Dr Muriel Newman
They say a week is a long time in politics. So, it turns out, is an hour and a half.
At 830 on Tuesday (August 1) morning, Labour Party leader Andrew Little told reporters that he was not going to resign – “I’m going to fight.”
Chronology of events
Ninety minutes later, he was fronting a press conference announcing his resignation: “Today I have announced that I will step down as leader of the Labour Party… The Labour team of MPs and staff have worked incredibly hard during my leadership, however recent poll results have been disappointing. As Leader, I must take responsibility for these results… My colleagues in the Labour Party caucus will elect a new leadership team this morning. I wish my successor all the very best in their new role, and offer my wholehearted support to them” he said.
Just after 11 am, Labour’s new leadership team was announced – 53 days before the General Election. Jacinda Ardern was elected unopposed as Labour’s new leader with Te Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis as her deputy. She is Labour’s sixth leader in nine years.
At her first press conference, Jacinda Ardern said she had just taken on the worst job in politics but she’d bring “relentless positivity” to the Party and next month’s election campaign: “There will be some core elements of our campaign that we absolutely stand by because they are the issue that New Zealanders have told us are important to them. You will see those as consistent things in our campaign but you will also see Kelvin and my stamp on the campaign too.”
As this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, political scientist Dr Bryce Edwards of Otago University, reports, Labour’s announcement has unleashed an overwhelmingly positive response from the media and political commentators:
“New Labour Leader Jacinda Ardern is promising to run an election campaign characterised by ‘relentless positivity.’ And, so far, there has been an almost relentlessly positive response to her rise to the top. It appears that Ardern’s extraordinary elevation is going to lift this election campaign out of the ordinary, too. Below are some of the more interesting examples of ‘The Jacinda Effect’ taking hold…
“Newshub’s Political Editor Patrick Gower is not afraid of attacking or grilling politicians, but he seems to have been struck by ‘Jacindamania,’ writing two very positive accounts of the new leader. In his report, ‘Ardern could capitalise on the mood for change,’ he says, “Jacinda Ardern represents one thing that Bill English and National never can – change. And if you can harness change, it is one of the most powerful political weapons there is.”
“In a second piece, ‘Jacinda’s on fire, National should be frightened,’ Gower really lets loose, summing up Ardern’s first media appearance like this: “Powerful, composed, eloquent – and actually quite funny… Ardern brings energy…. She has presence. She is not anxious – she looks in control. She does not look reluctant – she looks ready. And importantly, Jacinda Ardern has got that valuable political ingredient – vibe. She has got serious vibe… If National aren’t scared now – they should be. Because if anyone can cause a political ‘youthquake’, it is Jacinda.”
So, what does all of this mean for the forthcoming election?
First of all, some perspective: The Labour Party is no stranger to disastrous polling – nor to leadership changes just before an election.
In 1990, after six years of ‘Rogernomics’, Labour’s support had slumped to 28%, and in that First Past the Post environment, they were at risk of losing many ‘safe’ seats. As a result, just 35 days before the election, Mike Moore took over the Labour leadership from Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer to – in his words – “save the furniture.” While Labour won 35% of the vote at the election – a seven-point improvement on the polls before the leadership change – they still lost 28 seats.
Three years later, Mike Moore led Labour to within two seats of beating National. But that was not good enough to retain Labour’s leadership, and a month later he lost it to Helen Clark.
In the lead up to the 1996 election, despite falling to 14% in the polls, with Helen Clark ranking at 2% in the preferred Prime Minister stakes, Labour went on to gain 28% of the Party Vote in that first MMP election – and almost formed a government.
So, from an historical perspective, while Labour’s poll results under Andrew Little were not that bad, in reality it was his inability to connect with voters – in the face of rising support for the Greens and New Zealand First – that was leaving Labour vulnerable to relegation to third party status.
MoU with the Greens
The rise of the Greens could be attributed, in part, to the disastrous Memorandum of Understanding that Labour had signed with them in 2016. It had given the Greens relevance as part of a viable government-in-waiting, and committed them to working together to oust National, instead of competing against each other for votes.
The problem for Labour was that the Agreement had signalled to their left-wing supporters that it was OK to support the Greens. It had also driven moderate Labour voters – who did not want any association with the radical Greens – into the arms of New Zealand First and National.
The Memorandum had also put the spotlight on Labour’s identity crisis. Since the Trade Unions had gained ideological control of the Party in 2012, their focus had been on worker rights. Yet, with New Zealand’s established laws now firmly protecting the rights of workers, those issues no longer resonated with the wider public, leaving the party stranded with a grumpy trade union leader looking for a cause.
Shifting to the left
Elections are won in the centre ground of politics – through the support of middle voters, who shop around for whichever party appeals to them at the time. But instead of moving into the centre – as Helen Clark had done to win office – Labour’s one-eyed union-controlled leadership decided that their future lay to the left, alongside Parliament’s most socialist party.
What the Memorandum failed to do was stop the Greens from targeting Labour supporters. In fact, the Green’s co-leader Metiria Turei could not resist the temptation to try to ‘out-compassion’ Labour to win the beneficiary vote.
She took a big gamble by using her own benefit fraud as the rationale to underpin a social justice campaign featuring a more generous welfare system without sanctions and obligations.
While blaming the system for her cheating enabled her – in her mind – to excuse herself of all responsibility for defrauding taxpayers by lying to the welfare department, that was not the view of most New Zealanders.
In the latest Newshub Reid Research poll, 74% of Kiwis said it was wrong for Metiria Turei to lie to get a bigger benefit and 18% percent said it was not wrong and 8% did not know. Of those saying it was wrong, 85% were National voters, 77% were New Zealand First, 67% were Labour, and 51% were Green voters.
It transpires that Metiria Turei was receiving a solo parent benefit from 1993 until late 1998 but failed to tell WINZ about flatmates who paid rent during her time of living in five different flats, while completing a law degree.
Her mother was also a ‘flatmate,’ but although they lived together in the same home for some of the time, she said that they were financially independent. According to TVNZ, the father of her daughter also spent time as a flatmate.
As well as benefit fraud, Metiria Turie has admitted electoral fraud by enrolling to vote at the same address as her daughter’s father – despite claiming not to have lived there: “I was, however, enrolled to vote at the same address as him, which was in the Mt Albert electorate. A friend of mine was running as a candidate in Mt Albert in 1993, and I wished to vote for them. That was a mistake.”
It was not only a mistake, but under the Electoral Act, electoral fraud is a criminal offence which carries a maximum penalty of three months jail.
It is also clear that by refusing to name the father of her child, not only was the Welfare Department unable to detect whether or not she lived with him, but the Inland Revenue Department was unable to pursue him for child support.
While Metiria Turei did not seek employment during this period, she did find time for politics, standing for the McGillicuddy Serious Party in 1993 and campaigning for the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party in 1996.
Asked by Radio NZ why she had not worked, she said, “I also had fun like other people do. Campaigning took a little bit of time but this is the thing, people are entitled to have a decent life and I want every beneficiary to have enough money to be financially secure.”
Whether charges are laid for any of her fraudulent activities remains to be seen, but ‘public interest’ is a key factor that is considered by the Crown when determining whether or not to prosecute.
If Metiria Turei is not prosecuted, two very strong and dangerous messages will be sent: that not only is it acceptable to commit fraud if family circumstances so dictate, but that MPs are above the law.
The on-going problem for Metiria Turei is that she has now lost credibility. In explaining away her welfare fraud, she said, “I lied to survive”. Is she now lying to survive politically?
Yes, she has ruled herself out of taking on any Ministerial responsibilities in any new Government, but in reality, that is farcical – there is no sacrifice in giving up something that’s unlikely to happen.
Instead, she needs to rule herself out of Parliament altogether.
Those on the left of politics, who have been longing for ‘galvanising’ forces like Bernie Sanders in the US or Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, to emerge in New Zealand to ignite the campaign and persuade the ‘missing million’ to vote, have been in raptures about Metiria Turei and now Jacinda Ardern.
However, it is important to recognise that these are essentially sideshows.
The King-Maker Party
With support for the National and the Labour-Green blocs not too far apart, but not great enough for either to govern alone, the key issue for this election is whether the ‘King-Maker’ Party decides to change the government – or not.
As things stand, Winston Peters will determine the outcome of the 2017 election. He will decide whether to keep the present National Government in power, or change to a Labour-Green Government.
He will no doubt make that decision based on how effective the main parties will be in enabling him to deliver on his election promises.
So how should National and Labour respond?
It is obviously that in their interests to maximise their support, Labour has already taken the first step, by changing their Leader.
To beat National, it now needs to move into the political centre ground by promoting sensible policies with a heart. Through proactive and energetic campaigning, they may even persuade some of the missing million voters to turn out on Election Day.
For National, their biggest challenge is to reverse the slide in their support.
The UMR Research poll that sparked Labour’s leadership change, had New Zealand First on 16%, the Greens on 15%, and National slipping to 42%.
The Listener’s Insight poll, from Tuesday night, had National falling further to 39%.
To stem the flow of National voters, who are disillusioned with the Party’s support of race-based privilege, from moving to New Zealand First, National should match the promise made by Winston Peters to hold a binding referendum of all voters on the future of the Maori seats.
This used to be National’s policy, and the timing is right to do it now, with the Treaty Settlement process almost over, and Maori more than adequately represented in Parliament. By announcing such a policy, National’s voters may well return ‘home.’
But without such a circuit breaker, National could find itself on a very slippery slope indeed.
Dr Muriel Newman is Director of the New Zealand Centre for Political Research, a web-based free weekly Newsletter, NZCPR Weekly. The above article, which appeared in her weekly edition dated June 18, 2017 has been reproduced here with her permission.