The last baby-boomer election: Factors and issues in the 2008 election

Colin James’s paper at the Victoria University Post-election Conference, 12 December 2008

The 2008 election was the last of the baby-boomers’ (1) elections. Henceforth Parliament and the government will increasingly be in the hands of the post-baby-boomers, the 28s-45s. So 2008 will in retrospect be seen as a pivot.

The baby-boomers have been in charge since 1984, during which time they — we, for I just squeeze in the top end, by some calculations — made this country truly independent and bicultural, radically changed policy and, having gorged on debt in their private lives, left behind a badly distorted and vulnerable economy. They will, if they are true to form, deny any responsibility and, as they take over Greypower, demand more than their fair share of past and future spoils. They were a restless and inventive lot and they made this country vibrant and gave politics-watchers much to chew on and relish or spit out. But all good — and bad — things come to an end.

John Key and Bill English, at 47, come at the very tail end of the baby-boomers (so Jon Johansson reckons) or at the very beginning of the next generation (by some other counts). They are in that sense transitional leaders to the rising generation. But in mentality they are recognisably in synch with the rising generation. Thus, the new leadership of the National party after November 2006 presented a visible chronological contrast with Helen Clark (upper 50s) and Michael Cullen (early 60s). To the extent there was a sense of “time for a change”, this next-generation feel may well have sharpened it. John Key looked, sounded and felt “fresh”, a word he used of himself and his intended governing approach early in 2008 and again, at times, during the campaign (the “bright” took pride of place on the billboards).

So John Key’s election in November 2006 was the first staging post in the long 2008 campaign and generational change is contributing factor in the result.

There is a loose parallel with Barack Obama’s defeat of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential candidacy in the United States — though no party in New Zealand emulated his campaign’s use of the internet to raise money (initially in many multiples of small amounts) and mobilise support and activity. It was studied but not emulated, (2) though parties are likely to adapt the techniques to New Zealand conditions for 2011, not least because even National party notables believe any future electoral finance law is likely to complicate the raising of large sums anonymously.


The next staging post — and a second contributing factor — followed in early 2007. Helen Clark allowed debate on the Greens’ anti-whacking bill (3) to be turned into a diatribe about smacking. Thus Labour lost an argument it should, or at least could, have won and exposed it to charges of interference in decent conservative and not-so-conservative folks’ lives. Given a widespread predisposition, among both males and females, to see Helen Clark as a pointyhead or lesbian or both, that failure of political management played into her opponents’ hands.

That was in February-March. By August Helen Clark was letting another argument Labour should have won slip by default into defeat. Labour had been caned by the Auditor-General, on dubious legal advice from the Crown Law Office, for misuse of parliamentary funds for its pledge card in the 2005 election. The right public relations response would have been to back down quickly. Instead, Labour initially — and for quite some time — dug in and only reluctantly conceded it should pay up and get out. That looked arrogant and arrogance doesn’t go down with New Zealand voters.

Labour’s legislative response to that and to the heavily financed attacks on Labour and the Greens by the Exclusive Brethren in the 2005 campaign (with National’s acquiescence) was much worse: a bill to regulate election campaign financing that contained a clause on advertising so bizarre (4) that it gave wide latitude to Labour’s enemies to build a case that Labour was denying free speech. (5) Only very late did the cabinet take the resultant outcry seriously and even then it left the legislation in a form that confused even the Electoral Commission which was required to interpret it. (6) That shambles called into question the government’s competence to manage its own business, let alone the business of the country.

Those were two standout examples of a string of failures of political management through 2007 and into 2008. There had been some slippage in the 2002-05 term — notably, Trevor Mallard’s heavy-handed forced amalgamations of schools — and it took the government some time to get on top of the foreshore and seabed shock in mid-2003 (6) and Don Brash’s “one law for all” exploitation in early 2004 (7) of white reaction to the Appeal Court’s decision. But generally the government had been sure-footed and in command. By early 2008 when it fumbled a public appearance with Owen Glenn, revelations of whose generous backing of Labour (and New Zealand First) had become an embarrassment, the government looked ragged. Only late in the term — too late — did the government, and particularly Helen Clark, recover the confidence and competence of the first two terms.


Failures of political management are more likely when the pressure is on and the public mood turns down. At election time in 2005 opinion poll measures of consumer confidence and of whether the country is on the right or wrong track both peaked. From those peaks both trended down over the next three years and in the final week both were far below the 2005 readings. On those measures alone Labour’s 2005 lead over National of 2% would have been expected to turn into a deficit. A strong upwards kick on the right-track-wrong-track measure in a poll taken straddling election day suggests people’s mood lifted as they contemplated, and then responded to, the reality of, a change of government.

The economy was a strong factor in each of Labour’s three wins from 1999 to 2005. In elections the “economy” is household finances. Households were in bleak mood in 1999 after a recession, which contributed to the Labour-Alliance coalition’s defeat of the National-led government. In 2002 and 2005 the economy was buoyant, employment rising and households cash flow better, making the economy a (largely below-the-radar) positive for the government. In the winter of 2008 the economy was a large negative: house prices were falling, interest rates were high and petrol and food prices had spiked. Come October the spikes had eased and tax cuts lifted net incomes; with unemployment still very low, a lift in real wages and easing prices, households were not as negative as in the winter. But the economic and right-track-wrong-track moods were markedly lower than in 2005.


On their own these readings were enough to presage a marked change in the relative standings of Labour and National. But there remained a question of whether under MMP that would decide which would lead the government.

In other words, the voting system was a factor in the election. John Key made this point by warning of a “five-headed hydra” Labour government (Labour plus Greens plus Jim Anderton plus the Maori party plus New Zealand First), which he quickly changed to “four-headed hydra” when he realised he was classifying the Maori party, which he intended to woo, as part of a hydra. And he finished up with a four-headed hydra himself.

But was the voting system actually a factor? This election was the closest under MMP to the old government v opposition elections under FPP. In 1999 the Labour-Alliance arrangement presented voters with an alternative government to a hotchpotch on the other side. But in the next two elections there was no such clearcut option, especially since United Future and New Zealand First said they would talk first to whichever major party got the most seats. In 2008, however, voters were presented with the option of a binary choice — the Labour side v the National side — or, if dissatisfied with that choice, of voting for someone else. This was similar to the old FPP choice of Labour v National or someone else. There was a visible alternative government.

So voters are sorting MMP into a system that is familiar to the New Zealand political culture (at least of anyone over 30) of voting a government out or in. It is also getting sorted in another sense. Between 1996 and 2005 voters turned away from parties which could not win seats: the wasted vote declined from 6.5% to 1.3%. This time voters started to whittle down the number of parties in Parliament by throwing out New Zealand First. With Peter Dunne now entrapped in an electorate he is unlikely to win without National help in 2011 and Jim Anderton in “coalition” with Labour — in effect just two independents and not long for Parliament — Parliament is effectively down to five parties, divided into two sides with the fifth party able to swing either way. Indeed, had the 2008 election been under FPP and had the result been closer, the Maori party, with five of the seven Maori electorate seats, might well have held the balance of power. FPP does not guarantee single-party rule, as William Ferguson Massey’s ghost could attest.

It is therefore an irony, voters having got MMP worked out, that National (for reasons of its own advantage) has promised a “binding” referendum on whether MMP should be kept or changed. Exactly what “binding” means if it is a yes-no choice is not clear and Attorney-General Chris Finlayson will need to clarify the constitutional niceties. But if the no vote carries and the country proceeds to select a replacement, the most likely option is a system in which electorate votes play a greater role in determining the result. Of such systems, the most probable is supplementary member (either on a one-vote or two-vote system), probably with a lower ratio of list seats. Supplementary member would advantage the two big parties over small parties (National would now be governing alone) and would advantage National over Labour because Labour piles up big majorities in safe seats. (8)


Supplementary member would also advantage the Maori party because, given its smaller list entitlement under party vote than its electorate tally, it has in two elections been entitled to no list seats whereas under supplementary member it would have had one list seat in addition to its five electorate seats.

The Maori party was a pivot and that was a factor in the election. As New Zealand First’s prospects faded, Labour’s hopes rested on getting enough votes to position the Maori party as the decider of which main party would govern and then to play on most Maori voters’ expectation it would opt for Labour (as, indeed, those voters told pollsters and then made clear in their choice of party vote). The Maori party tried to stay out of this binary world and present itself as parallel to the big-party system (the “Treaty partner in Parliament”) and able to work with each, without committing itself to either. In the event it escaped the need to choose when the National side won enough seats for a majority with ACT.

But the fact that the Maori party became a factor in the campaign may have contributed to its suboptimal result. In mid-2008 it had looked on track — and felt itself to be on track — to win all seven Maori electorates or at least six. In the event it won five, only one more than in 2005. This suggests its momentum may be slowing or even has stalled. If so, it is tempting to read that against the backdrop of the failure of the drive for an eighth Maori electorate (which in this conference three years ago I wrongly forecast to be “almost certain”) in the post-2006-census Maori option.

This leaves a double poser for the Maori party, which is summed up in the widespread belief in the National party that its agreement with the Maori party represents a “sea change” in Maori representation in Parliament. National argues that this arrangement might evolve into something approaching an alliance which could make good National’s weakness in the Maori electorates, illustrated by the very low National party vote there and recognised by its retreat from fielding candidates. In essence, the Maori party could be the National party’s proxy in those electorates, enabling it to purloin Labour votes.

There is not space here to explore in depth this fond hope of National’s; suffice to say for now that that hope rests more on winning the votes of a rising Maori middle class to add to its long-standing support among rangatira than on purloining Labour votes by proxy.

On the other side of the arrangement, there is a difficult conundrum for the Maori party. First, it must manage its relationship with National in such a way that its Labour-leaning voters think the arrangement has worked for them and then must continue to do that term after term for as along as the arrangement lasts. Second, the Maori party may well face exactly the government-deciding choice in 2011 that it escaped in 2008 and then or at some future election will need to opt for Labour to prove its “Treaty partner” independence of the two-party system. If it doesn’t at some point make peace with Labour, there may develop a real threat that Labour recovers a seat or two off it on more traditional voting grounds, especially if Labour can win the backing of influential figures in Maoridom to field high-calibre candidates (of the calibre of National’s Hekia Parata, for example). But the moment the Maori party does go with Labour, National will surely set out to remove the Maori electorates when next thereafter it has the chance.


The New Zealand First factor was of a different order. It highlighted hypocrisy as a factor. Winston Peters was exposed as having taken money from big business after having criticised other parties for doing so and having incompletely reported donations after vociferously backing the Electorate Finance Act.

This didn’t just impale Peters and his party. By association, it also damaged Labour because Helen Clark did not distance herself fast enough or far enough from Winston Peters. She initially affected to take him at his word and persisted with this line until his word was questioned so seriously she had no option but to suspend him as Minister of Foreign Affairs. But she refused to sack him and he clung to the use of the ministerial car — the “baubles of office” he had so derided before clutching them when offered after the 2005 election.

Hyopcrisy and trust don’t mix easily. So, when Helen Clark said, announcing the election date, that she would fight the election on “trust”, she risked an adverse interpretation.

Trust in politics, as John Howard demonstrated in 2004 , is not about reliability in the sense of being truthful and honest. It is about being able to be relied on to do the job. Helen Clark banked on the government’s experience and record of prudent economic management to reel in voters bombarded by sensational headlines of international economic turmoil imminently bearing down upon them: better the devil you know in uncertain times. The counterpoint was John Key’s alleged unreliability, exhibited in a range of policy reversals (“flip-flops”, Labour called them) which Labour encapsulated in punchy diptych television advertisements.

Helen Clark had a twofold difficulty getting the devil-you know message to take with voters. First, she was coming from a long way behind, which indicated that reliance on her capacity to do the job as voters wanted it done had already warn thin. Second, the October tax cuts, falling petrol and food prices and interest rates took the edge off the headlines as election day approached. The threat was not sufficiently real and palpable to prompt those who had defected to National over the previous 18 months to trudge back across the divide to Labour or to make a special point of voting if turned off Labour or some other reason. Moreover, John Key didn’t look and sound scarily inexperienced. He looked serious and measured. He oozed assurance and reassurance.


In behind the economic issue was tax. In 2005 National promised large tax cuts and Labour large spending. After that election organisers of unions of better-paid workers made it clear their people wanted tax cuts. By late 2007 even union organisers for low-paid trades were bringing the same story to the Labour policy table. Labour legislated a three-stage income tax cut programme, with the first cut in October, just before the election.

National promised bigger and faster tax cuts. But not much bigger and not greatly faster and with offset cuts in KiwiSaver. As a result, tax did not feature to nearly the same extent in the 2008 campaign as in the 2005 campaign.

This led some to conclude tax cuts were not a factor in the election. But they were. Voters had long ago told focus groups that National was trusted — there’s that word again — to deliver tax cuts and Labour wasn’t. And they mattered at quite low incomes. Why? A union organiser suggested to me that wage increases, particularly for the low-paid, were modest and tax cuts offered an increase in net household income. They were a surrogate wage rise. Labour’s plausible counter to that argument was that Working for Families tax credits had delivered large bonuses to hundreds of thousands of households. National underlined that plausibility by adopting Working for Families without change. Earlier intentions to de-index Working for Families qualifying thresholds from inflation, thus over time eroding it, were abandoned. That eliminated Labour’s potential to scarify voters on that count and in any case voters had banked the credits and were looking for more.

So tax ran underneath the campaign. And it ran for National’s side.


So, unusually, did government spending. This was one of the stark differences with 2005. National systematically eliminated any differences which might be negatives as they had been in 2005 — in foreign affairs, in privatisation, in deregulation, in benefits and superannuation and in spending programmes. John Key’s blandness was a major factor in the campaign. At times he was the bland leading the bland. He claimed the centre in a way that Don Brash could not. His only complication in that was ACT which continued to run a radical economic liberalisation programme and brought back the 1980s deregulation architect, Sir Roger Douglas, to run third on its list. But ACT was a bit player.

John Key’s line on spending was to say National would stick to the 2008 Budget’s $1.75-billion-a-year new spending forward track and promise more of it would go to the front line. It cast Helen Clark’s governments as profligate and too ready to hire “bureaucrats”.

Nowhere did this line play better than in health. In 2005 National scarcely mentioned health. It conceded Labour owned that argument. But by 2007 National’s focus groups were recording dissatisfaction. Helped by a steady diet of shock-horror news media stories, Tony Ryall, National’s shadow health minister, created an impression the health system had failed despite Labour’s billions of dollars of new spending. In 2008 health was a National vote winner, or at least no longer a lock-up Labour issue. Given Helen Clark’s special interest in the portfolio, that was a telling comment on the turnround in public opinion.


Worse for Labour was law and order. Helen Clark’s governments markedly toughened up the criminal and penal law, which greatly expanded the prison population to the point of serious overcrowding. The incidence of lesser crimes fell; prison management improved. But the number of violent crimes continued to climb, though even that category flattened off, apart from domestic violence, which was a factor of insistent encouragement to victims to report it and instructions to the police to take it seriously. But a flow of murders, including of very young children, created the impression of an ineffectual government too soft on criminals.

During the campaign National ran hardest on law and order of all topics. There was a statement nearly every day and numerous policies. Simon Power, though a liberal, was so busy creating the impression of the sheriff coming to town that he didn’t get round to issuing a policy on competition and regulation under his other — and arguably more important — portfolio, commerce.

ACT’s even tougher line on law and order may well have been a factor in the rise in its vote. Its economic policies, coupled with the return of Sir Roger Douglas, probably enticed some National voters disappointed in Key’s bland economic policies. But its promise of “three strikes and you’re in” — prison, that is — gave ACT another point of difference, which could reach beyond well-heeled liberals to disgruntled, modest-income suburbanites.


Law and order was an ingredient of a disconnect between Labour’s values and the values of important components of Labour’s support. This was probably an ingredient (along with the economy) of the worsening view of whether the country was on the right or wrong track.

In 2005 Helen Clark billed the election as a contest of values. She declared Labour to have won that contest. In 2008 she and Labour lost.

First, Labour lost the spending v tax argument. She had to concede tax cuts and was on the back foot over health and law and order.

Second, Labour — with the Greens heavily complicit — extended the long social/moral liberalisation with controversial measures to legalise civil unions, protect prostitutes and stop physical punishment of children. Cumulatively, this typecast Labour as ultra-liberal and solicitous of minority groups, at odds not just with National-side conservatives but with conservatives among its own wage-worker core vote, lower-income people in the suburbs, including among Pacific islanders and in the provinces. It also was at odds with the conservative moral, family small-business values of recent immigrants from east and south Asia, which fitted better with National’s positioning. As the Asian component of the population grows (it has more than tripled since the 1991 census), that opens an opportunity for National and a challenge for Labour.

Ironically, Helen Clark herself had identified the risk. Noting Labour’s losses in the provinces in the 2005 election, she declared to some colleagues that there would be no more “social engineering” in the third term. Georgina Beyer was pressed to withdraw a bill on transgender rights. But then came the whacking bill, which to large numbers of people, including among Labour’s core vote, was social engineering writ large.

Labour has some hard thinking and hard work to undo that damage to its relationship with its core vote.


Helen Clark did attempt one new differentiation of values for the 2008 election. At the Labour party’s 2006 conference she declared sustainability to be at the heart of the government’s programme and wrapped it in climate change rhetoric.

In this she at once drew nearer to the hapless Greens and threatened their point of distinction. The Greens are a baby-boomer party and 2008 marked a watershed for them, too. Logically, as Labour’s vote slumped, the Greens should have lifted theirs. They did, but only by 1.5%; Labour’s vote share slumped 7%.

Clearly, the Greens have some rethinking and repositioning ahead. There were glimmers, in a greater number of young people at their meetings, in a funkier website and a striking billboard campaign which owed much to their switched-on young campaign manager, Gary Reeves. But they are short of rising-generation MPs in their ranks. And as the world struggles with financial and economic woes, there will be a smaller catchment for messages of apocalypse and messianic recovery.

For Helen Clark, too, sustainability biodegraded as a compelling point of difference from National as households were squeezed financially and as the perception grew of Labour as a party of out-of-touch urban, liberal elitists.

So Helen Clark never developed “sustainability” into a rallying cry, a vision or a strategic goal. It remained for most people, including for most of those who had to try to make something intelligible of it, an indefinable polysyllable. When Helen Clark talked of direction, she listed projects. She was managing director, not prophet.

National did no better. If offered “fresh” early in 2008 and “bright future” for the campaign, on a refreshed blue background, apparently, marketing people say, a friendly blue compared with the unfriendly dark-royal blue that is National’s actual colour. (The parallel is BP’s change some years ago from a dark green to a friendlier green.)

Steven Joyce, campaign manager and now Minister of Transport, declared before the election that National was “focusing on the issues”. But it was a soft focus, giving little for voters to get their teeth into — or take offence at. In essence, John Key, too, ran on “trust”. The day before the election one of his senior MPs said to me: “We don’t really know him.”

This is managerial government. Arguably, it is what revolution-weary and ideology-weary, debt-heavy households want. The new government’s focus is on making the economy grow faster so households get richer and sons and daughters don’t scarper to Australia in such large numbers. It aint exciting. It aint even “ambitious”, John Key’s favourite word. It is government by MBA.

Well, after a time the managers get reshuffled. Helen Clark was reshuffled. John Key’s time will come unless he becomes more adventurous.


With the election we are back to male dominance: in our corporations, in our peak professional organisations, in our courts (apart from the Chief Justice), in Government House and in our major political party leaderships. Helen Clark is being doubly expunged. And that, in a sense, matches our values as a society. Helen Clark brought out from under the stones in our society’s stream a dark current of misogyny, a discomfort among some men and women with having a woman as Prime Minister. Some emails I have received are a disgrace to the senders. A mild example is this text I received the day after the election, from a woman: “Ding dong, the witch is dead.”

Helen Clark had to put up with this throughout her political career. Such violence of expression toward a fine public servant makes the rise in criminal violence more readily comprehensible.

If 2008 was the last of the baby-boomers’ elections, it was also the last election for the chief baby-boomer. Helen Clark was leader of the Labour party for very nearly 15 years, the longest tenure. She was second-longest serving Labour Prime Minister behind Peter Fraser.

As Prime Minister she ranks with Fraser and maybe above. Her record in external relations was outstanding. Her record at home was mixed but will be particularly remembered not for civil unions and a whacking ban but for settling the country down after the turbulent, revolutionary 1980s and 1990s. She quietly nourished and nudged this nascent nation’s sense of heritage and identity at a critical time in that development.

This is not the place for a full assessment of Helen Clark. But there is no doubt that, for all the negatives, she was Labour’s strongest electoral asset, her approval ratings remarkably high for any term, let alone a third term. Helen Clark will occupy a substantial place in this country’s political history.


1. In a strict demographic sense, Professor Ian Pool argues, New Zealand’s baby boom went on till the early 1970s. I use the term here loosely, not to describe a boom but to delineate a cohort. The endpoint can be defined by when the so-called generation X began: some put it as early as 1961, which would just include John Key and Bill English, and some as late as 1966, which would put 42 as the upper limit. The people I am talking about came to adulthood during the 1960s and early 1970s and were noted for a marked shift in values (the “values revolution” of the 1960s).

2. With the possible exception of left-leaning Drinking Liberally groups which were cyberorganised.

3. The bill repealed s59 of the Crimes Act which allowed a defence of reasonable force against a charge of assaulting a child. A late compromise allowed police discretion in whether to prosecute.

4. The clause defined an election advertisement as including “any form of words or graphics that can be reasonably regarded as encouraging or persuading voters … to vote, or not vote, for 1 or more specified parties or for 1 or more candidates or for any combination of such parties or candidates” or as “encouraging or persuading voters to vote, or not to vote, for a type of party or for a type of candidate that is described or indicated by reference to views, positions or policies that are or are not held, taken or pursued (whether or not the name of a party or the name of a candidate is stated)” or “taking a position on a proposition with which 1 or more parties or 1 or more candidates is associated”. The select committee, on Labour’s prodding, changed this clause but reworded these definitions part to say: a “party advertisement means any form of words or graphics that can reasonably be regarded as encouraging or persuading voters to do either or both of the following: (a) to vote for the party (whether or not the name of the 20 party is stated): (b) not to vote for another party (whether or not the name of the party is stated)” and “publish, in relation to an advertisement, means to … (i) bring to the notice of the public in any other manner”. This last subclause became known as the “megaphone clause”.

5. In fact, the self-described defenders of free speech themselves attacked free speech: at a rally in Parliament Grounds they shouted down Jeanette Fitzsimons when she tried to argue the case for the bill.

6. Justice Minister Annette King, no lawyer, told Parliament at one point that the “law of commonsense” would guide interpretation.

7. Attorney-General v Ngati Apa [2003] 3 NZLR 643 (CA)

8. Dr Donald T Brash, “Nationhood”, speech to Orewa Rotary Club, 27 January 2004

9. Labour won more votes than National in both 1978 and 1981 but National was the government.