Although the 2008 New Zealand general election led to a change of government, it wasn’t exactly a big-change election. Rather than heralding a complete change of policy direction, the election mostly offered more of the same. These points are well made in a chapter entitled ‘Leadership during transition’ by Jon Johansson in the new post-election book Key to Victory: The New Zealand General Election of 2008 (edited by Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts). Johansson also looks at the question of ‘What drives political change in New Zealand?’ and whether there has been any sort of generational shift in political leadership. [Read more below]
Policy inheritance and continuity
Johansson dismisses ideas that either Helen Clark or John Key have been terribly radical or that their primeministerialships have represented any great break with the past. He says that recent governments have been part of a ‘cycle of politics’ that has been with us for 24 years:
New Zealand has experienced since 1984 a prolonged and overarching period of consolidation. Clark’s government has had its significant achievements, to be sure – in both economic and social policy realms – but it did not fundamentally herald in any new paradigm shift, try as it might, nor did it reject the significant planks of its own post-Rogernomics policy inheritance (p.56).
Johansson uses the concept of ‘policy inheritance’ – ‘On day one a new administration inherits 100 per cent of its predecessor’s policies and statutes ‘ – to soberly explain how changes of government don’t immediate herald significant public policy change:
This underlying policy continuity is often overlooked in the emotion and immediate aftermath of “change” elections, not least because the illusion of change, and the psychological relief it triggers, is far more seductive than the less than romantic reality. Thus, given National’s fidelity to all the significant neo-liberal tenets, as well as its fulsome, it not total embrace of Labour’s signature policy achievements such as the Superannuation Fund, Kiwisaver, Working for Families, and no asset sales, the idea that Key is leading a vital paradigm shift has to be tempered by the realisation that his policy inheritance limits both the magnitude and speed of promised change (p.59).
Such an era of continuity rather than radical change is problematic for modern politicians: ‘Leaders in such circumstances must search for hybrid alternatives to the orthodoxies they inherit. The constraint they face is how to maintain their own identity and integrity, and be seen to be operating from principle rather than expediency’ (p.60). Johansson gives one example of such a situational alternative that National has the chance to exploit to suggest something new:
One such opportunity that John Key and National have already seized upon is their “mana-enhancing” reltionship with the Maori Party. As well as facilitating a new cleavage on previous Labour electoral turf, National has given itself greater strategic flexibility for Key to probe National’s centrist possibilities (p.60).
Twenty-first century political leadership in technologically complex societies such as New Zealand is likely to be less ideological and more solution-focused… Previously sacrosanct orthodoxies have been discredited as a result of the global financial crisis, with Western leaders thus far responding in a pragmatic rather than ideological fashion. This dynamic should suit Key well. As someone skilled in risk assessment and in rational decision-making, while also appealing as a leader with the necessary flexibility to govern from the centre, Key seems well equipped to identify and exploit his opportunities to move New Zealand’s politics forward (p.61).
What drives political change in New Zealand?
Johansson tries to answer the question of ‘What drives political change in New Zealand?’ but says its complicated due to New Zealand’s lack of ‘any underlying foundation stones like an enduring coherent or guiding political philosophy’ (pp.55-56). Possibly the best way to understand political change in New Zealand is to view historic transformations and incremental changes by looking through a lens of ‘freedom and equality’ whereby these variations are in dynamic tension:
The best indigenous analysis along these lines is found in Leslie Lipson’s 1948 treatment The Politics of Equality. Lipson saw the tension between freedom and equality as our political yin and yang. The four big-change moments in New Zealand’s domestic politics – Vogel’s economic expansionism and political centralisation, the emergence of the active and fair state under Ballance and Seddon, the state reigning supreme under Savage and Fraser, and then freedom reforged under Lange and Douglas – can all be adequately, if not fully, explained in terms of Lipson’s tension (p.56).
Apparently ‘New Zealand is entering a new phase of politics’ (p.62), and one that might involve ‘big-change’. But the days of economic transformation are over and instead we’re more likely to see changes relating to how we are governed and do politics:
Unlike previous big-change periods, the next one will be more democratic than economic in nature, although it will necessarily encompass both. The future of the Maori seats, electoral finance law, and the looming battle over the future of the electoral system, as well as major constitutional debate and reform in the form of republicanism and a written constitution, all suggest that fundamental democratic renewal lies ahead (pp.60-61).
It’d be interesting to see if Johansson is correct.
Further book details:
Table of contents
Preface - Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
Overview of the Election
2008: Key to victory - Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
2008: The last baby-boomer election - Colin James
2008: Leadership during transition - Jon Johansson
Political Party Perspectives
National - Steven Joyce
Labour - Grant Robertson
The Greens - Catherine Delahunty
ACT - John Boscawen
The Maori Party - Rahui Katene
The Progressives - John Pagani
United Future - Rob Eaddy
New Zealand First - Damian Edwards
New Zealand’s party system: a multi-party mirage? - Jennifer Curtin and Raymond Miller
2008: Images of political leadership in the campaign - Claire Robinson
2008: Media coverage of the election - Babak Bahador
2008: The international media and the election - Aljoscha Kertesz
2008: The campaign in cyberspace - Nicola Kean
2008: The YouTube campaign - Rob Salmond
2008: Voting behaviour and the keys to victory - Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
2008: The impact of the Electoral Finance Act - Bryce Edwards
2008: Opinion polls and prediction markets in New Zealand - Shaun McGirr and Rob Salmond
2008: National’s winning strategy - Therese Arseneau
Levine, Stephen (ed)
Roberts, Nigel (ed)
Victory is the
story of the New Zealand general election of 2008, in which the experienced and
long-serving prime minister, Helen Clark, was ousted by a political newcomer –
National’s John Key.
Veteran academic commentators Colin James, Jon Johansson, and Therese Arseneau offer perspectives on what New Zealanders were voting for when endorsing John Key and National, and what they were voting against. Several MPs elected for the first time in 2008 provide first-hand accounts of their parties’ campaigns, including Labour’s Grant Robertson; the Greens’ Catherine Delahunty; the Maori Party’s Rahui Katene; ACT’s John Boscawen; and the director of National’s winning campaign, Steven Joyce, appointed to Cabinet following National’s victory. New Zealand First’s doomed campaign is described by its campaign director, Damian Edwards, while party strategists John Pagani and Rob Eaddy provide accounts of the Progressive and United Future campaigns.
Key to Victory also investigates the important issues of the 2008 election, such as the impact of the Electoral Finance Act, and the likely future of New Zealand’s remaining small parties.
During the 2008 campaign political parties started getting to grips with websites, blogs, Facebook and YouTube, and ‘prediction markets’ competed with traditional polls in forecasting the election results. The book describes these developments and provides insights into the use of the media by John Key and Helen Clark in their rival campaigns for leadership. International reaction to the New Zealand campaign and the country’s vote for change is also highlighted.
Key to Victory includes a special DVD with excerpts from key campaign events including the televised leaders’ debates, the leaders’ opening night campaign addresses, parties’ TV ads and campaign billboards.