MMP here to stay, Barry Gustafson

Kicking the Tyres: The New Zealand General Election and Electoral Referendum of 2011
Jon Johansson and Stephen Levine (eds)
Victoria University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9780864738349

Since 1987, New Zealand’s political scientists and journalists have recorded and analysed the country’s triennial elections, and the 1993 and 2011 referendums that introduced and subsequently confirmed the move to a proportional voting system. One series of books, usually edited by Wellington academics, emerged from post-election conferences held at Victoria University of Wellington. Kicking the Tyres is the ninth in this sequence.

The title indicates that the book covers not just the 2011 election but also the concurrent referendum as to whether New Zealand should continue with the mixed member proportional electoral system first used at the 1996 election and under which no single party has yet been able to obtain an absolute majority of seats in Parliament. When John Key, then leader of the Opposition, promised in 2008 that a National government would hold such a referendum, he observed that it would give New Zealand voters a chance to “kick the tyres” of MMP in much the same way as someone might check a car out before confirming purchase.

The book’s editors, Jon Johansson and Stephen Levine, contribute a short preface and a brief epilogue, and the book is divided into four sections: an overview of the election; political party perspectives; a group of chapters mainly dealing with the media but also with chapters on polling, Maori politics, and a personal reflection by Mojo Mathers, New Zealand’s first hearing impaired MP; and finally, four chapters on the 2011 MMP referendum.

Then follow 100 pages of notes, references, and appendices: the confidence and supply agreements between National and ACT, United Future and the Maori Party, a list of MPs in the 50th Parliament, and a list of Ministers and their responsibilities. Attached to the back cover is a DVD containing audio-visual highlights from the campaign, including the campaign openings, election and referendum commercials, the televised debates, and campaign billboards and footage.

In the first section, Johansson and Levine sketch the background, including the 2010 and 2011 Christchurch earthquakes and the Rugby World Cup held in and won by New Zealand a few weeks before the election, then provide a comprehensive overview of the 2011 election and referendum, and the results.

Colin James then looks in more detail at the results and speculates about the future. His overall assessment is that the election could “be seen as reinforcing the status quo” but “is better seen as transitional”. He argues persuasively that Maori politics, the Greens, and both Labour and National are “in transition”, though this is a much more normal process of continuing transformation than James acknowledges.

In the third chapter, Johansson looks at leadership, with special attention to John Key. While other politicians do emerge from time to time throughout the book, Key as National’s leader and Prime Minister tends to dominate the discussion. The National Party’s support throughout 2008-2011 certainly reflected and may well have owed much to Key’s personal popularity and the widespread perception of him as a down-to earth, trustworthy and competent manager, though not an inspirational leader. Johansson concludes, however, that it is still too early to judge “the quality of Key’s leadership” and whether he “possesses the personal commitment, resilience of character and perseverance necessary to see through the challenges” his government has to face.

Finally, Stephen Church analyses the formation of the Government post-election. As with previous MMP elections, the emphasis was very much on putting together a coalition of parties that would guarantee not just a majority in Parliament for confidence and supply but a majority the Government could depend on to win almost every vote on every issue. New Zealand has yet to experience a one party government with majority support only on supply and confidence, which would administer the country while having to persuade a majority of MPs in the house to pass legislation on an issue-by-issue basis.

One feature of the Victoria University conferences has been the inclusion from the first of representatives from the various political parties and protagonists in the electoral referendum campaigns. In the second section of Kicking the Tyres, political-party perspectives on the 2011 campaigns come from National’s Stephen Joyce; Labour’s Grant Robertson; the Green’s Metiria Turei; New Zealand First’s Winston Peters and Joshua Van Veen; the Maori Party’s Kaapua Smith; Mana’s John Minto, Helen Porter and Annette Sykes; ACT’s Chris Simmons; and United Future’s Peter Dunne.

Not surprisingly, most of the participant observers did not give away campaign secrets or concede that they had made major mistakes; all felt their particular party’s campaign had gone well. Most thought, however, that they had suffered at the hands of the news media, which had ignored policy in pursuit of trivia (Joyce), or dismissed them as “a party struggling for relevance” (Peters), or subjected its leader to savage and gratuitous attacks (Minto et al), or made it hard work for ACT by misleading and negative reporting (Simmons), or focused repeatedly on the “Ohariu lie” that Dunne was likely to lose his seat (Dunne). An exception was the Greens, who asserted that the mainstream media had ignored them in the past but that they were pleasantly surprised that at this election it was “more likely to report us, and to report us favourably” (Turei).

In the third section of the book, five chapters deal with marketing and media: one by Rob Salmond on opinion polling; one by Morgan Godfery on the fragmentation of Maori politics; and one on Mathers’ reflections.

The first of the five chapters on the media is Jennifer Lees-Marshment’s analysis of the ways in which the National and Labour parties marketed their leadership, brand and capacity to govern, and the extent to which they succeeded. She concludes that in 2011, although the election results suggest that National had “significant success” and Labour “a poor showing”, in fact, “looking ahead Labour has opportunities and National has challenges” because voters may well become impatient with National’s apparent failure to deliver results that demonstrably improve the lives of those voters.

Claire Robinson showed that, in all four major newspapers she studied, there was substantial bias in the photo coverage of leaders. Key was favoured markedly over Labour’s Phil Goff. Jane Clifton criticises the trivialisation of media coverage with specific reference to the “teapot-tape” saga involving Key and ACT leader John Banks in Epsom, the use of the “worm” in TV3’s leaders’ debate, and the reporting of some very suspect polls. Corin Higgs looks at TV coverage of the campaign, and particularly the background and performance of media pundits. Finally, Anthony Deos and Ashley Murchison found that Facebook was used by the five largest parties in 2011 “largely for communicating information to citizens, rather than engaging with them”.

Salmond’s examination of public opinion polling during the 2008-2011 electoral term and particularly during the 2011 election campaign is extremely informative in assessing the nine major polls, their accuracy in predicting the election outcome, the ways they can be biased, and improvements to make them more reliable.

Godfrey’s “The Fragmentation of Maori Politics” divides Maori voters into two kaupapa Maori parties – the Maori Party and the Mana Party – with strong support still for Labour and the Greens, before discussing the Maori Party’s governing relationship with the National Party. While there are Maori issues that can still unite Maori, it appears there has emerged a traditional Left-Right divide that affects Maori voters as much as it does non-Maori.

The fourth section of the book starts with chapters detailing the pro-MMP campaign by organisers Sandra Grey and Matthew Fitzsimons, and the anti-MMP campaign by its coordinator Jordan Williams, who bemoans Key’s and National’s unwillingness to support actively a change in the electoral system and makes some rather sour comments about Winston Peters being a major reason for rejecting MMP. Maria Bargh examines Maori perceptions and voting on the referendum in New Zealand and Australia, and Therese Arseneau and Nigel Roberts conclude with a review of the referendum’s results, suggestions of some minor changes such as lowering the five per cent threshold or the one-electoral-seat waiver, and an assertion that the 58-42 per cent margin should now put the question of MMP to rest.

Johansson and Levine suggest in their epilogue that “New Zealand’s politics remain in transition”, with the Maori Party and New Zealand First, and – although not specifically mentioned, ACT and United Future – unlikely to outlast their current aging leaders. The National, Labour and Green parties, in contrast, are well-advanced in effecting generational change, and this will inevitably lead to “differences in style, outlook, policy and perspective” in the future, even if it does not inaugurate “profound changes in the direction of the country’s politics” as did the last big change in 1984. Certainly, however, the challenges facing future New Zealand politicians remain formidable: the rebuilding after the Christchurch earthquakes, the ongoing world financial difficulties, the growing dependence of the New Zealand economy on large overseas trading and investment partners such as China, an entrenched and growing underclass, and a potentially divisive review of New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements.


Barry Gustafson is an Auckland political historian, biographer and commentator.


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