In the coming days, as the vultures of various news outlets attempt to pick clean the carcass of a once-indomitable woman in their pursuit of sensationalized post-mortems, you are going to hear a lot about how Turei’s transgressions in the court of public opinion rendered her resignation both unavoidable and vital for the Green Party’s ongoing survival.
The reasonings advanced for this will probably inevitably touch on the Reid Research and UMR polls which came out last night – and attempt to use the Greens’ results in these as decisive ‘proof’ that Turei’s admissions and subsequent conduct have irrevocably harmed the Green Party.
But if you take more than a cursory glance at the evidence we have before us, a rather different pattern emerges. Namely, that instead of Metiria Turei nearly singlehandedly killing the Greens through napalm crossed with Agent Orange publicity … the herbicide in question is better termed “The Ardern Effect”.
Which means that the seemingly obvious characterization of what’s happened as being the result of a strongly resurgent Labour taking back voters they’ve lost to the Greens over the last few cycles due to the former’s weakness, has been glossed over by a blood-frenzied commentariat absolutely mad-keen to squelch the facts into fitting a ‘convenient’ punishment-based narrative.
After all – one of the most intoxicating pleasures of political journalism is, surely, to be able to crow “I Told You So!” in often ill-deserved vindication.
For much of the last week, I’d been watching the increasingly frenzied baying from various quarters of our commentariat and political establishment in relation to Metiria Turei, and the concluding lines of T.S. Eliot’s excellent ‘Difficulties of a Statesman’ just kept ringing in my head:
What shall I cry?
We demand a committee, a representative committee, a committee of investigation
RESIGN RESIGN RESIGN”
Why? Because this has pretty much been the wall-to-wall imperative issued to her from a bewildering array of quarters. And, interestingly, one which only seemed to intensify when it appeared last month that the Greens’ polling had actually gone UP in response to Turei’s openness and honesty about her previous benefit malfeasance. It’s almost as if the various figures involved – men of unimpeachable moral credentials such as David Seymour, Mike Hosking, Cameron Slater [google it yourself – I’m not linking him here], and some guy who writes for the National Business Review – couldn’t stand that the New Zealand public were .. shock horror .. actually a little bit understanding that something which happened in your twenties shouldn’t continue to mark you for life and destroy your career.
But then, yesterday afternoon, something changed. We went inside the span of a few hours from Turei’s position seeming to be staunchly defended by her Party … through to her announcing that she’d finally decided to pack it in and vacate the co-leadership.
Naturally, Newshub lost no time in attempting to allege that they played a big part in making this happen. Between Patrick Gower almost seeming disappointed that Turei had resigned before he could spend this evening’s newscast haranguing her himself to do so, and the rather pointed connections being drawn between the Greens’ 4.7% drop in their latest poll and the timing of Turei’s resignation … viewers were left in no doubt that Newshub felt itself to be rather akin to an inverse of The Sun for the UK Conservatives in 1992 – “It Was The Sun Wot Won It“, indeed.
But is this really what happened?
Certainly, both the Reid Research poll out yesterday and the UMR poll which ‘leaked’ the same day both had The Greens taking quite a tumble. Respectively, they went from 13% down 4.7% to 8.3% in the Reid; and from 15% down 7% to 8% in the UMR.
Yet while it would be difficult in the extreme to presume that an absolute deluge of intentionally negative media coverage for an extended period might have NO impact on the prospective electoral behavior of the average voter … I couldn’t help but note the rather glaring additional figures which suggested something altogether rather different was going on.
Look at the figures for New Zealand First in both polls. Down from 13% by 3.8% to 9.2% in the Reid, and from 16% by 8% to 8% in the UMR.
It is presumably a mark of maturity [no pun intended] that nobody attempted to use the above polling data to suggest that it was axiomatically imperative for Winston to resign from leading New Zealand First.
And that’s at least partially because there was an eminently obvious explanation for why New Zealand First had suddenly lost so much potential support.
Namely, the Labour Party as direct beneficiaries of the “Jacinda Effect” had absolutely rocketed up – increasing by 9% from 24% to 33% in the Reid Research poll, and by 13% from 23% to 36% in the UMR.
So why was New Zealand First evidently trading votes with the Labour Party? Simple. Because many (hitherto) New Zealand First voters seriously dislike the present Government and are looking for a strong voice to challenge it. Up until now, thanks to a somewhat dismal parade of Labourites for the last nine years, that voice has been Winston Peters; and it is my personal belief that many of the formerly Labour (or even Greens) voters who’d decided to give NZF a strategic or protest vote in 2011 (one of the reasons we made it back into Parliament) had actually decided to stick around in more serious and earnest terms for the election after that. Certainly, enough of them seemed to sign up as members. They then found themselves being joined in more recent times by an ever-expanding cavalcade of ex-soft-Labour defectors whose recently-won loyalty was perhaps somewhat more fickle.
With Ardern now providing an apparently-electable face for the Labour Party, a number of these people – but importantly, not all – have evidently decided to decamp back to their starting point. Hence NZ First dropping somewhere between a third and half of the Party’s support according to the most recent round of polls.
Because in many ways – and in direct contrast to the situation of 2002 – New Zealand First’s strength was always going to be at least somewhat contingent on the ongoing weakness of Labour.
None of this is especially controversial – although in a spirit of completeness, it’s probably worth mentioning the alternate possibility advanced to me by a right-wing acquaintance that NZ First has also been bleeding more recently acquired ex-Nat support back to National due to these voters becoming ‘spooked’ by the now rather more realistic possibility of a Labour-NZF(-Green) Government thanks to the boost in Labour’s fortunes.
But as bad as this tidal movement of support was always going to be for New Zealand First in the present clime … for the Green Party, it was almost inevitably going to be much worse. For whereas New Zealand First’s relative base of enthusiasm on the political spectrum appears to be a seriously movable feast (at one election hewing considerably into National’s vote – two cycles later, taking almost exclusively off Labour), the Greens’ support has always been pretty consistent in its location.
Specifically, living atop ‘borrowed land’ appropriated by hook or by crook from their prospective partners in Government, the Labour Party. What this means in practice is that as the Greens’ dizzying ascent to double-digit electoral returns was a direct result of the Labour Party’s ongoing slow-motion collapse … once this latter trend started to reverse itself, so too would the Greens’ positive poll-figures.
We can chart the potential path of the Greens’ future from this point by looking back over the six electoral cycles we’ve had since their first [post-Alliance] standalone election in 1999. I won’t bore you with the detailed comparisons and statistical analysis, but suffice to say the Green Party getting double-digit figures on Election Night is not only a ‘new’ phenomenon (occurring in only the last two elections) – but one which has only eventuated following Labour’s drop below the 30% mark.
Prior to 2011, they seemed to be stuck at somewhere between five and seven percent – on one occasion, Labour’s watershed year of 1999, not even making it across the 5% threshold on Election Night and having to face a nerve-wracking wait for the Special Votes to come in. With the sole exception of a marginal increase in vote in 2002 [where they gained 1.8% to top out at 7%], whenever Labour’s done well, the Greens’ vote has suffered.
Now, I don’t necessarily think that the Greens are going to find themselves in serious danger of falling under the 5% threshold this time around. Even if Labour absolutely storms into the mid-high thirty percents on Election Night, it’s still quite likely that the Greens will make it back in comfortably. Their previous efforts in the much-derided ‘March Into The Suburbs’ have helped to diversify their support-demographics out beyond those so easily re-absorbed by Labour – and even availed them in picking up what I call “Remuera Carbon Credit Guilt-Assuaging” votes [i.e. folk who’ve voted National or ACT for their electorate vote – but who recognize that these parties aren’t great on environmental and social/redistributive matters and so give their party vote to the Greens as an ‘offset’].
But to cut a long story short [sadly, exactly the same thing that appears to have happened with Turei’s political career :/ ], as soon as Labour started picking up momentum a pretty sizeable Greens drop was pretty much inevitable. We can tell that it’s the Jacinda Effect rather than a recoiling response to a ‘Metiria Affect’ in part because NZ First suffered almost as much in the polls despite not [presently] having any active scandals (arguably something of a rarity for NZ First going into an election, some might say). And, as mentioned above, because prior to Labour’s seismic resurrection, the Greens experienced a poll BOOST off the back of Turei’s revelations … up until they didn’t, anyway.
Importantly, I’m not saying that Turei’s ongoing quagmire’d imbroglio had no role to play in the Greens’ recent negative fortunes. Simply that this was ONE factor amidst several, and pretty patently obviously not the most important one (although for obvious reasons, inarguably the most publicized – not least because it’s a simple and straightforward narrative). The media is almost ALWAYS going to talk its own role up in these sorts of things, not least because our commentariat loves to feel itself important – to make THEMSELVES the story rather than reporting it, as an errant MP of mine once quipped.
Unfortunately, this has created a situation wherein one of the most tragic effects of Turei’s choice to resign is the way that the narrative around the resignation is now going to ‘set’ in the popular consciousness. If Turei had remained on, it is an academic question for the ages whether the Greens’ polling would have stabilized in the longer term. Certainly, the immediate comparative example of Winston refusing to budge despite presiding over a Party that pretty much wound up wiped out in each of 1999 and 2008 suggests that if one is playing the ‘long game’, even seemingly utterly insurmountable tarnishment can be overcome.
But now … for most people – and especially most political commentators – the coterminous timing of Turei’s resignation with this disastrous evening of polls ‘seals the deal’.
An ‘evil deed’ occurred, and retribution came from an angry electorate, eventually leading to the alleged perpetrator being cast down in ignominy.
The part that’s missed, of course, is that the “evil deed” in question was a sustained barrage of negative commentary from certain figures who were absolutely hell-bent on creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of Green Party unpopularity in order to force a scalping of Turei for the spectacle-value.
The “retribution”, therefore, was potentially misdirected. Not least because what’s being marketed as ‘punishment’ by the voting populace for Turei’s past … is, in fact, in many or even most cases nothing of the sort.
But does any of this actually matter? Some might suggest not. Turei’s already resigned – and is presumably about as likely to come back between now and the Election to a leadership position with the Greens as her former colleagues Kennedy Graham and David Clendon are to her Caucus.
But for the sake of ‘honour’, I think that it does. Turei has had a pretty decent Parliamentary career – and the Green Party of today owes her a great deal for helping them to break out first towards and then above that magical ‘double digit’ mark. Whatever the sins of her past, surely they found themselves outweighed with many a meritorious deed over the intervening fifteen years she’s been an MP.
It is therefore quite important that the record – finally – be set straight on what’s happened here.
It is left as an exercise to the discerning reader to judge for themselves what is more tragic:
A flawed figure who comes unstuck due to their own questionable judgement just when they might be needed the most … or one who finds themselves the semi-hapless victim of circumstance, tossed and buffeted by vast and rather impersonal forces over which they could only ultimately exert almost exactly as much influence as Canute upon the tide.
In this instance, the truth probably lies somewhere between the two.
Although I somehow doubt you’ll hear too many of the as-yet blood-bathed media presenting it that way.
They’re still too busy eating the entrails rather than reading them.