Differences between age groups have become relatively more important in New Zealand electoral behaviour. There is now a discernable political fracture between young and old, and for many commentators this age axis has become a significant factor in explaining modern New Zealand politics. [Read more below]
In postwar New Zealand, youth have traditionally voted in greater numbers for parties of the left and correspondingly the elderly have voted conservatively. For example, in Levine and Robinson’s 1975 voter survey, the liberal-leftist Values Party obtained over 60% of its votes from persons under the age of 30 years, compared to National’s 31% support and Labour’s 30% (Levine and Robinson, 1976: p.135).
Interestingly, the largest group of youth are now actually non-voters. Analysing NZES data, Jack Vowles has found that non-voting in 1999 was over twice as likely among the youngest age group than the average for all the age groups (Vowles, 2002d: p.94). After non-voters, the next biggest bloc of young voters goes to the Green Party. The Greens have campaigned particularly strongly for the youth vote, and there is now a definite age-bias to Green Party support, with 84% of Green voters being under 40. As well as this, the party’s own 2002 research showed that 25% of 19 and 20-year-olds supported the Greens (Laxon, 2002). According to the 2002 Herald-DigiPoll, the party had 19% support from the under-40s but the support of only 6% of those over 40 (and even this support is very strongly concentrated in the 50-60 ‘Values generation’ age group) (Laxon, 2002). According to Tim Bale, who has studied the Greens, the party’s ‘core support is young people, either in tertiary education or just out of it’ (quoted in Laxon, 2002).
More recently, Chris Trotter says the Greens are fading to grey. He points out that the average age of those at the top of the party new list is 52 years.
After the Greens, it is the parties of the right that often appeal most strongly to youth. In 1993, the National Party made a significant shift to targeting the youth vote. Internal party polling showed that National’s strongest voting block was in the 25-29 age group. According to senior National MP, Roger Sowry, ‘There’s now a constituency there for the party that has not been there in the 10 years I’ve been involved….. That age group has traditionally stayed well away from the National Party’ (quoted in Morrison, 28 Aug 1993: p.11). MP Nick Smith also maintained that National was ‘in a unique position of becoming the natural party for the under-30s voter’ (quoted in Munro, 2 Aug 1993: p.2).
The success of this strategy was evidenced in 1996 when ‘National did best among young voters’ (Vowles, 1998d: p.35). According to Robert Mannion, ‘more than 40% of 18-29-year-olds supported National. Moreover, young voters were the single most enthusiastic block for Jim Bolger’ (Mannion, 1996b: p.9). Similarly, Act did best in 1996 ‘among the 35-44 and 45-54 age groups’ (Vowlesd, 1998: p.35).
In contrast, according to Vowles, ‘New Zealand First and Labour voters tended to be significantly older than average. In both cases, the probability of voting Labour or New Zealand First increased about 2% for each 10 years of age’ (Vowles, 1998d: p.35). According to a NBR-HP 2002 poll, although Labour had an overall 47% support, among the under-30 age group it was only 37% but among people aged over 60 Labour had the support of 53% (Hill Cone, 2002).
In 2002 a survey showed that New Zealand First had the support of 16% of the over-60s (Collins, 2002). In that same year United Future’s voter support was slightly biased towards older voters. According to the Herald-DigiPoll survey at the end of the 2002 election campaign, United Future won only 4.3% support among the under-40s, the support of 6.6% of the middle-aged (40-59), and 5.7% of the elderly (60+) (Collins, 2002). The Alliance, too, took the majority of its support from the older parts of the electorate, and together with New Zealand First, at their peak they received half their support from people who were retired (Mannion, 1996a).
Regardless of class, the older generations are now voting for parties which they perceive will look after their material interests. Part of the explanation is also that the grey-power generation have moved their support away from National because that party broke its promise on the superannuation surtax and also reduced pension entitlements. Superannuation has thus become a significant political issue. The ageing nature of the population means the issues of the ‘aged’ are now politically important.
The relationship of the Greens and National with youth, and New Zealand First and Labour with the elderly, suggests the age cleavage has been incorporated into the current party system, but that this dimension is not entirely consistent with the traditional class cleavage. It appears very unlikely that any party will successfully rise to contest elections on the age dimension of conflict. (In the transition to MMP, a party, the New Zealand Superannuitants and Youth Action, was established to represent youth and the elderly, but failed to make an impact.)
Colin James is the greatest advocate of a generation-orientated understanding of New Zealand politics, suggesting the existence of a philosophical divide between the generations, and arguing that there are three parts in the age electorate that constitute three different ways of looking at the world: ‘The over-55s, a quarter of the electorate, are from Sir Robert Muldoon’s time... The under-30’s, also a quarter of the electorate, have lived all their adult life under Rogernomics... Inbetween are those who made – or were dragged into – the switch or who were following close behind’ (James, 27 Sep 1996e).