospects, policy or campaigning. Judging by comments to me after the election and also by polling evidence, some went to ACT, some to New Zealand First and some to United Future. Among the factors: Bill English’s lack of credibility as an alternative Prime Minister (some saw Winston Peters as more credible); National at no stage was seen as likely to lead a government; National’s policy was muddled and/or insufficiently firm on a range of issues from deregulation to stopping Maori claims and immigration; and the campaign appeared amateurish and/or to lack energy on the ground. (5)

Polls played a part in deciding tactics. They were a means whereby tactical voters, of whom there were a great many, could work out how to achieve their aim. The NZ Herald DigiPoll post-election poll recorded 12% of all voters as saying polls had a “strong impact” on their party vote and another 22% said they had had “some impact”. The figures for United Future were 11% and 51% respectively and 36% said they made up their minds on election day or the day before, indicating the vote for United Future was essentially tactical (though this is a small subsample and must be treated with care). Some 28% of Greens said they made up their minds on election day (another 3% the day before) and 31% ascribed some impact on their vote to the polls. The second issue to note is leadership. Because others, notably John Johansson, know far more about leadership and its influence on voting, I confine my comments here to the attempt by both Bill English and the Greens to questions Helen Clark’s integrity.

In opinion polls Clark scored high approval ratings and was far ahead of all others as “preferred Prime Minister”. In a pre-election issues survey by Colmar Brunton for TV1 58% agreed that “many New Zealanders will vote for Labour because they like Helen Clark”. In TV3-NFO’s matrix of characteristics Clark consistently scored highly positively and well ahead of English on every count. In part this may be put down to English’s newness in the job: he became National’s leader on in September 2001 and is not the sort of charismatic person who makes an instant impact. But Clark developed as Prime Minister, adding an easy approachability in public to the authority and credibility she had established in opposition. Her campaign walkabouts resembled the progress of a respected and accessible monarch. English was equally approachable but lacked authority. English attempted to bridge some of the gap by questioning Clark’s integrity in the wake of a police report, made public on 5 July, on a complaint about Clark’s having signed someone else’s artwork for auction for charity. This had surfaced in the media in April and occasioned much mirth though little evidence in polls that voters marked her down for it then. This was even though she merely apologised for an “error of judgment” and did not own up to having done something wrong. It was that omission which prompted the complaint to the police who found prima facie evidence of forgery but not of such consequence as to warrant prosecution. English’s attempt to exploit that finding did not resonate. (6)

What did resonate, at least temporarily, was an allegation by anti-establishment campaigner Nicky Hager in a book (published on 10 July by the Greens’ 22nd-ranked list candidate, Craig Potton, but without the knowledge of the Green leadership) that Clark and the government had in late 2000 covered up the planting of some GM-contaminated corn. In fact, officials stated on 11 July, there was no conclusive evidence the corn was contaminated (reviews did not confirm an initial positive test, which may have been triggered by the presence of dirt). Nor, the officials said, was there evidence of a cover-up; only of muddle and incompetence among officials. There was reason to believe the officials: it was implausible that a one-year-old government (as it was at the time) that was intuitively suspicious of GM would cover up a finding of GM. (7)

Nevertheless, this incident may well have chipped Clark’s reputation for integrity. Both Labour’s and National’s nightly tracking polls showed a 5% drop in Labour’s support after 10 July (to 38% and 39% respectively, according to off-the-record interviews) which Labour did not fully recover.

Perhaps more pertinently, both incidents displayed to the public another (understandable) aspect of Clark’s public persona overreaction to personal attacks to the point of appearing to lose control. She threatened to sue English and any media which published his allegations; she withdrew the threats the next day. After the corn affair, she accused the Green leadership, which too readily accepted Hager’s line, of complicity in Hager’s enterprise; she retracted that for lack of evidence after believable protestations of innocence by the Green co-leaders. Then on 21 July, when the Alliance published a poll purporting to show its leader, Laila Harr�, surging into the lead in the Waitakere electorate race against Labour’s Lynne Pillay (who in fact won), Clark said she doubted there was a poll; again, she retracted the next day.

A person not in control is a person not in authority. Her own demeanour, however sorely provoked (and she was sorely provoked), may have lost Labour votes. Clark’s authority is a powerful plus for Labour and any derogation from it is likely to diminish Labour’s attraction to voters. Clark also lost good media time and space in sideshows she didn’t start but surely compounded. On 21 July before her comment about Harr�’s poll, she had declared to a party rally in Wellington she was going to push the government’s positive record, ending her attacks on New Zealand First and the Greens of the week before. But TV1’s 6pm television clips of her that evening and the following were not of the government’s positive achievements but of her spat with Harr�.

This introduces another factor: the media. Janine Hayward and Chris Rudd will deal with this more fully and intelligently than I can. I will make this one comment.

For around two decades politicians have been using “spin”, stunts and manipulation to colour media coverage of campaigns, to which the media have become increasingly resistant and countered with attempts to set the agenda and circumvent the manipulation. In this election the media’s and particularly television’s role in this ongoing cat-and-mouse game may have influenced votes. In particular, the corn affair and TV1’s “worm” both media events were vote-shifting events.

TV3’s news presenter, John Campbell, recorded an interview with Clark on 9 July in which he put Hager’s accusations to her as uncontested fact, without mentioning Hager or the book and without prior warning of the topic beyond that it was about GM. Clark had not been briefed about the incident and did not have the necessary information to respond to his questions. Worse, TV3 did not run the interview until next evening, after the book had become public, making it look as if Clark was refusing to respond to what had by then become public knowledge. For the good of my trade, I hope no-one in future, and especially the Broadcasting Standards Authority when it rules on this matter, mistakes Campbell for a journalist. Ethics matter, even when politicians are at their most devious and slippery. Ethics especially matter in an election campaign when people are deciding the shape of their government and need good information.

Had TV3 and, I have to add, the media in general presented all sides of the corn story at the outset, the impact of Hager’s allegations would have been muted. The 5% drop in Labour’s ratings can largely be put down to TV3. This was a classic case, I think, of the medium becoming the message.

An arguably equally influential media event this one TV1’s doing was the “worm”. This was the recorded composite reaction of 100 uncommitted voters to comments by the leaders of eight parties in a “debate” on TV1 on 15 July, presented as a line wriggling up and down as it recorded positive and negative reactions. The “worm” was not shown during the debate but an hour and a-half later, accompanied by a commentary.

The worm’s warmest reactions were for New Zealand First and United Future leaders Winston Peters and Peter Dunne. There was a rough logic in this: uncommitted voters only 12 days from election day were unlikely to be supporters of the well-defined, old-established parties, Labour or National, or well-defined “flank” parties of the far left and right, the Alliance, Greens or ACT which invite a specific commitment to a point of view. News stories the day after the “worm” awarded Dunne a “win”. United Future’s poll ratings zoomed from less than 1% before the “worm” to 8% in a NZ Herald DigiPoll published on 20 July. Dunne, as a middle-of-the-road advocate of “balance” and “commonsense” became overnight a mechanism for moderate right-of-centre voters to ensure Labour was not captive of, or unduly influenced by, the Greens.

Quite apart from these two events, Labour ministers fretted that the style of media coverage by which they seemed to mean, television coverage obscured the “real” issues, the ones on which Labour could expect support. (8) In defence, the media could point to the blandness of Labour’s message. Its 2002 “credit card” of seven commitment was so unmemorable that two senior ministers I invited after the election to recite the list could recall only one between them. Labour was so determined to avoid controversy in a “business-as-usual” campaign that it forfeited media attention to what it did say.



1 The policy reforms after 1984 coincided with the assumption of independence, in the sense that in that period the nation developed a much more distinctive voice in an explosion of literature, music of all forms, film and graphic arts, as a generation born after 1945, not sharing its parents’ sentimental attachment to Britain, came to maturity and made itself felt. The period should thus be seen as the independence revolution, the emergence from colony.

2 Tactical voting of the sort seen in the party vote in 2002 had been seen in embryo in electorate voting in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In seats where the third party, Social Credit, reached a certain critical mass, supporters of the underdog main party (usually Labour in safe National seats but it did happen also to National in some safe Labour seats) would move to Social Credit as the more credible option to unseat the enemy. In three seats, all National-held, this won Social Credit the seat. In the one seat where Social Credit did well but where neither main party could be considered weak, there was a three-way fight and Social Credit could not quite win the seat.

3 That voters grasped the importance of the party vote is born out by the NZ Herald DigiPoll post-election poll of 500 taken on 30 and 31 July: 79% said the party vote was more important (17% said the electorate vote); 92% of United Future voters, 90% of Greens and 84% of ACT voters were clear it was the party vote.

4 Clark and Anderton campaigned for the return of a government which explicitly contained both.

5 Discussion on 7 August with Wyatt Creech, former Deputy Prime Minister, with special reference to the Wairarapa electorate.

6 The TV1-Colmar Brunton pre-election issues survey showing a drop in distrust of politicians and the government from 75% in 1999 to 66% might be partly due to Clark’s perceived authority and her message that she did during the term what she had promised in 1999.

7 This in itself was a most unusual event. At Science Minister Pete Hodgson’s request, State Services Commissioner Michael Wintringham convened a press conference of officials from the Ministry for the Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and the Environmental Risk Management Authority. Hodgson introduced the officials and remained in the room. While the officials conducted themselves properly, sticking to facts and events, that they did what they on a matter of high importance to the course and outcome of the campaign has raised important issues for future consideration if the political neutrality of the public service is to be secured in the public’s eyes.

8 After the election Labour ministers were angry at media coverage of Labour in the campaign and Helen Clark is reported as having spent a good part of the first meeting of the new Labour caucus lambasting the media. Apart from the “corn” and the “worm”, ministers complained at a style of television interviewing that constantly and intrusively interrupted answers to questions.

So what were the “substantive” issues? I look forward to definitive guidance from Jack Vowles. For the purposes of this paper I will first note that the No 1 issue recorded by the NZ Herald DigiPoll was health, which was probably a negative for Labour or at least not a strong positive. TV1-Colmar Brunton’s pre-election issues survey also rated a clutch of issues including health, hospital waiting lists and mental health care No 1, followed by a clutch involving violence and crime and inadequate penalties (another negative for Labour), well ahead of falling education standards, with another long drop to tax, superannuation, student debt and the Treaty and alleged unequal treatment of Maori (again, all mostly negative for Labour). (9)
If these negatives for Labour were the issues, why didn’t Labour do badly in the election? Because, I would argue, these “issues” were in fact “problems” and while problems are, of course, factors in people’s voting, positives are also factors. And Labour had some positives, notably the economy. These arguably more than offset the problems.

I will divide the “substantive” issues into several groups.

There was, first, a group of personal security issues.

Top of these is the economy. Growth had been strong, unemployment was at 13-year low, real wages were firm and household balance sheets were in good shape. There was also widening, though not universal, approval for the government’s attempts to lift investment through research and positive interventions. In fact, though he did not make much of it, English said he would keep some of them, though refocused.

English tried to make something of the fall in export prices and the consequent looming fall in farm incomes and slowdown in growth generally. But consumer sentiment remained resolutely high through the campaign. So did retail spending, especially of big-ticket items (though the pace of growth did begin to slow). Economic scare stories did not resonate.

In short, the economy was probably a big unstated positive for Labour. Some 65% told the TV1 Colmar Brunton pre-election issues survey the “outlook for the New Zealand economy is very good”. (10)

The obverse of that was that Labour could not get the media to run its claims of excellent economic management. This is true but Labour’s criticism was misplaced. First, a good deal of the good economic story was luck, not brilliant government management: it rained a lot, prices were high and a high American dollar kept New Zealand dollar returns from those prices high. Second, even if the media had carried Labour’s claims, it is doubtful they would have added anything to Labour’s vote because people knew without being told economic conditions were good: the positive for Labour from the firm economy was probably fully built in to its vote before the campaign began.

More relevant to the campaign were two personal security issues which are thought normally to work to Labour’s advantage: health and education.

To the extent health was an issue it was probably a negative for Labour and National claimed its attacks on underfunding were scoring. But it was also probably only a small negative for a first-term government that could claim to have increased funding and cut waiting times for operations.

National tried to make much of secondary teachers’ rejection of a pay offer and obstruction of the introduction of a new pupil assessment system. But it is moot whether that worked against the government; Labour claimed sentiment was moving against the teachers. And in any case the government and the union agreed to arbitration shortly before the election.

Genetic modification was much more talked about and reported on. This is a personal security issue because for most people it is a safe food issue. It was prominent in media coverage of the campaign because: (a) part of the excuse for the election was that the Greens had on 23 May walked out of Parliament in protest at legislation setting a sunset of October 2003 on a two-year moratorium on applications for commercial release of GMOs (genetically modified organisms), declaring they would vote to bring down any government that lifted the moratorium, and this walkout provoked an angry and stinging response from Clark; (b) the Greens made GM the centrepiece of their campaign, with scare ads that were classics of negative advertising; (c) on 3 July a new Sustainable Development Council, headed by a former Federated Farmers president, Sir Peter Elworthy, and featuring international movie star Sam Neil, former world squash champion Susan Devoy and noted biochemistry Professor Garth Cooper, was announced to fight for a five-year moratorium; and (d) the Hager “ambush” on 10 July.

In answers to two sets of questions, early and late in the campaign, NZ Herald DigiPoll found around a quarter of respondents wanted an absolute ban on release of GMOs. This was in line with the Green’s position and this sort of reaction encouraged the Greens to persist in an intransigent stance and to hope for a vote above 10% as a result.

However, in the DigiPoll around three-fifths took the line of most other parties: they were in favour of strict controls but not an absolute ban. Polls of “important issues” never rated GM more than about 10%, well below the more traditional issues. And DigiPoll found only 7% saying GM would “absolutely” determine their vote and only half of those said they would vote Green. In the event, GM may have boosted the Greens’ vote, though, if so, not greatly. The Greens had been running in the 5%-9% range for a year before the campaign. And the uncompromising stance may have cost the Greens votes among those who had been sympathetic to the Greens as an influence on Labour but then worried that the Greens might prove extreme.

GM may actually have obscured other issues from voters. In 1981 the then government’s proposal for taxpayer-supported heavy industrialisation “think big” was the biggest issue in the media and noted by voters as the biggest campaign issue but it was not an issue they voted on. Its prominence, however, made it difficult for the government’s opponents to get other issues up. (11) GM may have had something of that effect in the 2002 campaign. Certainly, that is Labour’s view.

More clearcut was violence and crime. In office Labour had initiated legislation to lengthen sentences for serious crimes of violence in response to a growing incidence of such crimes and rising public alarm. But one element of the new sentencing law made it possible for offenders to apply for release after only one-third of their sentence and opponents latched on to that as going “soft” on crime.

National, ACT and New Zealand First took a harder line on crime than Labour. Of the three National was the least hardline; its promise of “life means life” applied only to two or three murderers a year. ACT ran billboards promising tough sentences from well before the election. New Zealand First made it one of its three issues (along with the “treaty industry” and immigration) which it could “fix”.

My second group of substantive issues, cultural security issues, were also probably negative for Labour. These were of two sorts: to do with the Treaty of Waitangi settlements and other supposed advantages or special concessions to Maori; and immigration.

National, ACT and New Zealand all in various ways ran campaigns critical of the government on the Treaty either of the length of time settlement of Treaty grievances were taking, now 17 years after the law change permitting them; or of supposed advantages for Maori over other citizens (sloganed as “one law for all”); or, New Zealand First’s preoccupation, the siphoning off of the spoils from the grievance negotations process and outcomes by lawyers and others in a “Treaty industry” and to leading figures in compensated iwi, not to ordinary, needy Maori.

Only New Zealand First added in immigration and drew criticism not just from the left but also from ACT and United Future, which had in the 1996-99 Parliament merged with two small ethnic parties, one representing Asians and one Pacific islanders. While mostly New Zealand First leader Winston Peters was ethnically unspecific in his allegations that the country was being swamped with immigrants, at one point he talked of “Asianisation by stealth”. This stung ACT leader Richard Prebble, who is married to a Solomon Islander, to accuse Peters of racism. Other liberals of both right and left expressed abhorrence. Clark declared she would not work with Peters nor seek his support for a government she led.

Peters touched a nerve with some, especially older, people. No doubt some of those who flocked to him held racist views. But informal interviews with supporters suggested something more defensible: a fear, or at least a concern, that the cultural unity of their community was in danger of fragmenting. This same fear or concern was probably an important ingredient in drawing support to Peters on Treaty matters.

Liberals on both the right and left treated these fears during the campaign as in some way unclean or even un-New Zealand. That denies their reality in the minds of the generally decent folk who hold them. A dismissive or contemptuous reaction by liberals is also unlikely to diminish the possibility that cultural security may become a major issue in future elections, as it has in Australia and in some European countries, including the quintessentially liberal society of Holland where it is notable that the anti-immigrant party was led by man formerly of the left.

My third group of substantive issues might loosely be called values.

When the Labour-Alliance coalition came into office supported by the Greens in 1999, the three parties brought with them sets of values that seemed at odds with middle New Zealand and therefore potentially a limiting factor on the government’s lasting power. A number of public utterances by some MPs in the government’s first year reinforced this perception for example, proposing to ban cigarette smoking in bars and, by Tariana Turia, a junior minister, alleging a “holocaust” of Maori by British colonisers and their descendants.

Clark herself, purposefully childless, likewise seemed distant from ordinary folk, a member of an academic sisterhood. Proposals by backbenchers to legalise prostitution (Labour) and the moderate use of cannabis (Green) were said by opponents to be at odds with middle New Zealand’s values.

But Clark proved adept at recognising and drawing back when the government or MPs were getting too far out of line with mainstream public opinion. Smoking in bars stayed. Turia was countermanded: lest there be any doubt, a “closing the gaps” programme designed to reduce social and economic disparities between Maori and the average population was renamed and the phrase expunged from government usage. By the time of the campaign, political correctness was effectively neutralised as an issue, except among those opposed to Labour and the left in any case.

In any case, political correctness was overshadowed by another value position which middle New Zealand did approve: Clark’s repositioning of economic policy.

During the 1990s the electorate searched for a way of ending the neoliberal reforms. In 1990 it replaced Labour with a National party promising the “decent society” but in reality preparing to continue the reforms. In 1993, without an alternative government on offer, the electorate opted for electoral reform. In 1996 it awarded New Zealand First the balance of power in the mistaken expectation, encouraged by Peters’ public utterances, that New Zealand First would eject National from government. In 1999 Labour and the Alliance joined forces to present an alternative government. How weak National’s mandate was for its policy stance can be gauged from its 33% average vote in the three elections after it took power.

Clark’s high-profile “correction” or “resetting of the compass” after 1999 resonated in part as a new set of values in policy. Moderate replaced radical; the “smart state” replaced “hands-off”. This was as much a matter of tone as actual policy. However much Clark’s personal values and the political correctness of her associates may have grated with middle New Zealand, the new economic and social policy values were in tune. And in everyday life, the latter counted much more than the former.

So, at the risk of getting lost in the unmeasurable, I want to suggest that tone was a campaign issue, at least as a subset of values. It was tone that turned the “worm” for Dunne. His repetition of “commonsense”, coupled with his looking the part and his two-handed answers to questions not just for tougher sentences but for action on the causes of crime appealed to reasonable uncommitted voters drifting in a Sargasso sea of absolutes from the other parties. (12)

Dunne injected two other values. One was a welcome for multiculturalism, which won as strong an endorsement from the “worm” as Peters’ anti-immigration declamations. The second was his emphasis on the family.

This can be read as reactionary, even repressive, a return to an age of discipline, of women confined to the home and authority resting with the man of the house. In the context of United Future’s evangelical christian dimension, it was so read by many, including many in the media. It was notable that the only other party which made the family central to its platform was the fundamentalist Christian Heritage party.

But there is another way “family” can be read. This is well illustrated by the way Jenny Shipley, whose family seems from the outside to be genuinely well-knit, nevertheless always acknowledged as a minister and Prime Minister the co-existence of many other types of families.

On this reading “family” encapsulates values of nurturing and mutual help. In early 21st century society, fragmented and fractious, with much of the responsibility for cohesion and assistance to the unfortunate, underprivileged and unloved shucked off on to the impersonal apparatuses of the state, such “family values” may have a subterranean appeal as signifying stability and unity. (13)

Also as part of values, there was an issue of extremism. The great majority of the New Zealand electorate is non-extreme and even anti-extreme.

Part of Helen Clark’s success in capturing the centre and National’s plight in the campaign was because her policies were a counterpoint to what large numbers of voters saw as ideologically-driven neoliberal extremism in the 1990s under National’s rule. (Ironically, this cut the other way among some National-leaning voters who thought National had lost the neoliberal plot.) This also cut against the Greens. Labour attacked the Greens as extremists and after the corn affair this appeared to stick. As the NZ Herald DigiPoll found, few were prepared to go on the Greens’ GM limb.

ACT, defending 7%, seemed to have taken this on board. In the campaign it attempted to present itself as less extreme. Whether it succeeded is a matter for conjecture. At least some of its vote came from National-leaners who wanted a sharper economic policy.


In an election as bizarre as that of 2002, how does one disentangle the influences on the result?

I would sum it up in two parts: there was an underlying satisfaction with the government, a sense (underlined by poll findings) that the country is heading in the right direction, buttressed by good household balance sheets; and this was disturbed by two remarkable media events. Sleepwalking to victory is no longer an option, it seems.

But there have been two interesting outcomes.

One is a step nearer to a genuine MMP election and result. The third MMP election, while bizarre and still exhibiting hangovers from FPP, looked and felt more like an MMP election than the first two. So does the third MMP Parliament.

The second interesting outcome is the shape of that Parliament. Helen Clark’s formation of a support arrangement with United Future from the centre-right has opened the possibility of a long-running left government though an MMP minority, not an FPP majority.

If she succeeds, MMP will almost certainly become embedded. (14) If she fails�that is for the next election, whenever it might be. (15)

And none of what I have said says anything about how, or if, Helen Clark and her government will deal with the great overarching issues which this election only touched on: wealth production fast enough to meet personal aspirations; re-engineering the factory state to reflect modern expectations of customisation that is reshaping private sector production and distribution; reaching agreement on the power-sharing dimension embedded in biculturalism; and responding to the mass movement of peoples. But that is for another paper in another place.


9 This was in answer to the questions “which one of these [nominated] issues do you personally believe is most important to you, your family and your life personally right now?” and “which other four issues do you personally believe�”, etc. Similar, though slightly different, results were recorded to near-identical questions as to which issues were “most important to New Zealand as a country”. Likewise, the rankings were similar, though again slightly different, when the question was phrased as “issues�you personally believe will have the most influence on your decision of which party to vote for”.

10 Though only 16% told the NZ Herald DigiPoll post-election poll they expected “a year from now you and your family will be better off”, 2% more than expected to be worse off. To this needs to be added, however, the 64% who expected things to be the same.

11 This was a significant finding of a panel of 50 Kapiti electorate voters, who were interviewed periodically on issues of the day for six months leading up to the election. The survey, which I organised, was funded by, and periodically reported on in, the National Business Review.

12 Clark’s policy repositioning, her own cautious (conservative) style of prime ministership and the reduction in the temperature of political debate may have been factors in the TV1 Colmar Brunton pre-election issues survey’s finding that only 35% agreed strongly with the proposition that “you cannot trust politicians or the government” compared with 50% in 1999; 31% agreed, compared with 25% in 1999. Some 87% agreed “New Zealand is the best country to live in” (60% in 1999); 93% agreed “New Zealand is a great place to raise a family” ; 70% disagreed that “New Zealand does not offer a lot of opportunities” (48%); and 53% were “happy with the direction New Zealand is moving in” (30%).

13 The TV1-Colmar Brunton pre-election issues survey recorded 49% agreeing strongly with the proposition that “people don’t put enough effort into families and relationships any more” and another 27% agreed slightly.

14 The NZ Herald DigiPoll post-election poll found 54% preferring MMP to 30% FPP, with predictably higher pro-MMP ratings amongst Labour, Green and United Future voters. Some 71% said the “MMP system of two votes worked well on Saturday”, again with higher positive figures among Labour, Green and United Future voters. Notably, however, only 55% thought the result would produce a stable government (Labour voters were 73% confident).

15 Helen Clark’s opportunistic calling of an early election against tradition means that, quite apart from possible instability among her partners, no confidence can be placed in the present Parliament running full term. It is perhaps interesting that some ministers are sympathetic to a fixed term.