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Stardust and Substance: the 2017 election through politicians’ eyes

New Zealand’s 2017 general election was the most fascinating in living memory and Victoria University of Wellington’s just-published post-election book, Stardust and Substance, is a vital source for understanding what happened, and how the current government came about. Dr Bryce Edwards of Victoria University examines the book in a series of essays, starting today with the chapters written by the party leaders.

Accounts of political events by politicians themselves can be worse than useless and should be read with great caution. Politicians are simply too close to what happened to really give any insights into events. They’re also often just too practiced in their own spin to be able to reveal any truly interesting or new information. Too often, politician accounts of election campaigns are simply their attempts to assert their own version of history for the record.

Nonetheless, the accounts of the 2017 election by the political party leaders in Stardust and Substance are all well worth reading. Some are more self-serving than others, and they vary greatly in how much they reveal that is new or useful. But all seven chapters from the party leaders help the reader understand what went on in 2017 to make it such an extraordinary election.

Jacinda Ardern with partner Clarke Gayford on election night. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Jacinda Ardern’s humble account of victory

Naturally, the first substantive chapter in Stardust and Substance after the introduction is provided by the victorious new Prime Minister. It’s a relatively humble account explaining her rise to power, giving credit to others such as former leader Andrew Little, and the work of party volunteers and officials. Even when it comes to the main theme of the book, and of the whole campaign – “Jacindamania” – she modestly rejects that term, claiming that she was merely channelling a bigger mood for change amongst the public.

Much emphasis is given by Ardern to the “energy” of the campaign – a word that comes up repeatedly in her account. So, despite the focus during the campaign on her leadership, Ardern stresses Labour’s grassroots campaign as being central to their success. She provides some details: “More than 6,500 registered volunteers, and untold more of their friends, made over 475,000 phone calls and door knocks with our target voters. And even though these numbers were higher than we’d ever achieved before”.

She also gives a sense of the hard work and exhaustion of a busy year for her, saying “I have to admit that large chunks of that period remain a bit of a blur and part of what I would call PET – post-election trauma. There is no doubt, though, that 2017 will remain the most extraordinary year of my life.” And Ardern concludes, noting that “the 2017 election campaign made a whirlwind seem like a gentle breeze.”

The whole campaign is praised by Ardern as having become a “good genuine contest of ideas”, with plenty of meaningful policy focus. Her party’s slogan of “Let’s do this” might be criticised as lacking meaning but a highlight of the chapter is Ardern’s explanation of how the slogan came about – which was almost by accident.

Ardern says that although at first she thought it was insufficient as it lacked “lofty aspirations”, she came to see it as being imbued with meaning: “Those simple three words captured the urgency of what we had in front of us, but also the huge potential. There was positivity, hope and inclusiveness in a call to action that was just so simple. When, as coincidence would have it, a small group of creative friends got together separately to throw around ideas and designs and came back with the same slogan, it essentially became a done deal.”

Winston Peters had many gripes to share about the campaign. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Winston Peters’ gripes and justifications

The Deputy Prime Minister uses his chapter to set the record straight on a number of issues, and to convey some of his gripes about the campaign. Such factors make his account unsurprising, yet still very illuminating.

The gripes are as expected – mainly with the media (and political commentators). Peters complains: “The implication drawn from the 2017 election is that the media is driving our conception and perception of politics”, claiming the existence of “some appalling examples of media mendacity that undermined electoral integrity and confidence.”

As an example, he says “on election night, with still over 15 per cent of the vote to be counted, the media declared government formation with National the likely outcome.” Then when it came to the longer-than-expected coalition negotiations, “the media would breathlessly report, each day, ‘another day waiting’. Unbelievable.”

He also laments that some political commentators “need an abacus and are still stuck in FPP thinking” – drawing attention to those who thought the National Party had “won” the election.

There’s no doubt that Peters was disappointed with the campaign, especially because New Zealand First did not do much better, noting that before Jacinda Ardern took Labour’s leadership, his own party was “statistically tied with Labour” in the polls. After this, he says the “media and so-called experts chose to frame the election as a straight two-horse race”, which denied “equal political space for all the political parties”.

Peters puts some effort into justifying his party’s choice to go with Labour into government, explaining “a clear majority of New Zealanders voted against the status quo at the election. New Zealand First recognised that change and its final choice reflected it.”

The Greens "lost control of the narrative" says co-leader James Shaw. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

James Shaw’s campaigns of highs and lows

The huge highs and lows for the Greens in 2017 gets summed up by James Shaw by the phrase: “life comes at you pretty fast, sometimes”. It was a rollercoaster of a ride, and by election night, despite his party’s major decline in support, Shaw says everyone was cheering and yelling, “Yeah! We got eight MPs!… we were so relieved and happy to have returned to Parliament, we barely noticed that our numbers had shrunk by nearly half.”

And then the coalition negotiations were even harder than the campaign according to Shaw – it was like “nine-dimensional chess”. But he says everyone should have realised that New Zealand First would go with Labour as the anti-status quo option: “when someone puts up billboards saying ‘Have you had enough?’ they’re not exactly appealing to the status quo. That is, in fact, a direct challenge to the status quo. It’s conceivably even more of a challenge to the status quo than /our/campaign billboards (‘Love NZ’ anyone?).”

Probably the most interesting part of his account is where he reflects on when “the wheels came off” with Metiria Turei’s benefit campaign: “Initially, it worked. Our polls went to their highest levels ever. Then the allegation of electoral fraud came out and I thought, ‘OK, I can see where this is going now’. When he first heard about the allegations of electoral fraud (“a complete nonsense of a story”) he realised was the end for the campaign plan: “That, to me, was the moment that I knew that that game was up; that we’d lost control of the narrative.”

A Green party press secretary and James Shaw watch as his co-leader Metiria Turei announces her resignation. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Amongst other problems, the Greens had to put a lot of effort into retaining their voters, who were shifting to Labour. Their own research, according to Shaw, showed that of those that switched to Labour, 30 percent went for negative reasons (“because they felt that we were ‘messy and unstable’”), and 70 percent left for the more positive reason of “Jacindamania”.

Shaw’s chapter is great for political scientists and junkies because it has lots of details of campaign logistics and operations – mostly to prove that the party had a strong “ground campaign” claimed. For example: “Over 6,000 volunteers gave their time and enthusiasm to the Green Party’s 2017 election campaign. We knocked on 63,500 doors. We delivered 1.1 million leaflets. We put up 7,282 billboards – twice.”

In terms of campaign phone calls made, Shaw says the numbers increased dramatically over previous years – in 2011 there were 3,000 phone calls, 2014 there were 35,000 calls, and in 2017 104,000 calls were made. Similar stats are expressed  for financial donations to the Greens.

Bill English on the campaign trail: he went into it "confident but paranoid". Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Bill English’s positive account

For someone who had just come out of the campaign and the unsuccessful coalition negotiations, Bill English might be expected to express some bitterness or strong disappointment with the 2017 election. Instead his chapter is rather positive, being low on gripes or blame.

Instead his chapter paints a positive picture of the whole campaign. Even in terms of the outcome of the coalition negotiations he comes across as magnanimous, labelling the new Government as “legitimate”.

He admits that his mental attitude going into the campaign was one of being “confident but paranoid”, which he says turned out to be well founded, but this isn’t to point the blame at anyone but to emphasise that we live in politically turbulent times.

English paints a picture, however, of his party as being “very well prepared for what turned out to be a highly competitive campaign. We were well organised, well financed”. And his own government is portrayed as being rock solid: “we were more cohesive, more positive and had more sense of direction than any previous third-term government that I had seen in action”.

He’s also very positive about the nature of the campaign – especially its strong policy focus: “I had been personally strongly invested in many of the issues which were debated in the campaign – the economy, obviously, but also all the social issues, poverty, housing, water quality, and the environment”.

English also favoured the leadership debate formats that allowed in-depth debate: “the long form of the debates suited me. As someone who’d been around the place, a policy wonk, the opportunity to have an hour, an hour and a half, to debate issues – rather than the usual eight to 15 seconds”.

But what’s lacking from his chapter is any strong analysis of why his side lost government.

Act leader David Seymour blames brand confusion for a disappointing result. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

David Seymour’s self-criticisms

The Act Party leader has plenty of gripes in his account of the 2017 election, but because many of these are self-reflective it makes it one of the most interesting chapters.

Unsurprisingly, the Act Party campaign was built around a very large dose of market research: “Aided by the American consultancy Ajjan Associates and a campaign manager with very strong statistical abilities we invested heavily, nearly a fifth of our campaign budget, in market research. Qualitatively, we carried out around 20 hours of focus-group work on the party, the leader and proposed policies.” In addition, the party “conducted in-depth (half-hour) interviews with 500 voters who identified as having a favourable view of Act” to build up quantitative information to inform their campaigning.

Out of all this, Seymour concludes the chapter: “Act’s fundamental problem was a lack of clarity about what voters would get. Too many people said ‘we don’t know what Act stands for’, and, given the wide range of positions that the party took in the three years leading up to the election, they cannot be blamed.”

Seymour provides further details of the “brand confusion” caused by promoting “mutually contradictory” socially liberal and conservative policies: “The pro-millennial positions risked alienating older voters, while the social liberalism risked offending some of Act’s traditional voters who were socially conservative. Meanwhile, the remaining traditional positions, along with the party brand they had helped cultivate over two decades, made it difficult to convert younger and more socially liberal voters.”

The gripes are also directed outside the party, too – in particular at National and the media. For example, the media gave Seymour very little coverage, and the “level of policy discussion was also disappointing for Act. Coverage of my election year book setting out Act’s ideas and policies was almost non-existent.”

Te Ururoa Flavell casts his vote: but too few of his party's target voters saw the point in doing the same. Photo: Shane Cowlishaw

Te Ururoa Flavell on the demise of the Māori Party

Being one of the major causalities of the 2017 election, Te Ururoa Flavell’s chapter had the potential to provide some reflection on the demise of the Māori Party. But somehow there’s little illumination of what went wrong.

The pain of defeat does come across in the account: “You will understand that I personally, and we (the Māori Party), were shattered with our results because despite all of our gains and hard work we got rolled. Personally, it was very hard. I asked myself the question, ‘We worked so hard for our people and this is what we get?’ Or: ‘Were we that bad that we deserved to lose our seat?’ What hurt most was the loss of faith and belief by our people in our party after 12 years of service.”

And the decline of the Māori Party as a movement is also obvious in his account when Flavell mentions that “we have struggled for an army of workers and volunteers”.

Quite simply, like other parties, many of its target voters simply didn’t see the point of voting for the party: “Our banner was ‘Make it Māori, Make it happen’. The suggestion has been made that people did not know what ‘it’ was.”

Flavell also lists the achievements of his party, but sometimes seems oblivious to the lack of relevance of many of these goals for many Māori voters. Yet he helps answer the question of what went wrong by dividing up the party’s target voters into kaupapa Māori and non-kaupapa Māori: “I believe that kaupapa people would have voted for me: i.e., marae people, language speakers, those working in Māori health, those who had seen the benefits of Whānau Ora. They get tino rangatiratanga, mana motuhake. But there are heaps of our people who are not kaupapa people and they wanted change to address issues such as homelessness, deprivation, housing, food and so on.”

There is also a curious explanation for the notorious call by the Maori King to vote for the Maori Party, for which he appears to blame Labour’s Nanaia Mahuta: “As I have heard it, Labour MP Nanaia Mahuta had given assurances to her cousin the King that she would stand down from Labour, which resulted in Rahui Papa being put forward as our candidate. Nanaia Mahuta did not stand down, forcing a split in Kingitanga.”

Peter Dunne waits for an interview after announcing his decision to pull out of the campaign partway through. Photo: Meriana Johnsen

Peter Dunne Valedictory speech

The most grandiose chapter comes, naturally, from the retiring United Future leader Peter Dunne, because it is in the form of a valedictory speech, given in lieu of not being able to do so before Parliament rose for the election.

Dunne explains his late decision to pull out of the election campaign: “I had always told myself that I would leave Parliament when the reasons for doing so outweighed the reasons for seeking to stay. To that end, I had, at the end of each year before a general election, beginning in 1986, done a little ‘for and against’ exercise. This time last year, for the first time ever, there were more reasons to go than to stay, but I chose to ignore them. Becoming a grandparent was my wake-up call, and set in train a still reluctant process that led to my eventual decision to stand down. Now, with the comfortable benefit of hindsight, I am extremely glad that happened, and that, this time, I listened.”

For 33 years, he had been in Parliament. And Dunne explains how “at the time of my departure to have been part of every government, at some stage or another, since the fall of Muldoon.”

He explains the development of the United Future party, and it’s unique accomplishment: “United Future was a formal government support party for just over 15 years – the longest continuous period in government of any party since the original United Party toppled the Reform Party in 1928, nearly 80 years ago.”

Dunne concludes his valedictory speech by appealing to the new Parliament to commit “to our next Head of State being the first President of the Republic of New Zealand.”

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