Every year the European Journal of Political Research publishes a political date yearbook which gives a review of politics in a number of western countries. I contribute the section on New Zealand to the journal – last year’s publication on New Zealand politics in 2007 can be read here. Below is the first draft of my review of New Zealand politics in 2008. It still requires a bit of abridging and editing, and as always I’m interested in feedback and suggestions, which you can leave in the comments section or email me (edwards.bryceATgmail.com). [Read more below]
2008 was a momentous year in New Zealand politics, with the occurrence of some significant political controversies, gathering economic gloom, the decline of a number of long-term political careers (including that of prime minister Helen Clark), and the holding of a general election for the house of representatives, which led to a change of government. Thus, after nine years and three terms in government, the Labour-led Government lost power after the Labour Party’s vote dropped to only 34 per cent and the opposition National Party under John Key rose to 45 per cent, allowing it to form a new single-party minority government supported in power by three minor parties – the Maori Party, Act Party, and United Future.
Issues in politics
Issues of political finance and allegations of politician improbity and dishonesty dominated much of New Zealand’s election year. The theme of ‘trust’ was a thread that ran throughout the year, and the Labour Party even used this word as its central campaign concept and slogan. This related to its attempt to discredit the National leader John Key and his party by painting them as having a secret agenda to implement if elected to government. Related to this, one TV news channel broadcast secret audio recordings made by anti-National activists at a National Party conference, catching senior National politicians talking candidly about the ideological compromises being made and the potential for more radical policies in the future.
Labour made efforts to suggest that leader John Key had some involvement in corrupt or dishonest financial practices. First, Labour successfully embarrassed John Key over the revelation that he had previously owned a greater number of Tranz Rail company shares than he had disclosed when he was the party’s spokesman on transport. Next, Labour made a failed attempt to link Key with a major fraud case of 20 years previously, known as the H-fee scam, which had led to the jailing of a prominent businessman. Labour had utilised its government research unit, and most controversially, sent its party president Mike Williams to Australia in the lead up to election day to trawl through court records that might ruin the credibility of Key. No explosive material ever emerged, despite Williams passing on photocopies of many court records to journalists. Instead, the story backfired and became a heavily damaging story about Labour's negative campaign methods.
Issues of trust and financial probity were a bigger problem for Labour’s confidence-and-supply partner, the New Zealand First party. The saga began early in the year, with party leader and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters, being accused of receiving an undeclared and potentially compromising donation from the expat billionaire Owen Glenn, who had previously been a very generous donor to the Labour Party. The matter dragged on for months, but started when Peters held a press conference in February to deny reports that he had received any such donation. It also emerged that Glenn was keen to be appointed New Zealand’s honoury consul to Monaco – a decision needing the approval of Peters as Foreign Affairs minister. Eventually it was revealed in June that Glenn had in fact donated $100,000 to Peters’ legal bills, and that this had been funnelled through the party’s secret trust fund. The matter was referred to a Parliamentary Privileges Committee, and in September the committee determined that Peters had ‘provided misleading information’, which led to Parliament censuring Peters for failing to declare the donation on the parliamentary register of pecuniary interests.
Other claims surfaced during the year about large undeclared donations from the wealthy Vela family and the businessman Robert Jones. These were investigated by the Electoral Commission, the Serious Fraud Office, and the Police. In the end no grounds were found for prosecution, but the party was invited to rectify its incorrect previous donation disclosures. Although legally vindicated, Peters was exposed as not only saying one thing and doing another, but also as accepting large business donations after having vociferously criticised other parties for doing so and then strongly backing controversial political finance reform. The scandal played a strong part in the party’s failure to get re-elected to Parliament later in the year. The matter also tainted coalition partner Labour – especially because prime minister Helen Clark was seen to take a very soft line on Peters, and she drew allegations of withholding the truth about what she knew, when six months into the saga she admitted to having been told in February by Glenn that he had made the donations.
Issues of political finance were also highly salient due to the new and controversial Electoral Finance Act (EFA), which came into regulatory effect on 1 January 2008. The new law, supported by Labour, New Zealand First, and the Greens, extended the scope of electoral law considerably, especially by tightening the rules relating to donation disclosure, third party electioneering, and the authorisation statements for all election advertising. It also extended the regulation period to begin on the first day of election year, instead of previously for three months prior to the election. The adopted definition of what constituted an election advertisement was also extremely broad: any form of words or graphic that could reasonably be regarded to be encouraging or persuading a person to vote for or against a party or candidate.
Opponents of the EFA complained that the new rules were stymieing freedom of expression and political debate. Certainly during the campaign, many commentators noted that political parties were taking a much more cautious approach to campaigning, and that third party organisations were having less input into the campaign debate. Furthermore, just nine weeks out from election day, the head of the Electoral Commission declared that the uncertainty resulting from the legislation was having a ‘chilling effect on the extent and type of participation in political and campaign activity’. The commission also made a number of controversial decisions during the campaign that suggested the EFA was indeed affecting the campaign. There were minor controversies about the legality of everything from beer billboard advertising to Act Party leader Rodney Hide’s yellow jacket, which was deemed to constitute an election advertisement, and was referred to the Police by the Electoral Commission because it lacked an authorisation statement on it. A host of other legal rulings and court cases highlighted the legal uncertainty and complexity of the EFA. A number of other experienced MPs were referred to the Police for their alleged breaches of the new law.
The gathering economic gloom was the second biggest issue in politics during 2008, with the growing financial crisis coming to dominate the election campaign. Early in the year the New Zealand economy went into technical recession, the housing market collapsed (median house prices dropped by between 10 to 15 per cent), and a large number of finance companies folded. The Government’s budget surpluses soon disappeared, some high-profile job losses occurred, inflation hit an eighteen-year high, interest rates went higher, and food and petrol prices rose significantly.
In August the Treasury announced that the New Zealand economy had entered a recession. Then the full impact of the downturn became apparent as election campaigning began, with negative economic growth leading up to the election. In October the Government disclosed its full fiscal situation; it showed that unemployment was going to increase significantly, and government deficits were forecast for years to come – $5.9 billion in the 2009 year, rising to $7.3 billion in 2013.
The economic prosperity of the previous decade had been a strong factor in each of Labour's three wins from 1999 to 2005. But now both Labour and National tapped into fears about the global economic crisis to prove their credentials to govern. As the extent of the economic downturn became more obvious both parties had to rewrite their election strategies, reducing the cost of many promises while developing both stimulus packages to get the country through the crisis and rescue packages for those made redundant by it. In addition, the Labour-led Government unveiled a $150 billion bank deposits guarantee plan in which all retail banking deposits would be unconditionally covered. Spending on infrastructure also came back into vogue, and National even promised to borrow billions to fund large new projects such as a new prison and a $1.5 billion broadband network. Promises of tax cuts, which had long been the subject of debate between Labour and National were now downplayed.
There were other major economic initiatives during the year. In March the Government changed the law to stop a $1.8 billion bid by a Canadian pension fund for a 40 per cent stake in Auckland International Airport. An agreement to negotiate a free trade agreement with China was announced in April (significant as China’s first such agreement with a developed economy). Then in July the Government renationalised the Toll New Zealand rail and ferry transport company and renamed it as KiwiRail, paying $665 million to the Australia owners Toll Rail who had, like previous private owners, run down the network and had difficulty making a profit.
The environment continued to play a strong part in political debate – with issues of climate change, adherence to the Kyoto Protocol, sustainability and pollution all of interest. Yet increasingly there was consensus on these issues, and the Green Party struggled to retain ‘ownership’ of environmental issues. Most significantly, the Labour-led Government pushed through a new carbon Emissions Trading Scheme just prior to the election campaign in an attempt to improve Labour’s environmental credentials. National accepted the general nature of the scheme, vowing only to amend it to reduce compliance costs.
The perennial topic of law and order was of particular prominence during the election year, possibly due to the decline of differences between the parties on economic issues. The Labour-led Government had already toughened up the criminal and penal law, leading to serious overcrowding in the prison system. Yet opposition parties campaigned very strongly with anti-crime policy and rhetoric. This concentration on law and order in lieu of a concentration on its economic policy, was most evident in the campaign of the once fervently neoliberal Act Party, which now prioritised its socially conservative message on law and order – and to push the point it recruited a well known law and order campaigner David Garrett to stand in a high position on its party list, which eventually put him into Parliament.
General election for Parliament
Elections in New Zealand are carried out under the rules of a mixed member proportional (MMP) electoral system. There are two votes, one for a single member geographic electorate, and the other more important ‘party vote’ for a nationally registered party. In 2008, 70 Members of Parliament were elected to represent electorates, with the remaining MPs coming from party lists to ensure proportionality based on the party vote. To get elected in proportion to their party vote, parties must cross an electoral threshold of five per cent or else win at least one electorate seat – a contentious rule that had important consequences to the result in 2008. Also, the vagaries of the MMP rules mean that although New Zealand’s single-chamber parliament normally has a size of 120 MPs, in 2008 an overhang provision meant that there two extra seats.
Elections are held every three years, and in 2008 the incumbent government was a Labour Party-led minority coalition, which in various forms had been in power since the 1999 election. The government was in its third term, but the 2005 election had been very closely fought, and almost since then the opinion polls had been running against the government, and the ‘mood of the country’ was one of ‘time for a change’. The result of the election was much as expected and as foreshadowed in the polls. National gained almost 45 per cent of the vote, the highest proportion received by a party since the change of electoral system, but not enough to achieve a single-party majority.
New Zealand’s fifth MMP general election held on 8 November 2008 was, according to the main party slogans, a contest between ‘trust’ (the Labour Party catchword) and ‘a brighter future’ (National’s slogan). It was also one of the least dynamic and policy-oriented in living memory. The highly-professionalized strategies meant that it was certainly no contest of ideas or broadly different political options for voters. Despite the usual electoral hyperbole, the programmatic differences were more blurred than ever. This was especially noticeable in economic policy, with seemingly interchangeable economic outlooks, and virtually no disagreement on what should be done about the developing economic recession. In the absence of any substantive differences in economics, and with few other issues resonating with the public, the campaign came down to a choice of leadership.
The campaign was so starved of real political conflict that it made for a relatively meaningless election. It is not surprising therefore that voter turnout (total party votes cast as a proportion of eligible electors) for the 2008 General was down to 74.7 per cent – the second lowest turnout in over a century of New Zealand elections.
National’s campaign strategy was widely criticised for being conservative and uninspiring. The extended slogan of: ‘It’s time to change. Party Vote National and Choose a Brighter Future’ tied in with an emphasis on separating the party from its past, an emphasis on an optimistic-oriented leader, and looking ahead instead of situating the party in the ideological debates of the past.
National succeeded in defining itself as ‘the party of change’ in the campaign. Its use of change rhetoric was in tune with the electoral feeling of restlessness towards the incumbent government. In general, National attempted to run a relatively policy-free campaign. Rather than stating what the party would actually do in power, National spent the campaign distancing the party from its past by clarifying all the things that it would not do if elected. National pledged not to reverse the nuclear-free policy, privatise state assets, alter health spending, or significantly alter employment law. National’s adoption of a whole range of Labour’s policies included embracing Kiwibank, Working for Families (which John Key once described as ‘communism by stealth’), the Superannuation Fund, the 66 per cent universal superannuation policy, and income-related state housing rents. Therefore, in most significant – and previously controversial – areas National had fallen into line with Labour. National had deliberately closed the ideological gap between the two parties, producing a large common ground of policy. It was obvious that National was anxious to avoid being painted by Labour as a neoliberal party of the right. Key even labeled himself in one television appearance as ‘a money man with a heart’.
Even National’s main point of difference at the previous 2005 election – tax cuts – was relatively invisible in National’s strategy. Although during the campaign National launched a scaled-down $16 billion package of personal tax cuts, this was not significantly different to the $10.6 billion package that Labour had actually implemented five weeks out from election day. Tax was thus a relatively neutralized policy issue, in stark contrast to the previous election when National promised larger tax cuts and Labour was opposed to any at all.
The one area that National successfully differentiated itself – more by rhetoric than substance – was on the very amorphous issue of ‘nanny-state bossiness’. Here, National cultivated the perception that the incumbent Labour Government had been overly interventionist in individuals’ lives. National carefully distanced itself from socially-liberal and environmental policies such as the anti-smacking legislation, civil unions, prostitution reform, bans on smoking, and most famously during the campaign – the apparent directive from the Department of Building and Housing to impose regulations on showerhead water flow capacity of some newly built houses. Of course in some of these areas the difference was more an illusion than real, with National actually agreeing with some of the rule changes, or a significant number of National MPs committing their conscience votes in favour of them.
Under National’s deputy leader Bill English, policy formation had been severely softened. In fact, this approach was summed up well when a secret recording of English was broadcast during the campaign in which he said ‘nothing beats winning in politics, despite all our highly principled statements ... Do what we need to: win’. This unguarded admission of pragmatism accurately summed up National’s strategy.
Perhaps for the first time, National showed an aptness towards working the MMP electoral system. The party realized that in order to be electable it needed to display the ideological centrism that might attract a broad constituency of support nearing the 50 per cent mark, whereas for most of the party’s history its vote fell between 35 and 45 per cent. While this had often been enough to win elections under the old First-Past-the-Post electoral system it is not usually enough under proportional representation. A wider catchment was thus required, and National deliberately aimed to carve support out of Labour’s heartland territory. On the campaign trail this manifested itself in Key visiting lower socio-economic areas, factories, decile one schools, and most incongruously, the South Auckland Otara market.
National also showed an aptness for the first time with the strategic coalition building required under MMP. Not only had Key quietly built up good relationships with most of the minor parties, he then managed to make the election about who the parties could work with – and on this question he was able to appear very credible.
Key's handling of the Maori Party was central to his strategy – he made it clear that even if National could form a government without the Maori Party, he would still be keen to discuss a deal with co-leaders Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia. Key also made it clear during the campaign that National's policy to abolish the Maori seats was up for reconsideration – again indicating National’s ideological flexibility.
In dealing with his right flank, Key was also strategically artful, with National being able to shore up the support of the Act Party for a post-election administration, while also distancing itself from Act’s more radical right-wing politics by stating categorically that Act’s Roger Douglas – who had intiated New Zealand’s neoliberal reforms in the 1980s – would not be an option for Cabinet.
The most significant coalition management maneuvere during the campaign was Key’s dismissal of scandal-dogged New Zealand First as a possibility for any government led by National. This strategy was advantageous to National for a number of reasons. Most importantly, it helped drive down the vote for a party that Key calculated was unlikely to help National form a coalition. Not only did it drain New Zealand First of its raison d’être of being a centrist kingmaker, it sent a message to potential New Zealand First voters – who mostly tended towards National rather than Labour – that a vote for it was essentially a vote for a Labour-led government.
The Labour Party proved less apt at coalition building in the run up to the election, mishandled its coalition possibilities. The biggest difficulty was determining an orientation to New Zealand First, which was damaged by ongoing political finance scandals throughout the year. Labour had to carefully decide how to deal with its governing partner in a way that would maximize Labour’s chances of being re-elected to government. Prime Minister Helen Clark therefore had to decide how severely to punish Winston Peters for his alleged misdemeanours and how much to distance her party from his. She also had to decide whether to implicitly endorse or discredit New Zealand First as a legitimate vote in the election. In this whole affair Labour took a middling position, essentially prevaricating in a way that produced the worst possible outcomes as well as making Labour look opportunistic.
The party’s other flawed political strategy was its decision to campaign on the theme of trust, together with a general negativity. The trust theme was multi-faceted; it related to issues of experience, competence and credibility – all issues on which Labour felt it had the upper hand over National. Being a party that had been in government for three terms meant that Labour could cash in on incumbency to argue in favour of its political management experience over the past nine years. This was particularly suited for the economic climate that descended upon the campaign.
However, in using the trust theme to question the political honesty of the National Party, Labour tried to sell two contradictory messages. On the one hand Labour tried to portray their opposition as being pragmatic, populist and middling – in various Labour advertisements and speeches John Key was derided as confused and a klutz. Yet on the other hand National was portrayed as being potential extremists with a secret agenda. These messages were intrinsically contradictory and potentially cancelled each other out.
Another problem for Labour was its lack of policy differentiation from National. After nine years the government could still not stake out a significant policy area that separated it from National. And in Labour’s traditionally strong policy areas like health, National had been able to create an impression of failure despite billions of dollars of new spending.
Possibly the most distinctive political characteristic that was associated with Labour in the election was the perception that it represented a ‘nanny-state bossiness’ whereby the Government was excessively intrusive in ‘politically correct’ areas. This albatross around Labour’s neck was relatively amorphous, but related to an increasing public weariness of regulation aimed at health, safety, environmental or moral issues. Labour was essentially typecast as being ultra-liberal, too attentive of minority groups, and determine to impose such regulation without regard to public opinion. The particular area that most hurt Labour in this regard, was their promotion of the so-called anti-smacking legislation which aimed to prevent violence against children but was perceived by many as being over-the-top social engineering.
Despite Labour’s seemingly significant defeat in the election – its vote dropped from 41 to 34 per cent, while National’s rose from 39 to 45 per cent – in the lead up to the election it still appeared possible that a fourth term could be achieved if Labour could maintain its core support and strike a deal with various minor parties. This was especially the case because of the uncertainty about whether the Labour-aligned New Zealand First would be returned to Parliament, because the Labour-aligned Green Party was polling very well, and because the Maori Party was viewed by most to favour a coalition with Labour. But because New Zealand First fell just short of the five percent threshold for re-election (receiving 4.1 per cent), the Greens’ polled lower than expected, and Labour also received a proportion of the vote at the lower end of forecasts, the incumbent’s hopes were dashed.
Minor parties fared relatively poorly. Although proportional representation electoral systems are supposed to encourage voting for minor parties, in 2008, only 21 per cent of party votes were cast for minor parties, leading to a mere 21 minor party MPs being elected. In contrast, in New Zealand’s first MMP election of 1996, minor parties took 38 per cent of party votes, leading to 39 minor party MPs being elected. Vote-splitting – whereby a voter uses their party vote and their electorate vote for different parties – also remained low by New Zealand standards, at 29.6 per cent, compared to, for example, 37 per cent in 1996.
The Green Party was returned to Parliament with nine MPs (and 6.7 per cent of the vote), which although an increase on its 2005 result, was a disappointment for many, as the electoral terrain was said to favour the party in 2008 (a Labour Party in decline, and environmental issues in the ascendancy). The party had run an expensive and highly professionalised campaign, in strong contrast to its previous more amateur approach. The party also made an effort to sell itself on the basis of celebrity endorsements, by including cultural and sports stars on its billboards, using an actor to launch its 2008 election campaign, and even having an actor running for Parliament. New Zealand has not had a tradition of celebrity involvement in parliamentary politics, but this is changing (and Labour and National also made use of celebrities). The intention of the endorsements was to make the Greens appear more mainstream. It also speaks to the ideological uncertainty that the Greens were in. The party was in the process of shifting away from the margins or the perception that it is too flaky, radical or extreme. It also reflected that the party was losing its political monopoly on environmental issues like climate change and no longer had any defining identity issue in the campaign. Although it became the third largest party in Parliament, it was criticised for being ineffectual because it hitched its wagon to Labour in the campaign, suggesting it would continue to be a ‘captive party’ on Labour’s left flank.
Of all the minor parties, the Act Party was the most ideally placed to gain from the centrist transformation of the National Party under John Key. National’s shift into the centre of the political spectrum meant that – unlike when Don Brash led National in 2005 – Act had a large potential market of voters on the right to win. Act did make use of that gap in the market, but was ambivalent and ambiguous about it orientation towards the popular centrist National Party, choosing sometimes to hug its rival and sometimes to bite it. Leader Rodney Hide pushed a catchy slogan: ‘Don't vote for a change of government; vote for a government of change’ alluding to the National Party’s moderation and disinclination to affect real change.
Act essentially ran two separate election campaigns: one for leader Rodney Hide in the electorate of Epsom, and one for Act nationally. These parallel campaigns reflected the historic schism in the party between the populist and pragmatic high-visibility Hide, and the more ideologically-pure neoliberal party vote campaign represented by the Roger Douglas faction. Indeed Douglas was brought back into the party not only to revitatise its image and support, but as a policy-focused counterpoint to Hide’s more populist approach. This worked, and Act improved its support significantly from 1.5 percent in 2005 to 3.7 percent in 2008, as well as winning Epsom (which ensured that Act remained in Parliament).
The Maori Party sought to project itself as the independent kingmaker of the election, hoping to take up the same strategic position that New Zealand First had held as an important player in past coalition negotiations, able to leverage disproportionate policy gains from the major parties. In order to gain this position, the Maori Party had to carefully construct an image of political neutrality between Labour and National – this relatively young party (formed in 2004) had previously been categorised as left-wing and more compatible with the Labour Party. Despite its ideological ambiguity, it became more apparent during the campaign that the Maori Party was actually a centrist party with leftish and rightish factions. Certainly the party's advocacy of work-for-the-dole – together with its immigration and law and order campaigns dismissed notions of the party as a left-wing force.
Thus the party had a strong brand – not just in a visual sense of its red, black and white koru logo, but in terms of tino rangatiratanga (self-determination), and the general language of emancipation. Essentially the party was seeking to cement itself as the Maori voice in Parliament – and this meant fulfilling the task of winning all seven Maori seats, and although it failed in this goal, it did win an additional fifth Maori seat (Te Tai Tonga) from Labour.
Although the New Zealand First party obtained the fourth highest party vote (4.1 per cent) – greater than both the Act Party and Maori Party – because of the exclusionary five per cent MMP threshold and the failure to win an electorate, New Zealand First’s 15 years in Parliament came to an end. The party therefore only just missed out, managing to significantly elevate its public support up from within the ‘margin of error’ of the opinion polls, and the party’s relatively strong performance belied the projections of most political commentators.
The election constituted the end of an era for many politicians. Seven Labour Party ministers and ex-ministers retired in 2008: Steve Maharey, Mark Gosche, David Benson-Pope, Marian Hobbs, Dover Samuels, Paul Swain, and Margaret Wilson (who was also Speaker of the House, 2005-2008). Also, in the election, one minister, Damien O'Connor lost his West Coast-Tasman seat, and one ex-minister, Judith Tizard lost Auckland Central to National (who had never held it before). Minister Steve Chadwick also lost her Rotorua seat by 4,855 votes, but was returned to Parliament via Labour’s party list. Another relatively high profile Labour MP, Tim Barnett, also retired from Parliament at the election. In addition, four National Party list MPs stood down at the election, including the surprising resignation of high-profile list MP Katherine Rich, who had been widely picked for a senior ministerial post in a future National government.
Adding to a feeling of a generational shift in politics, on election night, Labour leader Helen Clark dramatically announced her intention to step down almost immediately from her leadership position, and a few months later she resigned from Parliament in early 2009 to take up the position of head of the United Nations Development Programme. Clark had been leader of the Labour Party for 15 years, and prime minister for nine. Her deputy and finance minister Michael Cullen also stepped down immediately from his positions, and also later resigned from Parliament in 2009.
Only one week after the election, John Key announced the details of the governing coalition he had forged. National had won 58 seats in the 122 MP Parliament, and was thus four short of a single-party majority. He chose to negotiate confidence-and-supply agreements not only with the Act Party (to the right of National) and with the United Future party (which was represented by sole MP Peter Dunne, who had been a minister of the previous Labour-led government, but announced his intention to switch during the campaign), but also with the Maori Party. National’s intentions were to develop a longer-term relationship with this party, despite not requiring their support to govern. Thus co-leaders Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia each secured ministerial portfolios outside of Cabinet as well as a commitment to hold a review the contentious Foreshore and Seabed Act, and a constitutional review of the Maori electorate seats (with a view to retrench the existence of the seats in law). Some commentators saw the new relationship as representing a ‘sea change’ in Maori politics, with the prospect that a long-term association might moderate both parties. The involvement of the Maori Party was also seen as a strategic manoeuvre whereby National could avoid an over-reliance on the Act Party – it meant that the Government had alternative majority options for future legislation in Parliament whereby it could rely on either with the Act Party to its right or the Maori Party to its left.
The Act Party also received two ministerial posts – most notably with Rodney Hide becoming the Minister for Local Government. Important policy concession were also made – in particular, Act won a delay in the implementation of carbon emissions policies and an inquiry into climate change issues.
Significantly, National chose to operate as a minority government, without the formal involvement of its supporting minor parties in Cabinet. This has been a growing practice under MMP – the previous three governing arrangements were also minority governments, and in 2005 Labour initiated a constitutional innovation when it signed support agreements with both the New Zealand First and United Future parties whereby Winston Peters was made Foreign minister and Peter Dunne revenue minister, but neither of them were placed in Cabinet. Likewise, after the 2008 election, National allocated ministerial portfolios to Act, United Future and the Maori Party but left them outside of Cabinet. As Prime Minister John Key explained, ‘It's a safety valve that allows them to criticise the government in areas other than their own portfolio’. Previously, the minor parties that have gone into coalitions or signed up to support agreements with the ruling parties have been subsequently penalised with decreased voter support. In the current government, Key and the National Party have been effectively hugging the minor parties tightly yet also allowing them significant room to foster their own political identities.
The smooth and swift formation of the new government was followed by the new Parliament opening on 8 December, which involved 35 new MPs taking their seats, and Lockwood Smith being elected as the Speaker of the House. National then went to great lengths to ensure that its first 100 days in power were productive. Prime minister John Key quickly brought in legislation under urgency and made changes to KiwiSaver, toughened up bail conditions and sentencing for crimes against children, passed taxcuts scheduled for 1 April 2009, paved the way for new national standards for literacy and numeracy in schools, removed the requirements for oil companies to sell a certain amount of biofuels, and most controversially, National rushed through new legislation allowing smaller employees to sack new employees without legal consequence if done within 90 days of them starting work. Despite this initial urgency, most commentators believed that a ‘change election’ had been produced without any real promise of significant longer-term policy change.
Labour emerged from the election in better shape than many might have expected. Helen Clark’s long-time rival, Phil Goff, was quickly installed as the new leader in a transition that was neither contested nor controversial. Another long-time senior Labour politician, Annette King, took the deputy position. The new leadership promised to reconnect with the electorate.
Edwards, Bryce, 2008. ‘New Zealand’, European Journal of Political Research 47: 1079–1088.
Jack Vowles, 'The 2008 General Election in New Zealand', Forthcoming, Electoral Studies:
Fairfax-owned newspapers: www.stuff.co.nz
New Zealand Herald newspaper: www.nzherald.co.nz
New Zealand Government: www.beehive.govt.nz
New Zealand Parliament: www.parliament.nz
Official election results:
Official enrolement statistics: