Stodge, serious analysis and spicy bits, Bryan Gould

Moments of Truth: The New Zealand General Election of 2014
Jon Johansson and Stephen Levine (eds)
Victoria University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9781776560493

The 2014 general election campaign was, on the face of it, one of the most dramatic of modern times, but was in truth and in terms of its outcome, overwhelmingly predictable.

As this tenth general election review in the series shows, the election campaign lurched daily from one crisis to another – the “moments of truth” of the book’s title – but, in the end, those moments proved to be “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. The result on polling day was almost exactly in line with what pollsters and most others had predicted at the beginning of the campaign.

Despite the predictability of its subject, however, Moments of Truth offers a fascinating kaleidoscope of stodge, serious analysis and spicy bits. The stodge is provided by the obligatory contributions from party leaders, campaigners and other functionaries, most of which are conventional statements of familiar positions in politician-speak. The academics – some of the best in the business – bring a proper and dispassionately analytical approach to identifying the critical factors and influences. Then there are the technicians – the strategists, pollsters and analysts – who have been persuaded to reveal the secrets of their trade. The entertainment is served up by the professional journalists and commentators who, it seems, could hardly believe their luck as one drama after another unfolded.

All of the familiar characters are here: a smiling and confident John Key, even in the face of developments that would and no doubt should have discomfited almost anyone else, a beleaguered David Cunliffe, a glowering Winston Peters, an earnest Russel Norman, a wacky Colin Craig – and those were just the party leaders. There was an extravagant cast of extras, headed by Kim Dotcom, Leila Harre, and Pam Corkery, and a number of guest appearances from non-politicians, many of whom – Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, Nicky Hager, for example – were denizens of the shadowy world of security services, both at home and abroad, while others, like Cameron Slater, barely emerged from the shadows at all.

The voting records suggest, however, that the voters were largely unmoved by this passing parade, and had made up their minds from the outset to pay little attention to the various excitements, opting instead to “keep a-hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse”. Unlike the proverbial swan, the campaign reserved the frenetic activity for the surface, while underneath all was calmness.

Despite that impression of foregone conclusion, however, it is worth registering that only a touch over one in three of those eligible to vote actually voted for the winners, a necessary antidote to the impression often given – not least in Moments of Truth – that the country is united behind John Key and that the election result was in the nature of a landslide or walkover. Large numbers of potential voters did not register or, having registered, did not vote. Those who supported the status quo went to the polls to express and confirm their satisfaction; those who were less happy found it difficult to summon much enthusiasm for any one of the other options, or gave up and stayed at home. The real story of the election was surely not one of overwhelming victory, but of a poor performance by largely ineffectual opposition parties and a more general, growing and worrying disaffection with democratic politics on the part of a number of voters.

There is always the temptation in the hurly-burly of an election campaign to get lost in the drama of the moment and to run away with the idea that great events are unfolding. I have lost count of the number of times, in my own experience, that a general election result has been hailed as heralding an earthquake in the political landscape and a permanent shift in the political fortunes of one or another political force.

The truth is usually more mundane; election campaigns, and their outcomes, are often merely staging posts in a longer journey. It is the direction and speed of that journey that is often of the greatest interest. The 2014 election was no exception, except perhaps in the sense of the inevitability of its outcome.

The most informative and thoughtful contributions are from those who recognised this aspect – the editors themselves, Morgan Godfery who usefully focuses on the growing and distinctive significance of the Māori vote, and perhaps the most experienced of the political commentators, Colin James, who is able to locate the campaign, the issues, and the outcomes in a longer time-frame and wider context.

The 2014 election took place towards what are perhaps the later stages of a decades-long journey rightwards, and in the context of the increasingly fond embrace by electorates across the western world of neo-liberal precepts and neo-classical, “free-market” economic policies. It has been a slow-building revolution that has swept all before it, and one of its principal casualties has been the intellectual self-confidence of the left.

If the 2014 New Zealand election is anything to go by, that process has now reached the stage of virtual permanence. Most of those now entering politics in the left interest have experienced nothing in their lifetimes other than the apparently irresistible and growing domination of right-wing ideas as to how societies and economies should and must operate. As a consequence, they have no means of measuring how far we have travelled from the kind of society their forefathers strove to achieve and what large steps would be needed to restore it.

They are accordingly inclined to see the 2014 election and the political situation that produced it as the affirmation of a state of affairs rather than as a process. They see the result as signifying no more than the playing out of immutable natural forces, or – for the more optimistic – as a storm that has to be weathered.

They are, of course, helped to this conclusion by the John Key factor – an issue that is fully identified and explored in Moments of Truth. It is undeniably true that the unusually effective political talents of the Prime Minister have been a major element in the New Zealand political scene, and it is therefore all too easy for supporters and opponents alike to ascribe the National Party’s success to the special skills of its leader in reconciling public opinion to what might otherwise be unpalatable. It was certainly the case that it was the Key leadership and the confidence it engendered in important parts of the electorate that allowed the National party to escape unscathed from revelations, doubts and difficulties that would have scuppered most other governments up for re-election.

But the conviction that the victory was John Key’s alone is a misapprehension – and one that is damaging to the left opposition, since it leads to the comforting conclusion that all they need to do is keep their heads down and wait for Key to make a mistake or for the voters to tire of him. It arises because there is little understanding that the third election victory in a row for the centre-right is not the result of a personal factor peculiar to this time and place, but reflects the long-standing failure by left parties across the globe to develop an alternative policy position and a coherent and sound analysis and vision on which to base it.

As long as this remains the case, not only does the pendulum no longer swing as it is assumed to do but, if it does so at all, it swings from a starting-point that continually moves to the right, leaving in its wake those who increasingly feel disenfranchised because today’s democratic politics seem to have nothing to offer them.

The true lesson of the 2014 campaign, in other words, is that it is very likely to pave the way for a re-run in 2017. Unless the opposition parties can come up with a game-changer – an alternative and more inclusive basis on which to engage the voters – there is no reason why simply running round the same track should produce a different winner only just over 18 months from now.

Bryan Gould is former Waikato University Vice-Chancellor.

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