It might seem a bit odd to have a blog post about issues in NZ politics in 2007. But every year the European Journal of Political Research publishes a yearbook looking at what’s happened in the previous year in politics of 20+ western democracies. For the past decade or so, this has been written by Jack Vowles, but this year I’ve given it a go because Prof Vowles is no longer in the country. And the latest Political Data Yearbook (Volume 47, Issue 7-8, 2008) has just been published. You can read this in university libraries, and some universities will have online access to it here. But for those that can’t, below is the text that I submitted to the yearbook. Although it pertains to last year, hopefully what I’ve written is actually a useful context for understanding the current election campaign. The extensive analysis includes discussion of all the major issues from an action-packed policy year involving the ‘anti-smacking’ law, the Electoral Finance Act, extensions and enhancements to KiwiSaver and Working for Families, the terrorism raids, scandals about Air NZ in the middle east, employment and politicisation in the public service, and the charging of Labour MP Phillip Field with corruption and bribery. There was also the rise of John Key and the attempted revitalization of Labour. I argue that although it appears contradictory, political consensus and conflict increased in tandem during 2007. [Read more below]
Issues in politics
Political consensus and conflict increased in tandem during 2007 in New Zealand politics. Although appearing contradictory, the two main trends in politics were, on the one hand, an intensification of the existing shift of political parties towards a new political consensus, and on the other, a significant increase in conflict between the Government and Opposition parties. At the same time, the John Key-led National Party experienced a significant rise in popularity, while the ruling Labour Party’s fortunes declined amid a number of scandals and unpopular policies.
The Labour-led Government suffered from an action-packed policy year in which most of its popular policies were strategically adopted by its National Party rival, while its more controversial policies were adeptly exploited by those same opponents. In social policy, successful new programmes included: the introduction and then extension made to the KiwiSaver retirement savings scheme (with voluntary uptake very high), the enhancement of the Working for Families supplementary benefit scheme, the establishment of a free early childhood care scheme, and the implementation of the final phase of lower doctors' fees and prescription charges. Most of these social policies were at least partially endorsed by Opposition parties, leading to a very strong political consensus developing in the new centre of politics.
In economic policy this consensus was already very strong prior to 2007, but tax rates on personal incomes had previously been a key issue in political debate and differentiation. After arguing against the desirability of significant cuts to income tax, Finance Minister Michael Cullen bowed to public pressure and shifted the Government’s position in favour of tax cuts, and a notional $1.5 billion was set aside for this. The other significant tax policy shift that brought Labour closer to National was the decision in the mid-year budget to cut taxes on company profits from 33% to 30% - the first such cut since 1988, when Labour was last in power.
In the environmental sustainability area, another substantial multi-partisan agreement was achieved when the Labour-led Government unveiled the centrepiece of its climate change policy – an emissions trading scheme, which was very similar to schemes proposed by the National and Green parties.
The most contentious policy of the year – prompting ferocious debate and protest – was in the area of political finance reform. Labour and its allies introduced legislation that ostensibly attempted to clampdown on big-spending election campaigns by political parties and related third parties, and also to more tightly regulate financial donations to them. The bill was a response to a number of scandals that erupted out of the 2005 general election where virtually all parliamentary parties were tainted by either their unlawful use of public funds for electioneering or their covert involvement with third party campaigns (in particular, the National Party had been connected to a high profile anti-Government campaign run by members of the Exclusive Brethren church).
The new rules put tight controls on campaign spending by outside interests, and extended the regulated electioneering period to include the whole election year. It also widened the definition of election advertisements (to include all written material that might be an attempt to persuade voters – thereby bringing newer forms of communication such as emails and blogs under the regulations) and introduced mandatory new declarations to accompany such electioneering.
There were a number of problems with the legislation. First, the process of this very important rewrite of electoral law was both rushed and carried out with only the minimum of consultation with Opposition parties and the public. Instead of attempting to obtain wider support for a timely overhaul of the Electoral Act the Government chose to unveil a bizarrely-drafted new piece of legislation called the Electoral Finance Bill (EFB) which was then confusingly redrafted and pushed through Parliament on a slim majority, despite the vociferous objections of the public and many credible experts and organisations. Second, the new rules regarding electioneering were somewhat draconian in places, which meant that the debate transformed into a freedom of speech issue that left a general public impression that democracy was ‘under attack’. Third, although the most controversial political finance issue of recent times has been the misuse of taxpayer resources for electioneering, the bill actually gave political parties even more leeway to use such funds.
Although much of the opposition to the bill came from the right of the political spectrum (including the organisations of Family First, the Sensible Sentencing Trust, and the National Party), a number of more neutral opponents of the bill included the Human Rights Commission and the Law Society. There was also strong news media criticism of the legislation. Most notably, the New Zealand Herald, the country’s largest daily paper, launched a high-profile campaign that it titled ‘democracy under attack’. The newspaper resorted to the unusual practice of publishing large front-page editorials against the legislation. In a sign of how much the Government was rattled by such media criticism, Prime Minister Helen Clark made the questionable judgement around this time to give her opinion of the quality and neutrality of the country’s news media. Five months after first being proposed, the EFB was finally passed into law on December 18 (to take affect two weeks later on 1 January 2008).
The draconian nature of the EFB was particular apparent when viewed alongside an earlier law passed to ban broadcasters from using images captured inside Parliament to ‘satirise, ridicule or denigrate MPs’. One hundred and fifteen members of the 121-MP Parliament voted for the measure, with many of them dissatisfied that images of MPs asleep at their desks or making rude gestures were used by the media. Although causing less public debate than the EFB, the ban was very unpopular with the public - one poll indicted 71 percent opposition to the legislation.
A number of other controversial political issues arose during the year that were not directly related to the government of the day. In October police used terrorism laws to arrest an array of environmentalists, anarchists and Maori nationalists. Homes were raided throughout the country following a year-long surveillance investigation into alleged weapons training camps held in the remote Urewera bush, near the east coast of the North Island. Police wanted to lay terrorism charges against most of those arrested, but the Solicitor-General ruled that the Terrorism Suppression Act could not be applied, noting that the 2002 law was ‘incoherent and almost impossible to apply’. Allegations against the accused were downgraded to firearms charges. There was significant public concern and protest about the manner in which the raids were carried out, and debate occurred about the line between protest and terror – some felt that civil society dissent was being treated as prospective terrorism.
Crime was a media staple in 2007 and violence against children was a particularly strongly-felt public issue, with a number of marches against child abuse taking place. Partly connected to this was a private members bill introduced by Green MP Sue Bradford which sought to remove the right of parents to use ‘reasonable force’ to discipline children, effectively banning parental smacking. The ruling Labour Party strongly backed this ‘anti-smacking’ legislation and a highly-polarised debate occurred throughout the first half of the year. Public opposition to the legislation was very strong, with many parents construing the bill as a condescending reproach of their parental methods, especially because some politicians conflated opposition to the bill with child-bashers. The anti-smacking debate therefore morphed into a protracted row over child discipline and abuse, as well as the role of the state in family life, with Labour being accused of creating a ‘nanny state’ that interfered in the lives of its citizens. With a finely balanced standoff in Parliament, National leader John Key brokered a last-minute deal in which National provided support for the bill to be passed in a moderated version. This compromise helped Key to further establish himself as the moderate ‘voice of reason’, positioning him in the public mind as a prime minister-in-waiting.
A number of government department scandals arose in 2007, creating embarrassment to Labour and its supporting parties. In August the state-owned airline Air New Zealand was discovered to have carried Australian troops to and from the war in Iraq on charter flights, despite the fact that the Government had a policy – albeit rather ambiguous – of not supporting the invasion of Iraq. This occurred without the Government’s knowledge but with the blessing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which had informed the national airline that participating in the operation would not conflict with government policy.
The Ministry for the Environment then became the site of a number of employment scandals involving questions about the potential politicisation of the public service. Minister David Benson-Pope was eventually dismissed from Cabinet over his role in the dismissal of public servant Madeleine Setchell from her job as a communication manager after it became known to the minister that her partner was a senior media adviser for the opposition National Party. Another former employee, Erin Leigh also made headlines and drew the ire of Government minister Trevor Mallard when she claimed that a Labour Party activist had been hired by the ministry to look after a minister's political agenda. This led to many questions being asked about the existence of the long-standing convention that the public service be politically neutral.
Labour MP Phillip Field created history by being the first parliamentarian to be charged with corruption and bribery – he employed immigrant labourers to work on his various houses and allegedly provided immigration help as part payment. Field subsequently left the Labour Party to be an independent in Parliament.
According to many commentators, 2007 was the Labour Government’s worst year since coming to power in 1999. It experienced a rash of bungles and embarrassments, mostly due to incompetent ministers and having to defend a number of unpopular policies. Labour found it impossible to get on the front foot. After eight years in Government, it appeared decidedly tired. At times the Government seemed deeply unpopular, and the rising National Party became credibly and popularly seen as leading the next government.
Prime Minister Helen Clark, despite her declining popularity and questionable judgment on many issues, was able to continue to exercise the authority that kept Labour together and under control when it might have otherwise flown apart. She also increased her international profile, with a trip to the White House, and continued work as a senior member of elite governance groups such as the Pacific Forum, the East Asian Summit and the Commonwealth. Also in the international arena, Trade Minister Phil Goff made progress on free trade deals with a number of countries, including China. He appeared to cement himself as the next Labour Party leader. Other ministers performed poorly or were unpopular. Finance Minister Michael Cullen was forced into a U-turn on personal income tax, but was increasingly painted by his opponents as being bereft of ideas and scrooge-like. Senior minister Trevor Mallard was prosecuted for fighting in a public place because he punched opposition MP Tau Henare in the Parliament lobbies. He also found trouble for defaming a civil servant under parliamentary privilege. He subsequently lost his sport and rugby World Cup portfolios and was demoted with Cabinet. The Minister of Justice, Mark Burton, who was responsible for the poorly-conceived Electoral Finance Bill and was also dropped from Cabinet in a thorough reshuffle in October. In this reshuffle, nearly half of all 61 portfolios changed hands. Damien O’Connor lost his Corrections portfolio due to a number a high-profile scandals in this area – the most damaging being his decision to allow a suspended Corrections prison service employee to travel to France as part of New Zealand’s parliamentary rugby team of which O’Connor was the captain. The Minister of Education, Steve Maharey resigned from Cabinet in October because he was selected to be the new vice-chancellor of Massey University.
Some rejuvenation of the Government was achieved with the appointment to the Executive of Steve Chadwick, Maryan Street, Shane Jones, and Darren Hughes. Steve Chadwick surprised many commentators as she previously had a relatively low profile before being appointed to Cabinet. Maryan Street, the first openly lesbian candidate to be elected to Parliament had a strong Labour pedigree, having previously been the party president. Shane Jones, a Maori MP, made it into Cabinet as the bottom ranked minister, but was widely viewed to be a future front-bench Minister of Maori Affairs. Darren Hughes was also notable, due to the fact he was the youngest member of Parliament, and a well-liked politician from throughout the house. He was appointed to be a minister outside of Cabinet.
Also on the positive side for Labour, the economy remained prosperous and resilient in 2007. Economic growth continued, especially due to the strong world prices for agricultural products – and dairy farming boomed (with record payout to farmers). There was also a quiet year on the industrial relations front, with the strong economic performance being seen to reflect high rates of growth in labour utilisation – employment dropped to a low not seen for decades. However, there were still economic pressures. Inflation rose slightly higher than in 2006, and sharply rising interest rates caused pain, especially for house owners, which was partly responsible for a growing focus on housing affordability. Reserve Bank Governor Alan Bollard raised interest rates four times. A high exchange rate put pressure on many exporters, with the New Zealand dollar surpassing US81c in July - its highest level since 1985 when the dollar was first floated. There was also a stream of finance company collapses.
The year belonged to the opposition National Party, and to John Key, who took over its leadership in November 2006. The embodiment of a rags-to-riches story, Key was brought up by a solo mother in a state house and made a career as a very successful, and consequently rich, currency trader before entering Parliament and quickly rising to the leadership of National. He proved to be a highly popular and pragmatic politician who perfectly reflected a more centrist mood in the electorate together with the new political consensus that was being built in the party system. His strategy as leader was to drag National into the centre ground, cleverly ditching previous unpopular policies, especially those associated with neoliberalism and social conservatism. Under Key, National profited from producing very little in the way of distinctive policy. Instead of offering an alternative political programme to the Government, National actually succeeded by standing back and allowing the third-term Labour Government to make its own mistakes and missteps. National understood that there was a strong mood for change, but one that did not necessarily extend beyond a change of personnel.
Key’s style of political management was also successful, with much better relations being achieved with the minor parties in Parliament. In particular, National made significant overtures to the Green and Maori parties. Although often viewed negatively as light on policy and principles, Key proved hugely popular and both he and his party surged past Labour and Helen Clark in opinion polls. In this he was aided by a number of spectacular public relations coups. In January he returned to his childhood Christchurch suburb of Burnside where he gave a state of the nation speech that concentrated on the ongoing existence of an ‘underclass’ in New Zealand – something that clearly rattled the Labour Government, which initially responded by denying the existence of such poverty. Key then took up a challenge to visit the residents of Auckland’s McGehan Place in the suburb of Mt Albert whom he had offered as examples of the underclass. In a perfect media spectacle he met and befriended a twelve-year-old girl named Aroha who accepted Key’s apparently impromptu invitation to travel with the politician to the national celebrations the following week at Waitangi. The next media-pleasing performance was his participation in a volleyball game at the annual political gathering at the Maori Ratana Church. But it was the brokering of the compromise on the anti-smacking legislation that marked the highpoint of Key's political performance in 2007. Other high-performing MPs who also fitted the new-style National Party image included Deputy Leader Bill English who became seen as the perfect sidekick to Key, as well as Shadow Leader of the House Gerry Brownlee, and relative newcomers Judith Collins, Simon Power, and Katherine Rich.
In the middle of the year, however, there was a relapse in support and momentum when Key and various National spokespeople made embarrassing policy gaffes. Infamously, Key asserted that the war in Iraq was over. Other spokespeople also gave ‘off-message’ statements about the desirability of uncapped doctor's fees, the possible partial privatisation of state-owned corporations, and the criticism that too much was being spent on retirement payments and savings. National thus lost political traction for a period, but by the end of the year both Key and the party were again well ahead of the incumbents in the polls – often with over 50 percent support – leading to speculation that National might be able to form a single-party government in 2008.
The minor parties in Parliament struggled to retain popular support and visibility – with few of them registering in the opinion polls above the 5 percent threshold they normally require to be elected under New Zealand’s system of proportional representation. They continue to be squeezed by Labour and National’s bitter two-party battle and the force of their race towards the centre of the political spectrum.
Speculation about the future of the populist-centrist New Zealand First party intensified, as its leader, Winston Peters, became less visible due to his unusual governmental role of being Foreign Minister outside of Cabinet and spending much of his time out of the country dealing with foreign dignitaries. But his foreign policy work was sometimes newsworthy and noteworthy – particularly his trip to North Korea and his putative good friendship with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The other party supporting the Government but with a minister outside of Cabinet – United Future – also struggled for relevancy and was hit hard with the unexpected defection in May of MP Gordon Copeland, reducing the United Future caucus to two. The maverick, but generally low-regarded, Copeland left the centrist party to build a new Christian party in a farcical and doomed relationship with the existing Destiny Church political party, which dissolved itself in order to launch the new Family Party, which Copeland had agreed to co-lead. Copeland walked away from the new venture almost immediately due to disagreements over leadership and attempted to set up a competing Kiwi Party. Both would-be parties flirted with controversial MP Philip Field who had resigned from Labour.
Another slowly disappearing and morphing party, Act New Zealand, became renowned for the antics of its leader Rodney Hide who shed a lot of weight and seriousness when he tried to re-invent himself as a more likable and friendly politician. The party lost much of its raison d’etre, and therefore the party continued its low showing in opinion polls.
While the Green Party should have benefited from the increasing importance of global climate change as an issue, the growing multi-partisan nature of combating this problem neutralised it as an issue. Both Labour and National stole the Greens’ environmental clothes in pushing their climate change credentials – another example of how the new political centre was draining the relevance of the minor and niche parties. Instead the Greens were more associated with non-environmental policies such as MP Sue Bradford's anti-smacking bill which saw her feature in substantially more media coverage than her Green Party colleagues and leaders. The other major issue for the Greens was the contentious Electoral Finance Bill, which the party took some ownership of and played a hand in drafting. Commentators noted the party’s electoral vulnerability and ideological drift, putting much of this down to the party’s ongoing acquiesce to the Labour Party.
The Maori Party was the only minor party that managed to thrive in the centrist political conditions of 2007. Its electoral base within the Maori constituencies allowed it to remain less vulnerable to the centripetal forces occurring in the left-right economic spectrum and to continue to mark out a distinctive position. Co-leader Tariana Turia did, however, make some rather poorly-received statements (such as her comment that ‘white immigration disadvantages Maori’) and seemed to be being eased out of the leadership by her ever-popular, visible, and credible co-leader Pita Sharples. Similarly, maverick MP Hone Harawira received significant media coverage. Many polls predicted the Maori Party would hold the balance of power after the following election.
Composition of Cabinet:
- Number of members in cabinet: 20
- Number of parties in cabinet: 2
- Type of cabinet: Minority coalition
- Number and percentage of women in cabinet: 7 (35%)
- Average age of members in cabinet: 52
Change of Portfolio:
- Minister of Social Development and Employment: David Benson-Pope (1950 male, L) resigned on 27 July, replaced by Ruth Dyson (1957 female, L) on 31 October
- Minister for the Environment: David Benson-Pope (1950 male, L) resigned on 27 July, replaced by Trevor Mallard (1954 male, L) on 31 October
- Minister for the Accident Compensation Corporation: Ruth Dyson (1957 female, L) replaced by Maryan Street (1955 female, L), 31 October
- Minister of Broadcasting: Steve Maharey (1953 male, L) replaced by Trevor Mallard (1954 male, L) on 31 October
- Minister of Building and Construction: Clayton Cosgrove (1969 male, L) replaced by Shane Jones (1959 male, L) on 31 October
- Minister in Charge of Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations: Mark Burton (1956 male, L) replaced by Michael Cullen (1945 male, L) on 31 October
- Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector: Luamanuvao Winnie Laban (1955 female, L) replaced by Ruth Dyson (1957 female, L) on 31 October
- Minister of Conservation: Chris Carter (1952 male, L) replaced by Steve Chadwick (1948 female, L) on 31 October
- Minister of Corrections: Damien O’Conner (1958 male, L) replaced by Phil Goff (1953 male, L) on 31 October
- Minister of Economic Development: Trevor Mallard (1954 male, L) replaced by Pete Hodgson (1950 male, L) on 31 October
- Minister of Education: Steve Maharey (1953 male, L) replaced by Chris Carter (1952 male, L) on 31 October Minister of Health: Pete Hodgson (1950 male, L) replaced by David Cunliffe (1963 male, L) on 31 October
- Minister for Food Safety: Annette King (1947 female, L) replaced by Lianne Dalziel (1960 female, L)
- Minister of Housing: Chris Carter (1952 male, L) replaced by Maryan Street (1955 female, L), 31 October
- Minister of Immigration: David Cunliffe (1963 male, L) replaced by Clayton Cosgrove (1969 male, L) on 31 October
- Minister of Justice: Mark Burton (1956 male, L) replaced by Annette King (1947 female, L) on 31 October
- Minister of Labour: Ruth Dyson (1957 female, L) replaced by Trevor Mallard (1954 male, L) on 31 October
- Minister of Local Government: Mark Burton (1956 male, L) replaced by Nanaia Mahuta (1970 female, L) on 31 October
- Minister of Research, Science and Technology: Steve Maharey (1953 male, L) replaced by Pete Hodgson (1950 male, L) on 31 October
- Minister for the Rugby World Cup: Trevor Mallard (1954 male, L) replaced by Pete Hodgson (1950 male, L) on 31 October
- Minister for Small Business: Lianne Dalziel (1960 female, L) replaced by Clayton Cosgrove (1969 male, L) on 31 October
- Minister of Sport and Recreation: Trevor Mallard (1954 male, L) replaced by Pete Hodgson (1950 male, L) on 31 October
- Minister for State Services: Annette King (1947 female, L) replaced by David Parker (1960 male, L)
- Minister of Statistics: Clayton Cosgrove (1969 male, L) replaced by Darren Hughes (1978 male, L), 31 October
- Minister of Tertiary Education: Michael Cullen (1945 male, L) replaced by Pete Hodgson (1950 male, L) on 31 October
- Minister of Women’s Affairs: Lianne Dalziel (1960 female, L) replaced by Steve Chadwick (1948 female, L) on 31 October
Departures from the Executive Council:
- David Benson-Pope (1950 male, L) resigned on 27 July
- Mark Burton (1956 male, L) resigned on 31 October
- Steve Maharey (1953 male, L) resigned on 31 October
- Dover Samuals (1939 male, L) resigned on 31 October
Appointments to the Executive Council:
- Maryan Street (1955 female, L), 31 October
- Darren Hughes (1978 male, L), 31 October
- Steve Chadwick (1948 female, L) 31 October
- Shane Jones (1959 male, L) 31 October