• Lessons from the Election

    This year’s general election has broken new ground – and not just in terms of its outcome, the seats won and votes cast, and – in an MMP environment – the margin of victory. It also suggests that something quite fundamental has changed in New Zealand politics.

    The outcome is not, after all, to be explained – or at least not totally – in terms of errors made by one party or the achievements of, or blandishments offered by, another. But we are entitled to note, in passing, that the principal plank in National’s platform – the claim to have a “strong team” – was difficult to maintain in light of their recent leadership travails and the evidence throughout the campaign of internal bickering and criticism from within of their current leader.

    Nor did that claim stand up well to comparison in the competence stakes with a Labour front-bench that was headed by Jacinda Ardern and then included Grant Robertson – widely regarded as on top of his job as finance minister, Chris Hipkins who played a blinder in handling his twin portfolios of education and health, heavyweights like David Parker and Andrew Little, and well-performing relative newcomers like Stuart Nash, Kris Faafoi, Megan Woods and Carmel Sepuloni, and others too numerous to mention.

    The real significance of the Labour victory and the National failure, however, lies in what it tells us about how we see ourselves and how we now approach our politics.

    National seems to have been stuck in a time warp. Its campaign strategy was based on the age-old belief that every election is a hip-pocket election, and that a party should naturally look for support to particular groups who define themselves by their own apparent self-interest and their own perceptions of where they stand in the socio-economic landscape.

    So, the National campaign had a peculiarly old-fashioned feel to it. It featured the promise of a short-term income tax break (though that seems to have been recognised for what it was), and constant references to the important role played in our economy by farmers and small businesses – nothing wrong with that, but it revealed a belief that economic self-interest was the deciding, perhaps only, factor in how people were likely to vote.

    Labour, by contrast, had moved on. They understood that elections are no longer decided by “the economy, stupid”, but by how people feel about themselves and how they see wider ethical, environmental and social issues – people who did not see themselves as necessarily pre-programmed by self-interest in economic terms to vote one way rather than another.

    They looked for leadership – that is, leadership that leads, and doesn’t merely calculate how best to buy support from the greatest number at the least cost. They saw themselves not just as individuals, but as members of a society that worked well together and in which they could feel pride.

    They wanted to be able to congratulate themselves on their achievements. They wanted to feel an affinity with leaders they liked, trusted and admired. They looked beyond our shores and saw examples and instances of leadership in other countries that they rejected and compared unfavourably with our own.

    It is of course possible to describe and define these changes as signalling a shift to “the left” by the electorate – and I don’t dissent if it is put in that way. What is clear is that if National want to do better in 2023, they will have to adjust to the change, however it is described. It is not so much their policies as the kind of people they are.

    But I prefer to think that what has happened is both a move into a better future – a recognition that what matters is how we treat and relate to each other and to our planet – and that at the same time it is a return to our roots, to the values and principles on which Aotearoa/New Zealand was built.

    Long may it last!

    Bryan Gould
    21 October 2020