Unlike in previous elections when National had offered ‘sharp contrasts’, the party under John Key had ‘moved towards the centre’, which ‘deprived Labour, and Clark, of the arsenal of rhetorical weaponry’ previously wielded so effectively. National actually ‘refrained from playing the role of aggressive challenger’:
With National far ahead in the polls, the two main parties engaged in a degree of role reversal as the campaign season began. National, though out of power, pursued a more conservative electoral strategy, not wanting to put its lead in the polls at risk. Unlike 2005, when it conducted an aggressive, policy-oriented campaign that stressed its differences with the Clark-led government, its 2008 approach de-emphasied policy to the point that editorial writers and commentators complained about the lack of specifics in National’s approach. When National did offer policy, it often involved an endorsement of much of what Labour had already been doing…. National seemed to be offering continuity at least as much as change: a centrist government adhering to “New Zealand values”, less politically correct than Labour but in many respects offering more of the same.
National thus ran a relatively shallow ‘time for a change’ message, and ‘the absence of policy specifics from National meant that a shorthand answer to the question, ‘change towards what?’ was, for some, a simple one: a government not led by Helen Clark’. Although Labour ‘sought to make the election all about Key’, ironically for Labour, it was instead ‘largely about Clark’. And, Labour had ‘excessive’ confidence in Clark:
Even the advancing infirmities of age were denied, as the party inexplicably brought upon itself, and its leader, a degree of ridicule by recycling yet again its conspicuously retouched image of Clark – vibrant and glamorous with teeth restored – provoking mockery and derision.
As with National, Labour’s campaign had little substance, and hence ‘Labour’s prospects – in the absence of bold new policy initiatives – depended to a large degree on persuading electors that Key was equal neither to the demands of the job nor, for that matter, to his Labour opponent’. Yet the attempt to discredit Key by dirt digging ‘proved worse than futile’ and ‘damaged Labour’s campaign, making the party look desperate and unprincipled’. Other negative attacks by Labour are also pointed to in the chapter: ‘Clark’s attempt to bring back the Iraq war issue, by declaring that sixty New Zealanders would have died there had National held office at the time of the United States-led invasion, backfired badly, making her look desperate and, for some, ruthless’.
Levine and Roberts say that ‘Clark’s campaign struggled to find momentum’. Labour’s desperation and lack of a leftwing alternative programme to National was compounded by its top-down social liberalism:
Many New Zealanders had in any case already lost patience with Labour, being irritated with a perceived “political correctness” – or a tendency towards “social engineering” – that had, in their view, led to the legalization of prostitution, the enactment of civil union legislation, and the passage of a so-called “anti-smacking” bill. Proposals for a reduction in the flow of water in New Zealanders’ showers, and for the mandatory use of particular kinds of energy-saving lightbulbs, also emerged 2008.
Unfortunately for Labour, such an imagine was merely reinforced by its ‘complex and confusing’ Electoral Finance Act: ‘The legislation was widely regarded as a considerable overreaction to the 2005 experience, most importantly in infringing on New Zealanders’ rights to free expression and participation in the campaign process’.
Election campaign facts
Levine and Roberts pull together some interesting facts about the 2008 campaign:
- ‘The National party leader was the fifth to lead the party against Clark at a general election’.
- ‘In 2008, for the first time a New Zealand political party – National – was able to secure more than a million votes in a general election’.
- ‘National did not lose a single one of its electorate seats in 2008 and it won a further nine seats from Labour, including those of two cabinet ministers and three ministers outside cabinet’.
- ‘Labour’s loss of ten constituencies meant that… it came out of the election with more list MPs (twenty-two) than electorate MPs (twenty-one), the first time this had happened for either major party’.
- New Zealand First ‘became only the second parliamentary party in the MMP era – the Alliance was the first, in 2002 – to be ousted altogether from parliament’.
- ‘The new parliament – the second in a row to have an “overhang” – included thirty-five new MPs’.
Parliamentary diversity facts
Levine and Roberts produce some interesting ‘diversity’ stats about the new Parliament and government – especially in terms of the overall composition of a new parliament that reflected further moves towards greater diversity amongst the political class:
- ‘The number of MPs of Asian ancestry was now six, including New Zealand’s first-ever Sikh MP (Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi), its first Indo-Fijian MP (Rajen Prasad) and the country’s first Korean MP (Melissa Lee)’; ‘the other Asian MPs are Labour’s Raymond Huo (New Zealand’s second-ever Chinese male MP) and Ashraf Choudhary (who has been in parliament since 2002 and was New Zealand’s first South Asian MP)’
- ‘Pansy Wong became the first Asian MP to be elected in a constituency seat (rather than from the party list) and also with her appointment as Minister of Ethnic Affairs and Minister of Women’s Affairs, New Zealand’s first cabinet minister of Asian descent.’
- ‘The Parliament elected in 2008 also included five Pacific Island MPs’.
- ‘the 2008 result represented a further increase in the number of women MPs (at forty-one, a new high, up from thirty-nine in 2005)’.
- ‘Significantly, the Key-led National parliamentary caucus reflected a diversity primarily associated with Labour and the Greens. Of the forty-one women MPs, seventeen were members of the National caucus (up from twelve in 2005), with six in the cabinet. (Indeed, unusually, there were fewer women in the Labour caucus, at sixteen, than in National’s, reflecting, at the same time, the fifteen-seat disparity between the two parties.); ‘The remaining women MPs were members of the Greens (five of its nine MPs), the Maori party (two of its five MPs
- ‘The more diverse National team also included new Maori MPs, Hekia Parata and Paul Quinn, as well as an MP of Samoan origins, Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga. While four of the five Pacific Islanders elected to parliament in 2008 were Labour MPs, the eighteen Maori MPs included equal numbers of Labour and National members (six apiece), in addition to the five Maori party MPs and one Green MP.’
- ‘The proportion of Maori in parliament (14.8 per cent) almost exactly matches the proportion of Maori in the country as a whole according to the 2006 census (14.6 per cent).’
New Zealand Government and Politics (fifth edition, 2010) is edited by Ass Prof Raymond Miller and published by Oxford University Press. For more information, see the Oxford University Press webpage for the book.
The table of contents is below:
1.1 Why Study Politics? Chris Eichbaum
Part A Political Culture
2.1 Political Culture: Patterns and Issues Fiona Barker
2.2 New Zealand Since the WarJim McAloon
2.3 National Identity in a Global Political Economy Jacqui True and Charlie Gao
2.4 National Identity in a Diverse Society Peter Skilling
2.5 Politics of Biculturalism Katherine Smits
2.6 Ideology, Populism and Pragmatism Pat Moloney
Part B Constitutional Debate
3.1 Towards a Written Constitution? Bruce V. Harris
3.2 The Treaty and the Constitution Janine Hayward
3.3 An Independent Judiciary? Andrew P. Stockley
3.4 Monarchy or Republic? Noel Cox and Raymond Miller
3.5 Reforming Parliament Margaret Wilson
3.6 Role of an MP Grant Gillon and Raymond Miller
3.7 Future of the MMP Electoral System Raymond Miller and Pierce Lane
Part C Executive Debate
4.1 Cabinet Elizabeth McLeay
4.2 Dynamics of Government Formation Jonathan Boston
4.3 Leadership and the Prime Minister Margaret Hayward
4.4 Bureaucrats, Advisers and Consultants Richard Shaw
4.5 Conscience Voting: Who Decides? David Lindsey
4.6 Strengthening Local Government Christine Cheyne
Part D Voters and Elections
5.1 How Voters Decide Jeffrey A. Karp
5.2 Parties, Voters and the Media Janine Hayward and Chris Rudd
5.3 Digital Campaigning Edwin de Ronde
5.4 Debating Election Finance Reform Andrew Geddis
5.5 The General Election of 2008 Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
5.6 The 2008 Election: The Issues Alexander C. Tan
5.7 The 2008 Election: Why National Won Jack Vowles
Part E Media Debate
6.1 Democracy, the Public and the Media Geoff Kemp
6.2 Who Owns the Media? Gavin Ellis
6.3 Political Mediators Joe Atkinson
6.4 New Media and Democracy Luke Goode
6.5 Student Media Matt Mollgaard
Part F Democratic Debate
7.1 Changing Party System Raymond Miller
7.2 Labour Peter Aimer
7.3 National Colin James
7.4 Greens John Wilson
7.5 Māori Party Kaapua Smith
7.6 Minor Parties Bryce Edwards
8.1 Māori Participation Ann Sullivan
8.2 Asian Participation Shee-Jeong Park
8.3 Youth Participation Jennifer Curtin
8.4 Decision-making by Referendum John Parkinson
8.5 Social Movements and Activism Anita Lacey
8.6 Interest Groups Tim Tenbensel
8.7 Participating in Agenda Setting Michael Mintrom and Phillipa Norman