With the 2017 New Zealand general election campaign now under way, our new book on the 2014 election provides both background and contemporary insights into public opinion and voting choices. The 2014 and 2017 elections may end up having a lot in common, but one can already identify some important differences.

A Bark But No Bite: Inequality and the 2014 New Zealand General Election draws on the New Zealand Election Study (NZES), a sample survey of about 2,800 people on the electoral rolls administered just after the 2014 election. The book’s main theme, the politics of inequality, remains alive and well in 2017. But Labour, the party that traditionally ‘owns’ this policy, failed to win the election in 2014. This is the puzzle that shapes A Bark But No Bite.

There was a lot of talk about inequality before the 2014 election, and during the campaign, but it appeared to have no tangible effect on the election outcome. People wanting more attention paid to the needs of beneficiaries continued to favour Labour. But a majority of New Zealanders now tend to have conservative attitudes about welfare that do not dispose them toward strongly favouring an increase in public support for the poorest groups in our society. While New Zealand voters continue to value and support the effective provision of publicly funded health and education services that benefit everyone, general concern about inequality does not always extend toward those most adversely affected.

In 2014, Labour’s promises of more support for beneficiaries gained the party no significant advantage in new votes. By not effectively targeting increasing evidence of shortfalls in health and education expenditure and outcomes, Labour failed to differentiate itself from National where such perceptions might have mattered. Not that National made it easy to do so. By its attention to the concerns of middle-ground voters, the National Government had reduced the potential of policy differences to drive voter choices, even if people seemed to understand that the party’s aspirations were further to the right than its actions in power.

In their vote choices, centre-ground National voters appeared to acknowledge that National’s behaviour in government had been moderate, while at the same time, since 2008, the average voter had been moving towards National.

Over and above all this, perceptions of competence and effective leadership by John Key were National’s strongest suit, crowding out any remaining voter concerns over policy matters.

Labour had an uphill battle in 2014. Its leadership had changed too often, too recently, and party leader David Cunliffe lacked sincere and committed support from his colleagues. Evidence of his flaws and lack of judgement accumulated during the year prior to the election. Failure to coordinate with the Green Party in order to present voters with the prospect of a coherent alternative government was a fatal error. There was too much doubt about Labour’s ability to govern effectively.

John Key delivers his victory speech to National Party supporters after the 2014 election. Photo: Getty Images

Even the best and most attractive policies could not compensate for that shortfall. But Labour’s policies were too many. For the most part, they were well-costed, sound economically, and designed to be inoffensive to the business community, and in various ways they would have chipped away at inequality. But they lacked a coherent narrative and presentation. A promise to introduce a capital gains tax may have marginally gained votes, but not many. Its disadvantage was its lack of appeal to small property investors. The proposal to increase the age for receipt of New Zealand Superannuation did not gain votes, as recognised by Andrew Little and dropped from the party’s policies after he took over as leader.

Labour got no help from various distractions during the campaign. National was worried briefly by Nicky Hager’s publication of Dirty Politics and went so far as to temporarily sacrifice Minister Judith Collins on a matter unrelated to Hager’s claims. In the end, along with other marginal factors, we provide evidence that Hager’s intervention may have prevented National from winning a single-party majority. While Hager’s book had no net effect on whether people liked or disliked Key, perceptions of whether or not the claims had merit did move people both away and toward him, and perceptions of ‘some truth’ in the claims made in Dirty Politics made people who continued to like Key, a little less likely to vote for his party.

Another distraction came from what Australian political commentators have labelled ‘vanity parties’: those funded principally by one person and shaped very much by that person’s politics. The Conservative Party, funded by Colin Craig, got publicity in a combination of big spending and accumulating evidence of its leader’s weirdness. The Internet Party, funded by Kim Dotcom, took far more than its share of attention and contributed further to perceptions of a disorganised and incoherent left bloc, even though Labour and the Green Party did their best to keep their distance.

Hopes that the ‘missing million’ people who failed to turn out to vote in 2011 would vote in 2014 and give an advantage to the left were unfulfilled. Estimating how non-voters might have voted in 2014, NZES analysis found no advantage to Labour or the Greens on an assumption of full turnout. National would not have done as well, and there would have been increased support for the Māori and MANA parties and other small parties running below the five percent party vote threshold. Claims that Labour had a stronger ‘on the ground’ campaign than National were not borne out in our data. Indeed, enrolment levels fell in electorates where Labour support was concentrated, suggesting weakness in Labour’s ability to get its people on the rolls.

Increased public expenditure from the National Government’s ’catch-up’ budget, made possible by a surplus, may continue its dominance in public support.

Returning to 2017, what can we learn from these and other findings?

Much has changed since the 2014 election. Bill English is now Prime Minister. His ‘pull’ as leader is not as strong as Key’s, but he has his own appeal: a wry sense of humour and a straightforward style and delivery. In a dramatic turn of events, 37-year-old Jacinda Ardern has become the new face of Labour. Her emerging confidence, optimism and personal appeal, particularly to youth and women, have transformed the campaign. 

Increased public expenditure from the National Government’s ’catch-up’ budget, made possible by a surplus, may continue its dominance in public support. Labour’s challenge is to focus on continuing shortfalls, particularly in health and education. Coordination with the Green Party improves the prospect of an alternative government. While that relationship has been strained by recent events, there is no evidence of it being anywhere close to a breaking point. The Labour-Green agreement to maintain New Zealand’s current relatively low level of government taxation and expenditure compared with the size of the economy constrains generous expenditure promises, and limits the differentiation of the Labour-Green bloc from National. But National’s intentions to reduce net government debt to lower levels more quickly than Labour do give an alternative government more fiscal headroom.

The latest ‘vanity party’ is Gareth Morgan’s The Opportunities Party (TOP). It presents a number of radical proposals that would do much to reduce inequality and would probably enhance the performance of the economy. But most would only be feasible for an autocratic government prepared and able to ‘crash through’ its policies against intense opposition. TOP may yet have some poll traction. Its value is to generate debate about at least some of its policies that could be in the long-term public interest. In the election campaign, it is most likely to deflect attention from the parties that have a feasible prospect of changing the government, particularly if the depth of TOP’s funding allows it to outspend those parties. 

After conceding the 2014 election to National, David Cunliffe arrives at his campaign base to thank Labour Party supporters. Photo: Getty Images

Party funding and campaign expenditures do matter for electoral success. In 2014, National outspent the Labour and Green parties by a large margin and National continues to attract funding that outstrips the resources of Labour and the Greens. Ardern’s assumption of the leadership has boosted Labour’s fund-raising, but for how long and how much remains to be seen. Party expenditure limits and publicly funded broadcasting allocations reduce the advantage, but do not abolish it.

Labour claims improvements in its vote-targeting and ability to get out the voters, but the results remain to be seen. National’s more generous funding almost certainly means it has better research and better data from regular polling and focus groups, allowing it to adjust its strategy on a regular basis. 

Looming over the prospect of change is the New Zealand First Party, likely to hold a king or queenmaker position after the election unless Labour and the Greens together receive a considerable vote boost.

As we say in A Bark But No Bite, 2014 was ‘an unequal election’ for three important reasons: 1) the issue of social and economic inequality was widely discussed during the campaign and voters identified it as an important issue, 2) economic inequalities continued to underpin the social foundations of voting choices between the parties, and 3) the National Party was by far the largest party in votes cast and seats won, and in its campaign outspent its main rivals by a considerable margin.

In those terms, the 2017 election may turn out to be very similar to that of 2014. But there are many new developments, in leadership most of all. Perhaps the 2017 election will be more equal, perhaps even equal enough for a change of government.

A Bark But No Bite: Inequality and the 2014 New Zealand General Election by Jack Vowles, Hilde Coffé and Jennifer Curtin (Australian National University Press) is available as a free digital download or to buy in a print edition. It will be launched by former Prime Minister Helen Clark on Wednesday 23 August at Victoria University of Wellington.

Professor Jack Vowles is in the Political Science and International Relations programme at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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