New Zealand First’s electoral death was one of the major outcomes of the 2008 general election, yet we haven’t seen much analysis of why the party failed (although my attempt can be found here). The party itself is rather secretive and normally rather uncooperative with any such investigation by the media or academics. Partly making up for this lacunae is the very useful chapter by Damian Edwards (an ex-Ministerial Advisor to Winston Peters) on the party’s campaign in the new post-election book Key to Victory: The New Zealand General Election of 2008 edited by Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts. We find out that the main causes of NZ First’s loss were the media and the Labour Party. And NZ First’s “save your grandma” campaign wasn’t successful enough to get the party over the 5% threshold. [Read more below]
NZ First’s political finance scandals
The big political issue for NZ First in 2008 was undoubtedly the complicated scandals over political donations to the party that dogged it in the months leading right up to the last week of the election campaign. Although Damian Edwards states early on in the chapter that ‘This chapter is not an attempt to revisit the media campaign in any detail or to pass judgement on how it was handled by Winston Peters and New Zealand First’, he then precedes to do exactly that (p.113). He talks about how ‘Winston Peters and New Zealand First were subject to a campaign by some segments of the media’ (p.115). He doesn’t entirely blame the journalists for this saga, saying that ‘Peters and the media descended into a downward spiral of negative symbiosis. They were both feeding off each other’ (p.114). Yet he believes that ‘several journalists added a bitter and personal edge to their coverage, which often quickly degenerated into a personal jousting of egos’ (p.114). Interestingly, although this battle ‘took a toll on those involved’, Edwards says that this wasn’t the case for Peters, ‘who seemed to thrive on it’ (p.116).
Damian Edwards goes into detail as to why the political finance campaign against NZ First was unjust. Mostly this amounts to the fact that other political parties should have been equally targeted, the media coverage was out of proportion to the seriousness of the allegations, and there appeared to be a desire by the media to sink the party. He then tries to explain away the whole saga with some quite incredible political spin:
It is worth making the point here that both Peters and other party officials acknowledged that mistakes had been made and that matters could have been handled better in some instances. New Zealand First is a party largely run by volunteers and as those bodies who investigated the allegations were to discover, there was no deliberate attempt by party officials to hide anything, obfuscate or provide misinformation. When mistakes were discovered, they were acknowledged and remedies put in place (p.114).
I can imagine that opponents of NZ First such as David Farrar would take strong issue with every single sentiment in that quote. Once the dust has settled and some more time has passed, there will be a need for a sober re-assessment of those scandals of 2008.
After the media, the next most important cause of NZ First’s electoral lost, according to Damian Edwards seems to be the Labour Party. Edwards says that, ‘New Zealand First was clearly aligned with the side from which the political tide was going out. There was a lot of anti-Labour feeling that transferred to the New Zealand First support base’ (p.113). Ironically, Labour would also see its association with NZ First as a major cause of its poor image with voters at the 2008 election. But Edwards claim does make more sense, when he adds in this argument:
The killer blow was John Key ruling out working with New Zealand First. This saw those among the party’s potential supporters who were National-learning – or, more importantly, who wanted to see Labour out – shift from New Zealand First (p.119).
Campaign techniques: ‘Save your grandma’
Damian Edwards’ chapter contains useful insights into how NZ First campaigned in 2008. Of course, ‘The party tried to ensure that its traditional bases were covered and so attended every Grey Power, Rotary, Chamber of Commerce and racing meeting that we could’ (p.116). But the party also tried to widen its appeal to some other societal groups. Edwards says the campaign,
also tried to tap into two new sources of support – younger voters and the Pacific community. The party had observed the effectiveness of Winston Peters celebrity status in drawing large crowds of younger people in the past and now tried to turn this into votes by touring university campases, and appearing on student radio and alternative television, with a “save your grandma” campaign. While we continued to draw large crowds, it is not clear that the party got any dividend from this in the form of votes (pp.117-118).
The author tells us that together with the party’s main campaign theme and slogan of ‘Protect and Save Your New Zealand’, ‘The party had four sub-themes – protect and save senior citizens, communities, New Zealand-owned banks, and jobs and assets’ (p.116).
The party was also surprisingly innovative in digital campaigning:
Peters set up a blog, which he used as much as possible during the campaign to communicate directly with supporters. The party also set up a website – “the truth about Winston” – which contained a range of clips of Winston Peters speaking on topical issues, and also set up personal links to the site for around 100,000 people on the electoral roll. The letters containing the link caused a little controversy among some of our older supporters (and detractors), but the site had received 91,000 hits by election-eve when it was taken down (p.118).
Edwards ends the chapter by saying pronouncing Winston Peters dead in 2008 – and suggesting his death was self-inflicted. But then the final sentence attempts to teasingly raise the issue of a resurrection in 2011.
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
Key to Victory: The New Zealand General Election of 2008
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.