Voter-watching, Ruth Butterworth

New Zealand Politics and Social Patterns: Selected Works by Robert Chapman
ed Elizabeth McLeay
Victoria University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 0 86473 361 5

Myths are the stories we tell each other about ourselves.

Neither true nor false in any absolute sense, they are central to modern as well as traditional societies. They represent our continuity, opening up the way in which any generation understands and locates itself. Strictly in this way, Robert Chapman has been one of the central story-tellers of post-World War Two New Zealand. He translated wide-ranging scholarship into forms students and older generations could relate to.

Careful tracking of the minutiae of polling booth returns enabled Chapman to generalise not only about voting behaviour, but also about voter impact on party behaviour; the slow death of the old and emergence of new or made-over parliamentary parties. This work is well-represented in Elizabeth McLeay’s selection from his writing. So is the way Chapman deployed cultural knowledge to trace shifts and influences in order to contextualise politics. In the sections on New Zealand political culture, written in 1989 (not 1985 as stated in the text) and 1992, there are acute analyses of the strains which stretched and finally broke open the conceptualised electorate of attentive and careful voters united in a consensus about the way things should be done.

Polling booth analysis enabled Chapman to build a picture of the New Zealand voters in the cities, towns and rural areas. By and large, the picture answered to the people’s view of themselves, their search for security and concomitant development of the idea of an electoral mandate. So strongly embedded was the idea of the mandate – it recurs still in newspaper letters columns – that it damn nearly destroyed the whole kit and caboodle. Westminster-type representative government it might have seemed to be, but fixed-term parliaments, programmatic parties and voters’ mandates produced a system that would have had Bagehot feeling more than a little queasy.

In this small society, with its equally small electorates and no second chamber, the notion of the effective voter died hard. The malcontents of MMP, on both sides of that argument in the last decade, trace the death of the idealised marriage between people and party government to Roger Douglas and 1984. The long demise of the national consensus about the way things should be done began ten years earlier – with a government that actually clung to the traditional proprieties of the mandate and the fixed term of office. The Kirk Government’s pledges were overtaken by OPEC and the first oil price hike. After Norman Kirk’s death, the Rowling Cabinet persuaded itself that voters’ aversion to snap elections precluded seeking a new mandate to meet the changed circumstances. Imprisoned in past certainties, clinging to an old mandate, they soldiered on.

As Britain’s entry to the EEC impacted on the New Zealand economy, Muldoon too followed the fatal pattern. Keeping faith with the electors, keeping a parliamentary majority, meant attending to the farmers, protecting small business, subsidising a raft of activities: in effect, buying time for adaptation. Part Two of New Zealand Politics and Social Patterns is headed “Town, City and Country”. Tracing the trajectory of voter shifts through the elections before 1984, Chapman analyses the difficulties and dilemmas of parties seeking votes, assembling coalitions of voting blocs or interests.

In a piece on psephology (the study of elections and trends in voting), first published in 1963, Chapman defends the study of opinion formation against those who “presume … that politicians will use [such knowledge] either to mislead electors or, paradoxically, to follow them sheepishly”. This, of course, was long before the triangulation theories of 1990s America – a long way from the simplicities of psephology in 1963. The elections analysed in this volume were wholly or largely innocent of the now familiar devices of continuous polling, focus groups, selective mailings and the like. Way back and even through the 1975 and 1978 elections, communication between the elected and electors was a sedate affair. Carried till 1975 on a single television channel, a handful of radio networks and in seriously black-and-white newspapers, political messages tended to the informative rather than the infomercial.

Older political connoisseurs may find much in Chapman’s analysis of political and social patterns that will provoke a rush of nostalgia. Even the camera in the cover photo and that particular shade of green will take you back in time. Lest we forget, however, the pattern of first place of publication in the McLeay selection should remind us how limited, unfunded and unresourced research was and how narrow the avenues for communicating it to New Zealanders.

Younger students, for whom this book will be a resource, may well blink when they see that “The Mechanics of Representation” was first published in the New Zealand Listener. Then again, maybe not, because this piece was something of a crusade. Always looking to improve the tools of the psephologist’s trade, Chapman persistently criticised aspects of voter enrolment, Maori representation and electoral returns publication as well as the basis on which the Boundaries Commission operated. His work was rewarded with incremental change when former students entered Parliament with an awareness of the importance of such matters for the democratic process.

One way and another, Chapman put his work to generous use. A determined public communicator, he pushed for graduate recruitment in radio and television; and that a number of pieces in this volume began life as public lectures is no accident. Way back when – before, that is, the 1984 fiscal crisis and the beginnings of contractualism and userpays – academics exchanged or shared their work for petrol vouchers and book tokens. Advice did not come in fancy bindings for a fat price labelled as consultancy. Coming up to party selection time, there arrived on Chapman’s doorstep a positive procession of would-be candidates seeking advice on voting patterns in whatever electorate they had their eye on. One way and another, these selected works are themselves part of the New Zealand political culture, as is their author.

It is a pity then that quite a lot of this selection is difficult for today’s reader. I can almost hear the publisher’s voice: tables are expensive, keep footnotes to the minimum. “The Politics of Division” cries out for the table that has been omitted. The chapter on patronage lacks context – what was “the policy of the Arts Council” and just who had been bidden to the Arts Conference? The printed page inevitably misses the nuanced delivery, the import of the careful phrase. The point is that Chapman, like many of his close contemporaries among New Zealand academics, was a performer, a transmitter of ideas and a communicator of the temper of the times. Who else could have got away with a phrase such as “the inherent longitudinality of institutions and processes”? “Deaths and Entrances”, the paper where this phrase appears, clarified much for those who heard it. In print it is dense with numbers that ought to be clarified in tables.

Today such lectures would have visuals, and be transmitted live to other venues or published in CD-ROM form. But then in today’s universities education has been superseded by qualifications, teaching is trimmed to fit performance review, and courses are adjusted to the diminishing staff and student time available. Which makes this contribution to our intellectual history all the more valuable. A pity then that the book fell apart in my hands after a couple of hours.

Ruth Butterworth taught for many years in the Political Studies Department at Auckland University.

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