New Zealand voters energised

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Mika Kelekolio*

Only a few more days to go before New Zealand voters find out whether the National Party will have a fourth term in government. 

Several polls to date, the latest was last week, indicate that the Labour Party will most likely oust National and form a government with the Green Party.  

Voting opened last week and more than 360,000 have already cast their vote, the majority of whom appears to be young people aged 18-35 years. That figure will increase this week with more being expected to vote early.

Come polling day, it’s estimated that close to 40% of eligible voters would have already voted. It’s great system because it avoids the congestion experienced in past elections with long ques in polling booths. It discouraged some people from turning up to vote. Especially if it’s raining. 

Elections campaigns usually bring out the worst and the nastiest in politicians. They attack and stab each other in the back. They lie to voters on what they would do should they become Government. But once in power, they make a complete U-turn on some of their promises in the belief that by the time next elections come around, most people would have forgotten all about it. It’s another reason why some people couldn’t be bothered voting.

This year’s campaign, however, is different. People have become a lot more excited, energised and full of hope in a way that has not been seen since the late David Lange’s Labour ousted the Muldoon Government from office in 1984.

The dailies, talk-back radios and TV Channels are inundated with comments, analysis and opinion about whom of National or Labour will lead the next government and why. Even ten-year-olds are now asking Party Leaders questions ranging from health, education, housing to immigration on TV.

Seven weeks ago, most voters believed National would sleep-walk into its fourth term in Office. Poll after poll showed them enjoying a huge lead against their nearest rival, the Labour Party. Then all of a sudden, they were rocked by the Jacinda Ardern Tsunami.

Jacinda Ardern, a 37-year-old had just taken over leadership of the Labour Party from Andrew Little. Very few knew much about her or what she was like as a political leader. I suppose the fact that she was female and comparatively young, made people feel ignore her believing that she wasn’t up to it. Some media people thought so too.

Funnily enough, at her first press conference, she left many in awe. They even struggled to find words to describe her performance. She had suddenly made politics interesting again.

Since then, she has shown that you can maintain your personal integrity and adhere to a high moral standard, and still be an effective political leaders. And whilst there’s been a bit of a hick-ups this last week with her performance due to her greenness and failure to properly articulate her Party’s tax policy, it has not put people off from supporting her as the preferred Prime Minister.

Yep, New Zealand will feel the effect of the Ardern Tsunami long after the results of Saturday’s elections are known.

Until Ardern stepped into the leadership role, the Labour Party was floundering. Not that Andrew Little was an incompetent leader. He’s very intelligent, caring and hardworking, but he just didn’t have the x-factor and charisma that makes for effective political leaders. 

Under Little’s watch, every poll taken had shown Labour to be on the downward slide and in danger of being obliterated by minor parties like NZ First and the Green. Sensing that there was no way Labour would win with him at the helm, and with murmuring among the rank and file getting louder, he decided last month to resign. The Labour caucus accepted without hesitation. It was a smart move indeed.

As one commentator put it, Ardern has “a magic, an emotional intelligence, and an intellect that all distilled down to a sharp syringe loaded with adrenaline that she plunged straight into the dying heart of the Labour Party. Suddenly BOOM! And they are now back full of energy and vigour.” And not to mention a very broad smile on their collective face.

Why not when seven weeks ago, Labour’s approval rate was only 24% to National’s 43%. In two weeks of Ardern taking over, Labour’s approval rate jumped to 43% while National went down to 39% - a turnaround of 19 points - and Labour has virtually maintained that position up to now despite the polls indicating that many voters have yet to decide. 

Until last week, Winston Peters’ New Zealand First was polling well and was again being touted as the king-maker who will choose whether National or Labour becomes government because neither would win enough seats to govern on their own. National could count on the support of Act and the Maori Party but that would not be sufficient for the 61-seat majority required. On the other hand, Labour might not gain enough seats to govern even with the Green’s support, so would need Winston Peters’ support as well.

Complicating matters further, Winston Peters and the Green hate each other. To have a Cabinet made up of three political parties with vastly different ideologies is a recipe for disaster. 

Fortunately for Labour, the latest poll indicates that it may not need Winston Peters given the rise in Greens support as well as its own. Should this hold, Labour with the support of the Green will become the government.  

The leaders’ debates between Jacinda Ardern vs Bill English shown live on TV to date has surprised viewers as many had expected English to dominate given his 33 years’ experience as an MP and close to 10 years as Minister of Finance. Ardern came up on top according to the judging panels. And judging by comments in the media, Ardern now also enjoys the support of around 68% of female voters as well as a large number of young voters. 

Undeterred by it all, Bill English still maintains that their own (National’s) polls show a different and more encouraging results. Fair enough given what happened with the United States presidential elections last year where most polls backed Hilary Clinton to win in the run-up to elections or the Brexit vote in the UK where most polls predicted UK staying in the EU. Maybe polls shouldn’t be trusted anymore.

But the question that some people are still wrestling with is, what is it about Jacinda Ardern that has made voters sit up and take note? What is it about her that made people donate $100,000 to the Labour Party’s coffers within 24-hours of becoming its leader? (It’s reported that she has already attracted over $1m. in donations to Labour’s campaign.) What is it about her that is causing many voters who had not voted Labour in the last ten years to now decide to do so?

For a start, Ardern has that youthful and intellectual appeal political leaders like David Lange had. She is dynamic, enthusiastic, intelligent, eloquent and composed, and sometimes, quite funny.

She is very clear of where she wants NZ to be in the future. She wants her generation to believe they can change New Zealand for the better and not be dictated to by economically powerful countries. It is a similar stand to that taken by Lange Government with its nuclear free policy. 

More significantly, she has refused to be captured by the negativity and personal nastiness that surrounds today’s politics. Instead, she is full of optimism. She has promised to run a campaign characterised by “relentless positivity”. And so far, she’s done just that.

For example, she could have commented negatively on Green’s co-leader, Metiria Turei’s, benefit fraud and her controversial resignation or Winston Peters’ superannuation overpayment which amounted to thousands of dollars and which was allegedly leaked to the media by a Government Minister. She chose not to. 

All sorts of tactics are being used to attract voters. And under the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system we have, voters have become very savvy at making sure they voted tactically. For those who are not familiar with MMP, there are 120 MPs in the House. Sixty come from electorates and sixty from the Party lists. Everyone has two votes, one for the individual candidate and one for their preferred Party. For example, their individual vote may go to the Labour candidate but their Party vote may go to the Green. The more votes the Green gets, the more list MPs they will have. Splitting their votes boost the chances of the two Parties having sufficient MPs to form a government.

I note that a group of Pacific Island people in Auckland have formed their own party and their candidates are contesting some of the seats there. But instead of campaigning as a political party, they have nailed their flag to the Maori Party’s flagpole.

One assumes therefore they are asking their supporters to vote for the Maori Party which is good as there is a push by some politicians to abolish Maori seats. However, they don’t appear to have a manifesto or say what their long-term goals are or whether they will disappear immediately the elections are over like another Pacific Island political party with a similar name that contested some of the Auckland seats in the last elections.

Whatever the outcome of the elections, one thing is sure. New Zealand politics is changing. More and more Asians are becoming involved and have thrown their weight behind National. They see National as good for improving their businesses. Most Pacific Islanders prefer the Labour, Green and Maori Party. They see them as good for increasing their benefits. 

The older generations of Europeans and the baby boomers prefer Winston’s NZ First because they don’t like Asians. 

Disclaimer: Views expressed in this column are those of the author and may not necessarily shared by this newspaper.

 



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