Dr Liz Gordon: You can’t always get what you want


Ideally, how democracy works is that you vote for what you want and, writ large, you get it.  It is not a perfect model even if everyone sticks to that fundamental tenet. In practice, of course, the reality is far different, for three main reasons:

  1. Political parties manipulate their messages and their tactics to try and get more votes than their policies would attract on ‘interest’ grounds alone.

This perennial issue was pursued by Machiavelli, of course, but also considered at length by the Italian Communist, Antonio Gramsci, who was imprisoned for his opposition to Mussolini.  How do you get people to support a regime that basically limits their own power and works against their interests? The answer is to persuade people that your party understands and is in line with their interests. In short, use Crosby/Textor techniques to ensure what you campaign on is a ‘dog whistle’ for people who would not otherwise vote for you.

The downside of this is that if you get caught being less than authentic, or even are suspected of being less than authentic, this will work against you. Collins’ prayer moment was, however in line with her beliefs, crass and badly handled. It grated.  People believed she prayed to attract votes. 

Talking about grating and crass, a New Conservative candidate has reported receiving intimidation and death threats throughout his campaign for spouting his Brash-like ‘one law for all’ (meaning dishonour the Treaty, of course) policies.  In Taranaki, FFS. What did he expect?  He is now bravely going where no sane person would go, using “his platform to speak out against the death threats and blatant intimidation he has received”. Honestly, what do you expect for trampling on history? At least it has given him something to talk about on the hustings.

2: People try to affect the outcome by voting tactically.

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People may try to use their votes to influence a particular outcome.  This might be, for example, “I voted for X Party to make sure that Y Party has a coalition partner”.  Or, for example, voting for Chloe in Auckland Central to ’save’ the Greens. These are valid approaches, but you may not get what you want in voting this way. In terms of the Chloe vote, however, this makes political sense because, if the Greens were below the 5% threshold, and Labour’s vote fell a little, we could end up with a National/Act majority.  Labour should definitely dog whistle that a strategic vote in Auckland Central offers a teensy bit of insurance to Labour against this happening. But parties, and especially the Labour Party, historically find this hard to do.

3: All sorts of barriers are put in people’s way to prevent them voting, if at all, in their own interests.

I just love the early voting booths all over the place which are, of course, intended (along with enrolment up to and including election day) to make sure that as many people as possible vote. The other side of this coin, though, is that hard to reach voters may often be disengaged from politics and therefore more vulnerable to falling into the traps of point 1 above. I do think that National has been running a strategy to attract the votes of certain groups who are historically low turn-out voters, to wit, Pasifika (especially Samoan origins) and Christian voters (i.e. those with strong Christian beliefs who want to vote on those beliefs).  The list is undoubtedly longer than this, too. However, such tactics may backfire, because people are not stupid (see point 1 above).

On the other hand, there may be a growing minority of voters with extreme rightist views in New Zealand. The move leftwards by Act has opened up space on the right for Advance NZ and the New Conservatives to slug it out for 2-4% of the vote. This could become a problem in future elections (but not yet this one), as MMP opens the door for such groups to enter parliament and influence policies.

I really like that, this last week in particular, Labour has announced a lot of policy, some of which is quite dear to my heart. The most substantive is the commitment to continue on the justice reform programme.  But there are others. Isn’t it strange how things emerge during elections? Labour has announced it will ban conversion therapy, the practice of trying to make gay people straight. I am not sure that making it an offence is the way to go, though, as it may merely drive the practice further underground or make martyrs of ‘converters’ if arrested. 

Having written all this, which should largely be obvious but is not always so (except for Daily Blog readers, of course, who have a superior understanding of politics), merely underlines the crying need for one more crucial policy: comprehensive civics education in our schools.  That, in practice, might mean that New Zealanders at last vote for what they want, and get it.


Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society.  She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.


  1. Many of us NEVER get what we want -a sustainable, compassionate, well-informed, well-educated, liberal, and healthy society because no party is interested in delivering that…especially the sustainable, compassionate, well-informed, well-educated, liberal, healthy aspects.

    Grant Robertson did a magnificent job this morning on television, blatantly lying to the masses in his claims about ‘zero carbon’, ‘renewable energy’ etc. none of which exist in the real world except in non-industrial societies.

    Perhaps we are supposed to be grateful that Labour and the Greens actually mention carbon, since [to my knowledge] no other party does.

    We are yet to hear from any political party likely to get a seat in parliament about the Ponzi nature of global finance or the fact that the game is almost over for nations dependent on converting fossil fuels into waste using fiat currencies.

    • I was amazed to hear Robinson talk about a hydrogen economy. IDIOT. H2 is a NEGTIVE energy source and non-sense for 99.9% of scenarios. I guess that was his B.S for ‘going green’.
      I agree utterly with what you write about re: The problems with BAU and the solutions which our pollies won’t even acknowledge.
      Keep up the informative and intelligent comments.

  2. Sadly this is to much information for the average voter to consider today.
    I vote as I have always for a Labour/NZF combo.

    To keep the “common sense policy” in focus without the radical fringe.

    • ‘I vote as I have always for a Labour/NZF combo’

      Unfortunately many do the same, and that is what keeps us collectively locked into the dysfunctional polices that cause us to ‘drive straight off the cliff’ or ‘remain aboard the sinking Titanic’ or whatever metaphor you choose, as we are confronted with the ‘quadruple tsunami’ of Planetary Meltdown, Resource Depletion, Loss of Biodiversity and Unravelling of Ponzi Finance.

      Maybe I should describe what we face as a ‘multiple tsunami’, since there is also ocean acidification, deforestation, loss of soil, plastification, accumulation of toxins in the food chain, accumulation of toxins in human bodies, insect apocalypse…..an almost endless list of calamities in the now and in the near future brought about by industrialism in general and neoliberalism in particular -not least being gross population overshoot -way, way, way beyond the carrying capacity of the land and oceans, and only made possible by the frantic consumption of [finite] fossil fuels.

      And not ONE WORD about dealing with ANY OF IT from our bought-and-paid-for [by banks and corporations and opportunists] politicians -just and endless stream of platitudes and feel-good nonsense, and polices that make everything that matters WORSE.

      If the system were not so toxic I would have some second thoughts about the imminent global financial meltdown and the carnage it will generate. As things stand, I am almost looking forward to it because every day that the system keeps going, the worse it will be when it all does finally go down -as forecast in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

      Pity the children, everywhere, for they will inherit the fucked-up planet, fucked-up by present and past adults.

      Infinite growth on a finite planet was never going to work long term, but it did generate some very strange phenomena and many peculiar spectacles along the way.

  3. The idea of civics is a good one as a field of history, starting with the Grecian states or even earlier. And comparison with tribal governance comparted to state, empire, monarchy’s etc. It could be a very interesting semester as it heads toward modern civics. I’m sure quite few students would enjoy it if presented right.

  4. Comprehensive civics education in our schools: I’m all for it Liz. But ‘comprehensive’ needs to be inclusive of ‘critical’. At the curriculum level. Made explicit. Not how many understand the term ‘critical’, deriving from the verb ‘to criticize’, but the adoption of a questioning stance to accepted truths and published information. I am sure you mean that. While we’re at it, let’s include a smattering of how well-intentioned policy is all too often thwarted by lobbyists and interest groups and how consent is manufactured at the hand of print and social media. And more. And situate it all in the things that really matter: health issues facing the most vulnerable, inequality and poverty, the causation of environmental issues. And more. Let’s introduce into compulsory schooling some threshold concepts such as ideology (others may think of more). Why wait for a tertiary education increasingly focused on, for the most part, an uncritical focus on STEM (apologies to all the educators who DO adopt a critical approach to scientific knowledge), or the dreary halls of commerce (sorry, no apologies for you lot).

  5. It’s a sad day when a self-styled ‘Labour’ party are campaigning on a no tax promise. Almost as sad as a Green party peddling a failure of freshwater regulations that has the ecologists up in arms as a win, though change to rivers is to be generational i.e. never expect to swim in one again in your lifetime.

    Labour should have a bit of a think about why they’re winning this time around – manifestly worthless as the Gnats are, absent Covid and Jacinda, Labour’s current stance would reliably lose them the next election.

  6. Engel, argued for months with the euro intelect to what call this thing, they ended up Communist, why Socialist, as compelling, Communist, appealed to the Euro variant.
    So, shall are we Communist, so are we Socialist. Some as I are called hard left Socialist, as are others called Communist. Both words have one UNDERSTANDING, together or one all, with the caveat of care of our humanity. Capitalism, is a abuse from those words, only for Capitalism!s god, profit and exploit.


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