Digging through the permafrost, Stephen Levine

Season of Discontent: By-elections and the Bolger Government
Raymond Miller and Helena Catt,
Dunmore Publishing, 1993, $29.95

The “season of discontent” to which this book refers began within weeks of National’s victory in October 1990. When the Bolger Government found itself unable to follow through on its commitment to repeal the surcharge on superannuation, despite promises made so often as to become tedious, National’s brief “spring” fell victim to a frost of Siberian intensity. Although winning a second term in November 1993, this is a Government which performs before a largely indifferent public during what has become, politically, an ongoing and enduring winter.

At the outset of his first term as Prime Minister Bolger struggled with an unwieldy and inexperienced caucus. Sluggish and overburdened, this parliamentary gathering of ostensibly like-minded lawmakers began to shed members rather early. Gilbert Myles and Hamish Maclntyre were gone by mid-1991, then Winston Peters was sent off first from the cabinet, then from the party, and by the election Cam Campion had departed as well. Of the four, only Peters resigned to face the voters in a by-election, a “contest” devalued and farcical through lack of opposition. The saga of Peters’ massive though meaningless landslide is not, fortunately, at the forefront of this study.

For there were two other by-elections which occurred during the Bolger Governments first term, one in Auckland, the other in Wellington. The February 1992 Tamaki by-election had its origins in the early pangs of dissatisfaction with National’s (and Bolger’s) performance. When a weakened Sir Robert Muldoon decided that he had “had enough”, he compelled a Government with a record parliamentary majority to endure a difficult, even awkward, by-election campaign. It was one which Bolger, apparently misled by polls (not for the last time), confessed he thought he might lose, and there is a lovely cartoon in this book from the New Zealand Herald showing a genial Prime Minister, all smiles, balloons in the background, confiding that he expects to lose the 1993 general election as well.

The December 1992 Wellington Central by-election was brought about when the electorate’s popular Labour MP, Fran Wilde, was elected the city’s first woman Mayor. She resigned the seat, setting the stage for Chris Laidlaw’s elegant entry into Parliament and, as well, for his equally equable exit from it not quite 12 months later. It is also true that without her by-election defeat National’s Pauline Gardiner would have been deprived of what became her most-publicised quality, perseverance, facing down an electorate which finally gave in at the general election, inverting the mantra presently popular in Washington: “three times and you are in“. 

Now that the country has approved MMP, these parliamentary by-elections may well have been the last ones held in New Zealand’s traditional first-past-the-post environment. By-elections have in any case become infrequent in recent years. Labour’s six years in office saw only one (Timaru, 1985). During the 1975-84 Muldoon era there were eight, two of them, Mangere (1977) and Christchurch Central (1979), responsible for bringing future Prime Ministers (David Lange and Sir Geoffrey Palmer) into Parliament for the first time.

Whether that is an argument for or against these singular elections is perhaps a matter of taste. There is no doubt, however, that by-elections provide opportunities for new leadership to gain national attention and that New Zealand is likely to see fewer of them in the future than it has in the recent past. Although the size of Parliament will increase under MMP, the number of electorate MPs will be reduced. As vacancies among MPs elected on party lists will be filled by taking the next name on the party list, prospects for future by-elections depend exclusively on developments among MPs representing constituencies.

Although each had distinctive features, the two 1992 by-elections were influenced by shared passions which remained in evidence at the 1993 general election as well. Many of these emotions, tapped by the electoral process, were by no means positive. The Tamaki and Wellington Central surveys analysed here, as well as those which Nigel Roberts and I have carried out over the years, note the considerable extent to which voting behaviour is now driven by feelings of anger and resentment towards New Zealand’s parties and principal politicians. This contrasts sharply with an older electoral literature which saw party “loyalty” as the main factor behind voting decisions. The more recent interview-based studies, however, reveal a sense of betrayal and deep distrust, which only the most optimistic can expect a new voting system to remedy altogether.

Some of these animosities focus unavoidably on more contentious personalities. In 1992, at the time of the first electoral referendum, voters showed few inhibitions about naming politicians they would “least” be able to bear as Prime Minister. Ruth Richardson, Jenny Shipley and Lockwood Smith were among the “leaders” in this somewhat perverse poll, their ratings symptomatic of communication lapses as well as voters’ irritation with economic, health and education policies.

By November 1993 these National figures had been joined by one other ‑ Peters. His campaign, at the head of a new party, attracted anxiety as well as admiration. Although Peters’ performance in the preferred Prime Minister polls had suggested that he would do well out on his own, the apprehensions he appears to have aroused received far less attention. Some survey results show that behind Richardson, “the most disliked politician” and consequently one whose removal from the cabinet would seem to have been inevitable, were Bolger, Anderton – this before his emergence as statesman – and Peters. Our nationwide polling also suggests that as much as New Zealand First owes its existence and achievements to Peters’ energy and enterprise, its limitations are his responsibility as well.

These various surveys also draw attention to Mike Moore’s popularity vis-à-vis Jim Bolger. It is ironic, and for some overseas observers almost inexplicable, that the dimly regarded leader of “the most unpopular Government on record” should be enjoying a second term as Prime Minister, so that he now teeters on the edge of a long-awaited visit to a White House with whose occupant he will have little in common. Meanwhile his predecessor sits sidelined, restlessly reviewing his options.

This state of affairs owes much to a similar restiveness among voters. The by-election surveys show high levels of voter movement among the parties, a volatility which was continued in November 1993 and will surely characterise at least the first elections under MMP.

A more precarious, competitive political environment for the major parties seems unavoidable. Their constituencies are ageing, as our surveys show younger voters (18‑24 years) least likely to identify with either National or Labour. The choices available under MMP also provide opportunities to which all parties will be challenged to adapt.

For instance, in our November 1993 survey of Miramar, an electorate easily regained by Labour, there were more voters who nevertheless wanted National to defeat Labour in the general election throughout the country as a whole. MMP permits these electors with dual allegiances, preferring one party in government and another party’s electorate candidate, to leave the voting booth having cast ballots for both of them.

While a restructured electoral system offers hope to those dissatisfied with government performance, the themes of competence, economic management and social equity which surrounded the Tamaki and Wellington Central by-elections have not lost their relevance. How these matters are linked to voter choice depends in large measure on a news media whose professionalism and objectivity are questioned in this study. To misgivings about National’s ability to “subvert” the media through skillful “news management” may now be added heightened concerns, post-1993, about the legitimacy of publicising opinion poll findings during election campaigns.

A conscientious study, the theme of voter discontent which it explores remains relevant. Despite premature celebration of a new political era, New Zealand’s political permafrost shows few signs of melting.


Stephen Levine teaches politics at Victoria University. He has published extensively on polls and elections.




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