Prof Jack Vowles used to be New Zealand’s preeminent political sociologist, but has recently left the University of Auckland for the UK’s University of Exeter. He’s still analyzing New Zealand politics, however, and has written a review of ‘The 2008 General Election in New Zealand’ (to be published in an upcoming edition of Electoral Studies). You can download a PDF of the paper from his website. Vowles’ paper is a good solid descriptive account of last year’s election, but it also contains the following more analytical points. [Read more below].
- Vowles points to the Electoral Finance Act as being one of the major factors in the election, and also one of the reasons that the campaign was so boring: ‘One of the major issues in the campaign also helped shape its somewhat lacklustre quality. Labour had introduced campaign finance legislation to restrict the involvement of non-party actors…. This had stifling effect on wider public involvement in the election campaign, particularly as clear interpretation of the law proved difficult’.
- Political finance was of continued importance because, ‘having amended the campaign finance law, politicians themselves appeared unable to keep within its rules’. Notably, this helped to make New Zealand First ‘the biggest loser in 2008’ due to its financial scandals. But its tarnished result also ‘rubbed off on the Labour Party’.
- ‘The Labour Party campaigned on its strong record of competent economic management and on a theme of trust’. But ‘the ‘mood of the country’ was one of ‘time for a change’. Furthermore, ‘Intensification of campaign regulation also played into a socially conservative interpretation many of the government’s policies as excessively intrusive on moral and ‘politically correct’ grounds: the imposition of a ‘nanny state’.
- If New Zealand First’s ‘vote had been only slightly higher, at 5 per cent, it could have received six seats, and the shares of all other parties but the Maori Party would have been marginally reduced, robbing the centre-right of an overall majority. In this situation, the Maori Party could have become the pivotal player’.
- The Greens were one of the major victims of the election (despite their claims to the contrary): ‘In one sense, the Green Party was also a loser. Although it increased its vote and seats, this advance was marginal. Strategically, after some deliberation in the wake of the 2005 election, the Greens had recognised their place on the centre-left, and thus their role as a potential coalition ally for Labour, not National’.
- ‘In 2008, for the first time during New Zealand’s experience of proportional representation, by mutual agreement the two major party leaders refused to participate in debates with leaders from the other political parties, thus reinforcing public perceptions of the election as predominantly a two-party contest. This may have worked to Key’s advantage, as he easily held his own against Clark in those debates, an impact that might have been diluted had other leaders been in the mix’.
- Vowles presents the figures for voter turnout, and correctly counterpoises the ‘Official Turnout’ of 79.2% against the more relevant ‘Valid/Eligible Turnout’ of 74.7%, saying, ‘As a proportion of those eligible to vote by age, citizenship and/or residence in the country, the 2008 election had the second lowest turnout in over a century of New Zealand elections’. (Valid votes: 2,344,566; Enrolled Electorate: 2,976,883; Eligible Electorate: 3,138,000).
- Although there is going to be a binding referendum on whether to retain MMP, ‘National’s easy formation of a viable government under MMP could reduce the dislike of the system of many in the party’.