(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 24.)]
What an extraordinary election campaign. And what an extraordinary result.I am writing this column on the morning after. By the time it’s published, most of the dust will have settled. But even at the time of writing, I think some firm conclusions can be drawn
Obviously the result can be seen as an endorsement of the National-led government. But for me the really significant point was that voters overwhelmingly repudiated concerted efforts by outsiders to sway the outcome.New Zealanders were emphatically saying this was their election and they weren’t going to have it hijacked by agenda-driven activists, some of them with no stake in the country.
By outsiders I don’t just mean literal outsiders such as Kim Dotcom, the journalist Glenn Greenwald and the security leaker Edward Snowden. I include anyone trying to exert influence from the sidelines.That means Nicky Hager, whose book Dirty Politics was obviously timed to derail National’s election campaign. It’s not that Hager was wrong to expose the unsavoury goings-on detailed in his book. National deserved to be shamed and Hager was entitled to the scalp of cabinet minister Judith Collins.
But questions remain about his motive, his method and most of all his timing. It’s reasonable to ask whether he was just as guilty of trying to influence an election as the furtive National Party funders he exposed in his 2005 book The Hollow Men.The media firestorm over Dirty Politics dominated the first weeks of the campaign. When that subsided, it was Dotcom’s turn. But the momentum of the campaign shifted noticeably after the German’s much-touted “Moment of Truth” event in the Auckland Town Hall.
Again, it was a carefully orchestrated attempt to sabotage National. All those high-profile speakers, parachuted in or beamed in by video link from their various boltholes; it all looked a bit too obvious.It didn’t help that Dotcom failed to deliver on his promise to expose John Key as a liar, and even less that he then angrily turned on journalists when they challenged him. Suddenly the public saw the less benign side of the fun-loving German.
No one can say with absolute certainty why people vote the way they do, but as the campaign went into its final days I sensed a stiffening public resistance to all these finger-wagging interlopers telling us how rotten our government was.If I’m right, it’s highly ironic that it was the Left, not the Right, that was damaged. Labour’s support collapsed and the Greens fell far short of the ambitious goal they had set themselves.
This was the law of unintended consequences kicking in big-time. It was not the outcome that the Left had scripted for itself.Interviewed on Sunday morning, Labour leader David Cunliffe said the firestorms over Dirty Politics and state surveillance had sucked up all the oxygen in the campaign, leaving little opportunity for voters to consider policy issues.
I’m sure he’s right. The issues that the Left had been pushing, such as child poverty and the inequality gap, hardly got a look in.The biggest irony of all, of course, is that Dotcom’s own party was humiliatingly wiped out, taking with it three-term MP Hone Harawira.
Both men will have learned a lesson. Dotcom will have learned that New Zealanders resent big-spending outsiders throwing their weight and money around (he acknowledged, to his credit, that his influence had poisoned the Mana Party), and Harawira will have learned about the dangers of Faustian pacts.He was seen as compromising his principles, and his people punished him for it.
I felt a bit sorry for Colin Craig, who was thwarted by the vagaries of a flawed electoral system. The cheerleaders for MMP frequently remind us of the failings of the old first-past-the-post system, but they can’t ignore the shortcomings of one that denies a seat to a party that commanded more than four percent of votes while giving two to parties with less than one per cent support.You have to wonder, too, whether distrust of MMP explains the marked falloff in voter participation since it was introduced. Voters are cynical about MMP because they realise that the system puts more power, not less, in the hands of the politicians. That was not the promise when it was introduced.
I almost felt sorry for Cunliffe too. He was more convincing by the end of the campaign than he was at the beginning – but given the history of leaders who lose elections, it’s unlikely he’ll get another shot.What Labour must do now, urgently, is rejuvenate. Too many of its list MPs in the last term looked as if they were merely keeping their seats warm.
The need for a vigorous opposition is never greater than when a government has convincingly won a third term and risks becoming arrogant and complacent. Democracy prevailed on Saturday, but the concern now is whether it will be up to the job of holding the government to account over the next three years.