Change for change sake? Is that it?

Friends who deal daily with myriad “ordinary voters” assure me that there is not the anger with the Government that there was in 1990. How then to explain the persistent gap between Labour and National, which appears to be widening if anything?

TV3 News thought to find out with some vox pops. One woman summed up the views of many, “I think we’re really fickle, the LCD is old and we want the new Sony Bravia…” Concluded 3News, “People appear to want change, but many are not sure why or to what.”

There is undoubtedly widespread ‘Helen-fatigue’. Even the most charismatic leader would find maintaining her popularity after 9 years in charge a hard ask, and charisma is not a quality normally associated with Clark. Helen-fatigue first popped up in my experience a couple of years ago when a colleague, whose opinion I respect, admitted that he might vote National simply because he had grown “tired” of Clark and wanted a change. But there’s more to it than that.

First though, recall that Labour had a fairly easy run in 1999 and 2002 — opponents to die for, you might say — but nearly lost in 2005. With 2% more of the vote at 41.1%, Labour may have been saved by some sharp-witted former Exclusive Brethren. NZ voters have consistently shown that they can cut the MMP cheese very finely to get the result that they want. Labour has been the preferred option to form a government, but has never been trusted enough to govern alone.

My view has long been that hubris would be Clark’s undoing. In the past she has opined that people with leaky homes ought to have bought villas like herself, or stated that she didn’t need to talk to the police about her forged painting, and so on. However, New Zealanders are prepared to forgive a great deal in return for perceived competence and confidence about being in charge. Witness Muldoon’s extraordinary career.

Chris Trotter identified the tipping point, in my view, in a February SST column “Helen of destroy loses faithful.” He recalls the 2005 election victory:

“Labour had been returned to office on the strength of its socially conservative working-class base. State-house tenants most of them parents had turned out in their thousands to stave off a National win. It was their votes that had purchased Clark’s ticket to a third Victory Ball. And where they came from, you danced with the person you came with.”

And the turning point:

“But then Sue Bradford sashayed on to the floor with her anti-smacking bill.

“To Clark, the case against smacking was morally self-evident. But to Labour’s conservative working-class supporters it represented the lofty condescension of a childless politician who clearly believed she knew more about raising kids than they did. Clark knew her working-class base didn’t want her to pass the bill and they knew she knew. But she passed it anyway.”

Last year some argued that the Electoral Finance Bill would not affect voter behaviour. The voters weren’t interested in the esoteric arguments about campaign financing, went the thinking. That may well be right. But the symbolic import of ramming more unpopular legislation through Parliament should not be underestimated.

Arguably, this Government has been the best in my life-time. It has delivered on its promises, and it has been prudent and fair in its economic stewardship. It has even done something to secure a comfortable retirement for large numbers of NZers. It has not been afraid to do these things, even when they are unpopular or misunderstood.

It doesn’t deserve to lose, even if it has brought some of its fate on itself.


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15 Responses to “Change for change sake? Is that it?”

  1. MacDoctor Says:

    Arguably, this Government has been the best in my life-time

    VERY arguably! The inertia of the current administration is excruciating to watch. Their third term has only been marginally better than Jenny Shipley’s disastrous term and that is only because National did not understand MMP at all and couldn’t work with other parties. Initially Labour appeared to have some momentum which they then frittered away in increasing bureaucracy during their second term.

    I agree with Chris Trotter’s analysis, as far as it goes. I think he overlooks the unlovely image of Michael Cullen sitting on a huge surplus and refusing even to adjust tax thresholds for inflation. With tax as a defining issue in this election (doubly so now that the economy is tanking), his parsimoniousness is viewed as a negative rather than a positive.

    However, the real reason for most of Labour’s current poor polling is just the natural political cycle. Voters tend to be centrist and socially conservative (ie they don’t like too much change). Governments, however, tend to start centrist and slowly slide to the left or the right during their tenure. The longer they are in power, the more pronounced the slide. It is no accident that the anti-smacking bill and the re-nationalization of railways happened during this term.

    This is why, if a government wants to stay in power, it needs to avoid listening to the more extreme party. In Labour’s case, this would be the greens. Hence John Key’s careful stomp on the idea of Sir Roger in cabinet. That would be a recipe for a short stay in power, should he win in November.

    Therese Arseneau’s graph, beautifully illustrates what I am saying. National has been gaining votes steadily over the past 6 years and Labour has been losing them. As Labour slides to the left, National moves into the centrist vacuum, where the majority of votes are. I’m certain a graph of polls from 1993 to 1999 would look very similar, but with roles reversed.

  2. Kiwiblog » Blog Archive » Blog Bits Says:

    […] JafaPete asks whether people are just voting for change for change’s sake. He agrees with Chris Trotter that the anti-smacking bill may have been a turning point. He also says the EFA may have had an impact on the Government’s unpopularity. […]

  3. bobrien Says:

    You write very well for a 9 year old.

    [Bobrien, Yes, not many other 9 years olds have just published a book with a top US academic press, I’m sure. How did you know I was 9?]

  4. George Darroch Says:

    Labour has not slid to the left. They moved to the centre while in coalition with the Alliance, and have stayed there ever since. You’re wrong about Governments moving to the left and right – in democracies with strong media they tend to move to the centre (as defined in that country), as predicted by game theory. Major parties try to appeal to the greatest number of voters while still maintaining their ideological framework, unless there is a strong centre party occupying that space. MMP has hastened that trend in NZ, by allowing parties to form on the left and right.

    In my not so humble opinion, Labour should have listened to the Greens, who for years were arguing for a tax free threshold. It would have delivered to their supporters, while smothering the arguments of the right.

  5. mickysavage Says:

    Good column and well weighted argument.

    Macdoctor’s Trotter comment is very wrong. Labour won last time because of the ability of the organisation to get out the vote in South and West Auckland and this was fuelled by Don Brash’s comments about “mainstream New Zealand” which excluded pretty well everyone except for middle class white males. Society has moved on from “working class” and “boss class”. The current political divide is between “community” and those who want to maximise their personal wealth and not contribute to their community. “Community” includes ethnic groups and these are solidly behind Labour.

    This election campaign should be very interesting. The desire for change is very shallow and will easily be changed. And the question that will be asked continuously is “change to what?” The longer that Key takes to say what he will do the louder the question will be.

  6. inventory2 Says:

    JP – I agree with you that the anti-smacking legislation was a significant turning point. People I have spoken with really resented the intrusion of the government into what they felt was THEIR business. Secondly, I believe the government seriously underestimated the opposition to the EFA. My own entry into the world of blogging was in response to this legislation. The government and its support parties showed considerable arrogance towards submitters during the Select Committee process, and the final draft of the legislation was still multi-flawed. It is a delightful irony that Labour seems to have fared the worst to date in comlying with their own law!

    I don’t know that I would describe this as the best government in my lifetime. However much of the good that the Labour-led government achieved in its first two terms has been eroded by a series of train wrecks in what is highly likely to be its final term.

    [Yep, Inventory, there seems to be a consensus emerging that the first two terms were better by far, regardless of how one feels about the programme followed. And that is indeed what I was thinking of when I made that comment.]

  7. antireptilian Says:


    It seems that you have come across the political pigsty. The pigsty serves as a bulwark to confuse, frustrate, and break the strength of any logical thought and resistance, while a hidden agenda marches forth.

    The pendulem swings from party to party, after all, all “democracies” (laughs at the prospect) in the world are two party states. The main direction though does not change. It swerves a little here and there due to resistance, but these annoyances are negotiated and the march forward continues.

    To where do they march. A one world government as dictated by the financial elites. The citizen, when the prospect of another term under the current party seems too much to bear, is promised change. This change inevitably leads to an increase in control, tax and regulation. Slowly the serf is marginalised until apathy reigns.

    Sound familiar?

  8. Scott Says:

    Thanks for the post. Always interesting to hear from people who basically agree with the thrust of Labour’s policies.

    I think it has been the worst government in the history of New Zealand.

    It has been at war with traditional Christian values and the family. It has done more than anything else to destroy the social consensus and undermine our values. The anti-smacking bill was really the last straw. Prior to that was the legalisation of prostitution, followed by the normalisation of all things homosexual. Social engineering at its worst.

    I can only hope that the electorate wakes up in November and sends this lot packing.

  9. MacDoctor Says:

    George Darroch said: Labour has not slid to the left.
    All evidence to the contrary including a burgeoning bureaucracy, extensive social legislation, nationalisation of airways and rail and strong reluctance to reduce taxation.
    If a government wanted to be re-elected, it should indeed seek the median voter of game theory fame, as you indicated. However, the sad reality is that governments tend rapidly towards autocracy and ideology, moving away from the centrist position and eventually losing power.
    I agree with you, however, about the greens policy of removing the lowest tax threshold. It is about the only policy of the greens that I am in 100% agreement.

  10. MacDoctor Says:

    Mickey Savage said Macdoctor’s Trotter comment is very wrong.
    Somewhat weird thing to say as I was actually agreeing with Chris Trotter’s assessment (which is a first for me). However, I still think Cullen’s attitude has much to do with Labour’s fall in the polls as it demonstrates the autocratic attitude and ideologically-driven thinking of the current government.

  11. jafapete Says:

    Yes, MacDoctor, I think that we all agree with Trotter’s view that those South Auckland votes helped secure Labour a third term. I don’t think that Trotter would disagree that Labour’s organisation in South Auckland helped get those voters to the polling booths, and that Brash’s racially based politics helped in that regard too.

    I agree with you about Cullen adding to the perception of Labour as arrogant. Cancelling the small tax cut and tax-indexing was another example of an act which added to that perception. Cullen’s good when he’s in his thoughtful mode, as he apparently was at Drinking Liberally in Wellington last week, but sometimes he loses it.

  12. Finance sector burns while we debate smacking « Jafapete’s Weblog Says:

    […] initial response simply reinforces the perceptions of arrogance that I believe are at the root of her government’s current unpopularity. As does ignoring the message in current opinion polls. The best strategy for Labour at the present […]

  13. The wisdom of taxi drivers « Jafapete’s Weblog Says:

    […] This is pretty much what I argued here a couple of weeks ago. […]

  14. Not so Savant « Jafapete’s Weblog Says:

    […] appears that [Carter’s] the only person in the country who isn’t aware…”), political blunders (”the symbolic import of ramming more unpopular legislation through Parliament should not be […]

  15. Morning after analysis « Jafapete’s Weblog Says:

    […] anything, the electorate succumbed to Helen-fatigue, or was repulsed by the arrogance with which initiatives such as the anti-smaking and electoral finance bills were imposed rather […]

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