Hard lessons loom as history repeats
Like Dirty Politics, Watergate was revealed ahead of an election that saw the perpetrating political party rewarded, by being returned to power with an increased majority.
Five months after five burglars were caught in Democratic Party offices in the Watergate complex, President Richard Nixon was re-elected with a substantially increased majority—60.7%, up a whopping 17.3-percentage-points from his 1969 result—despite the Republicans’ fingerprints being all over the dirty-tricks break-in. New Zealanders have just emulated that bizarre behaviour by returning the National Party to power, albeit with a considerably less spectacular increase in vote share: a mere 0.07 percentage points more than their 2011 preliminary result.
National has risen much less than the Labour Party has slumped—it is down 2.44 percentage points. By choosing to not prosecute National over its ideologically driven privatisation binge and its woefully inadequate response to disasters of Pike River, Christchurch and the Rena, or to the depraved predations of the ‘Roastbusters’, Labour painted itself into a corner with its prissy Vote Positive election campaign, and was caught like a possum in the headlights when Dirty Politics grabbed the headlines. When Labour failed to amend its campaign, it added to the cynical perception that Justice Minister Judith Collins’ only mistake was to get caught, and that one lot’s no better than the other. Labour, consequently, now finds itself in a weak position, having not had the courage to come to the defence of Nicky Hagar, much less Kim Dotcom—victim of a conspiracy, orchestrated by the movie moguls, and with a stronger plot than the average Hollywood blockbuster.
In looking to rebuild Labour, eyes may eventually focus on two men, David Cunliffe and Stuart Nash. Nash, of course, because of his apparently spectacular win in Napier. Appearances, however, can be deceptive. Nash won 42.98% of the preliminary vote, less than 3 percentage points better than the final 2011 result, when his low ranking on the party list cost him his place in Parliament. The real winner was the household name of Sensible Sentencing’s Garth McVicar, running on the Conservative ticket. McVicar raised the support for the Conservative Party candidate from 2% to nearly 22%, and doubled the party vote. The leader of the Conservatives has real reason to feel aggrieved, given his party’s 4.12% share of the vote. Had the recommendations of the Electoral Review been enacted, the party would now hold five seats in Parliament. Instead, the ballots of 86616 voters have been wasted and National has been handed an absolute majority of seats, without a junior partner to help check its excesses, nor conversely, of course, to egg it on to greater extremes.
While there has been much wildly excited talk about the prospect of National now going on to win a fourth term, it is much more likely that the prime minister will privately be making other plans. The prospect of multiple inquiries into the unprecedentedly dirty politics practiced by his ministers and their minions, and the likelihood that demand will build for ultimate responsibility, will be haunting Nation’s Nixon. His only option to implementing his succession plan, is to come clean, particularly about his role in entrapping Kim Dotcom, and throw himself on the mercy of the people. Meantime some sort of cleansing process appears to have begun, with the departure from the National Party post-election of Key’s disgraced former advisor Jason Ede. The inquiries, however, will not benefit Labour and the Greens unless those parties quickly address their leadership issues. A critical error by Green co-leader Russell Norman was to publicly attempt to extract a cooperation agreement with Labour, only to be rebuffed, equally publicly. The damage from this was only exceeded by David Cunliffe’s desperate last-ditch attempt to sell a Green–Labour–New Zealand First coalition despite the leader of the latter party’s hallmark refusal, since the 1990s, of refusing to show his hand ’til the dealin’s done.
New Zealand First, of course, was the only big winner of this election, increasing its share of seats by 3, to 11, chasing down the Greens’ 13 seats. Given Winston Peters’ relish for playing the keep-the-bastards-honest role, his party could easily dominate the opposition. If that transpires, the party could easily be in a king-maker role in 2017, prop up a fourth-term National-led government, and set back any meaningful government programme of climate action until 2020, at the earliest. Short of a new climate-action party taking Aotearoa by storm, Labour and the Greens are New Zealanders best hope, but the parties desperately need to collaborate closely on policy, election strategy, and, most importantly, on leadership. Here it is crucial for both parties to elect leaders who are, in turn, electable by New Zealanders. The two most convincing of the current crop are probably Stuart Nash and Kennedy Graham, although if the Green Party had the candidate it really needs, Lucy Lawless, Graham could safely take a back seat, and likely be more comfortable there. Co-leadership, meantime, is an entirely self-imposed impediment to the Green’s already enormous challenge of convincing substantially more than 10% of voters to place their trust in the party.
Meanwhile, the success of right-wing counter-messaging during the election campaign, highlights the steep tilt of the mainstream-media playing field to the Right. When widely respected economics journalist Bernard Hickey attempted to establish an alternative—‘public-interest journalism, funded by the public’—the exponents of dirty politics decided he ‘had to be shut down’. Had the venture succeeded, a slight levelling of the playing field would have resulted. It is unlikely however, that, by itself, this would have quickly lessened the dominance of the mainstream. The United Kingdom has the superlative 193-year-old charitable-trust-owned Guardian, yet its circulation is less than a tenth of that of the Murdock blight on the face of journalism, the Sun, which, not content to merely pay for stories on scandals, also pays to engineer them. Over time, however, a charitable-trust-owned media organisation in Aotearoa could give the mainstream real competition for hearts and minds, given the increasing unprofitability of print journalism.
Returning to the collapse of Labour-bloc support, as graphically illustrated on 20 September: counting New Zealand First and the Ban 1080 parties as bipartisan, the Labour/National blocs split of preliminary votes is about 41% to 59%. While it is tempting to regard this result as terminal for Labour, it is instructive to reflect that when National was at its lowest recent ebb, in 2002, the split was even greater: more like 61% to 39%. Much depends upon the economy, and two terms after National hit rock bottom, the Great Recession helped seal the fate of the Fifth Labour Government. But waiting for the next recession—ignoring the percentage of the population ghettoised in a permanent depression—should be unconscionable for the progressive parties, which need to smartly develop a healthy working relationship, so as to avoid a repeat of Te Tai Tokerau cannibalism. Regardless of what becomes of the broken Internet and Mana parties, Labour and Green, short of merging, need to agree on which party owns and drives which policy, and on which policies both are prepared to support. The two then need to make it clear that policies outside their agreement are up to Parliament, and the electoral support enjoyed by the promoting party.
Then, and only then, will Aotearoa be able to claim that it has successfully completed the first phase of the transition from two-party politics to a Parliament where, one day, and as a matter of course, all elected parties will contribute constructively to the fair and sound governance of Aotearoa. This, many caught up in the vilification of Kim Dotcom might be surprised to learn, is the dream of Laila Harré in an uplifting piece titled What Key Will Say to Me in Private vs What He Will Say about Me in Public:
We might have MMP, but we still practice an adversarial policy making approach which does not serve us well.
Aotearoa will be very much the richer, should Laila Harré and Hone Harawira continue to play a prominent role in the political lives of New Zealanders. Meantime, all eyes are on the Labour Party as it once again attempts to choose a leader and a direction. While it might be counterintuitive, there is a strong argument for separating the two issues. Prime Minister John Key’s party was re-elected in 2011 despite majority public rejection of his plans for further privatisation, underlining just how presidential New-Zealand politics have become. Labour must heed this hard lesson and, for the first time since electing Norman Kirk as its leader in 1964, choose a leader who is naturally telegenic. Sadly, given his vision and his formidable debating qualities, this is not David Cunliffe, but rather is Stuart Nash, who was the standout star of Labour’s 2011 television campaign advertisement. Jacinda Ardern might have had the prettiest face of that particular cast, but Nash, with his engaging voice and face, was the total package.
Nash, Cunliffe and Parker would constitute a formidable front row, with Parker in his obvious role and Cunliffe as Nash’s minister-of-everything-except-finance. Then, provided that the Green Party settles on one or other of its co-leaders, but definitely not both, to front with Nash whenever the two parties can seize the opportunity to talk coalition, sufficient New Zealanders will see them as a plausible alternative to a, by then, National Party fatally wounded by its own dirty politics.
Lest history continue to repeat, the hard lessons of 20 September must be sufficiently heeded, and responsibility for the dirty politics exposed must be successfully sheeted home to the prime minister on whose watch they occurred.
Historical Footnote Saturday’s result is being heralded as the first time since 1899 that a third-term government has been elected with an increased majority. But the Liberal Party was Aotearoa’s first political party and was effectively unchallenged, going on to win a further three elections before the Reform Party was formed, belatedly putting an end to the Liberal’s monopoly. National’s achievement, then, could fairly be described as the first time a third-term government has been elected with an increased majority, since parties first squared off to contest elections in Aotearoa, in 1911.