No Message: Ikaroa-Rawhiti falls short of by-elections past

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UNDERWHELMING – no other word fits. Though the opportunity for a major political upset was clearly present in the days preceding the Ikaroa-Rawhiti by-election, when the moment came the voters declined to take it. Yes, the Maori Party was relegated to third place by a media star representing the Mana Party. But, Labour’s Meka Whaitiri was 1,762 votes ahead of him. And that’s the point. Although the electorate, taken as a whole, clearly preferred someone other than Labour’s candidate, there was insufficient political will to turn that potential anti-Labour majority into a real upset on the night.

Compare Saturday’s result with the by-elections of 1978, 1980, 1985, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1998, 2004 and 2011. New Zealanders were once extremely adept at using by-elections to send powerful messages to multiple political players.

The election of Social Credit candidates in the late-1970s and early-1980s demonstrates the point very nicely. The general mood of the New Zealand electorate was that, while the National Party government of Rob Muldoon needed a good kick up the arse, Labour was not yet ready to be rewarded with a by-election win in a formerly safe National seat. Hence, in both the Rangitikei and East Coast Bays by-elections, disaffected National supporters and traditional Labour voters both threw their support behind Bruce Beetham and Gary Knapp.

In the Timaru by-election of 1985 the socially conservative but economically radical working-class voters of this small South Canterbury city delivered a stinging rebuke to what they saw as a Labour Government and a Labour Party vigorously engaged in sawing through all the cables that had formerly connected them to the traditional labour movement.

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Similarly, the succession of by-elections that took place during the 1990s, in which Alliance candidates performed extremely well, were examples of voters delivering messages to the two major parties by swinging-in behind a third. Not enough, it must be said, to actually deliver the Alliance a seat, but certainly enough to register the electorates’ extreme dissatisfaction with the political behaviour and economic direction of Labour and National alike.

Then there were the by-elections of 1993, 2004 and 2011 in which the electors reconfirmed the mandates of Winston Peters, Tariana Turia and Hone Harawira. The voters knew that by re-electing these principled mavericks they would also be showing their strong support for the causes that had occasioned their political defections.

The above examples all indicate a high level of political consciousness among by-election voters. They were clearly aware that they had been given the opportunity to act as proxies for the wider electorate. Single electorates thus acquired the character of special citizens’ juries, vested with the power to deliver potentially crushing judgements on both the Government and the Opposition of the day. It was a power that could only be recognised and exercised by citizens who still felt themselves to be legitimate players in the democratic game.

They were considerably assisted in this role by a news media which still acknowledged its democratic responsibilities to the nation as a whole. In depth reporting of the issues directly affecting the by-election’s outcome would be complemented by scientifically robust opinion polls giving regular snapshots of the race. Voters determined to deliver a message knew exactly what they had to do – i.e. who they had to vote for – in order to make their voices heard.

Scientific polling was most helpful in identifying which candidate/s represented a “wasted” vote. The results thus permitted electors whose preferred candidate was clearly not going to win, to shift their vote behind the most viable challenger. This frequently led to the deliberate “collapsing” of a party’s support, and its transference to the most viable enemy of the party’s enemy. It was, for example, the collapse of the Labour vote in both Rangitikei and East Coast Bays that brought the Social Credit candidates Beetham and Knapp into Parliament.

Almost none of these conditions were present in the Ikaroa-Rawhiti by-election of 2013.

Neither of the two main television networks, nor the two big newspaper publishers, were willing to spend the money necessary to produce a reliable picture of the distribution of political support in the electorate. Had they done so, it is possible that Maori Party voters, seeing that their candidate was running third, with no chance of taking the seat, would have shifted their support to the Mana Party. The same applies to those Ikaroa-Rawhiti voters who had been planning to vote Green.

With this information in the voters’ hands, the transfer of both the third and fourth place-getters’ support to Mana’s Te Hamua Nikora was a real possibility. If it had happened, the seat would have changed hands.

Why no reliable polls were conducted in Ikaroa-Rawhiti remains a mystery. Perhaps it was simply a matter of funds. Or, maybe, it was a decision based upon pure journalistic intuition. Because, if there was a high level of voter engagement in the by-election prior to polling day, then there was certainly no evidence of it in the final voter turnout.

Two thirds of Ikaroa-Rawhiti’s electors stayed away from the polling-booths on Saturday, and the ones who actually cast a ballot did so not as the nation’s proxy voters, or as members of one vast citizen jury, but with the intense self-interest of X-Factor fans voting for their personal favourite.

Maybe that’s all democracy represents to the New Zealand voter of the Twenty-First Century. An occasion for stating one’s personal preferences. An opportunity to demonstrate brand loyalty. A chance to exercise consumer choice.

One can only hope that Meka Whaitiri proves to be as durable and as reliable a political product as her predecessor.

2 COMMENTS

  1. It is quite interesting your point about the lack of polling. I do understand that you are upset at Labour’s win and its relatively comfortable margin; that’s ok, I would have loved also a strong signal to labour for them to put their act together and maybe even have a leadership change.

    But given all the bias of the polling and media (especially landline based polls in a days where only a certain class of the population still has a landline), isn’t it preferables to let the voters in the dark concerning the polling trends and instead let them really vote on the program. That pseudo “strategic voting” is more a result of media manipulation and does not necessarily represent the actual public opinion. Maybe you have a different opinion of Democracy but I do think what matters is the program not playing a combination betting game. Isn’t this why we fought to keep MMP and not return to a FPP lookalike that National was rooting for?

    What however is sad about last week-end by-election, is the lack of interrest and voter turnout. What the NZ democracy is clearly lacking is mandatory civic education in school (and more civic education everywhere given the large generation of depoliticized kiwis).

    New Zealand is a small nation with very accessible politician and lots of ways for citizen to engage in policy and law making, however the level of dis-engagement from the population is upsetting to me, and this is that lack of interest that allowed shonkey and his mates to pass so many undemocratic reforms and laws.

  2. Quote from Chris Trotter’s piece:
    “They were considerably assisted in this role by a news media which still acknowledged its democratic responsibilities to the nation as a whole. In depth reporting of the issues directly affecting the by-election’s outcome would be complemented by scientifically robust opinion polls giving regular snapshots of the race. Voters determined to deliver a message knew exactly what they had to do – i.e. who they had to vote for – in order to make their voices heard.”

    The mainstream media is focused primarily on what the government plans, proposes, introduces and is challenged with, then a bit of time is given to certain opposition politicians, all this mostly on the national politics level. Key is still treated favourably as the uncontested leader, able to get away with so much, due to the media not bothering to ask the hard questions (if they ever get the chance to ask them).

    Only Maori TV covered the by-election reasonably, from the beginning. Sadly they have a limited viewership, and as so many in the public have become disengaged with politics, it is not surprising that there was such a low turnout also in Te Ikaroa Rawhiti.

    I was shocked by the lack of knowledge by some interviewed by Maori TV’s Native Affairs journalists, what was concerning them, what they knew about the election, the candidates and so forth.

    So 35 per cent bothered to vote, and Labour’s candidate won with only 15 per cent of all entitled voters there. Combine Mana and Maori Party support, and Labour would have lost, had those two smaller parties been one with one candidate.

    I am dismayed about the state of New Zealand politics, especially about the lack of interest and awareness in the wider public. Last national election 800,000 did not bother to vote. They could have decided the government being another one than the one we have.

    With media just not reporting and informing much, the standards of current affairs dropping on some shows, and such programs focusing on more emotive and non political issues, it will all only get worse in future.

    The younger generations also prefer quick, summarised news and information, so they never get much of a deeper understanding about what goes on and needs to be looked at. That means the blog and internet users are also becoming less informed about substance.

    We will be having future elections decided by more “salesmanship” with one and two liner messages, than discussion of matters of substance. Governance will suffer, and the people will suffer.

    I do not even want to start on the quality of the opposition we get, as the largest opposition party proclaiming a victory with Meka as their candidate are stuck at around 30 percent in polls with a weak leader. A depressing scenario, that is NZ politics in 2013.

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