11 July 2014

Is National boring its way back into office?

Two electoral issues around which there appears to be little disagreement are: first, that voter turnouts have declined in recent elections (from a high of 93.7 per cent of those enrolled in 1984 down to 74.2 per cent in 2011); and secondly, that this is a regrettable statistic and something should be done to get more people, especially the young, out to vote.
Some political pundits think that online voting will increase voter participation. But it’s a mistake, I believe, to place the blame on the means of voting. In our general elections, polling booths are easy to find, voting papers are easy to understand, and you don’t have to wait in a long queue. Electoral Commission surveys show high levels of voter satisfaction with the process itself.
So, voting is easy. The hard thing is to understand why we should bother, and for whom to vote.
Those who don’t vote tend to say that it makes little difference who is in power, or that they just don’t understand politics and public policy. What they see in the media looks superficial and is dominated by older people with big egos. It’s no wonder that young people have difficulty understanding the system of government and the importance of the actual policies that political parties wish to adopt.
This year’s election is to be held early – in September, not in November as is the norm. So the weather on election day is more likely to be cool and wet. And poor weather often reduces voter turnout. Just ask any Labour Party official about that. Higher turnouts occur when there is a real contest between parties and the electorate is strongly divided. The 93.7 per cent turnout in 1984 (in spite of bad weather on the day) was because most voters had simply had a gutsful of Robert Muldoon. And Labour was swept into power.
High turnouts normally favour the left-wing parties. So the National Party won’t mind at all if many young people stay away from the polling booths on 20 September. On the other hand, as National’s opinion-poll results have been averaging about 50 per cent lately, some of their potential supporters may decide that Mr Key doesn’t need their help.
So, how much does National have to worry about complacency among their supporters? National’s share of the party vote increased from 44.9 per cent in 2008 to 47.3 per cent in 2011. That looks impressive, but it was in the context of a fall in turnout. The actual number of voters who gave National a tick only increased by half of one per cent. In contrast, the numbers that voted either Labour or Green declined by 9.7 per cent. Anything that sparks a remobilisation of left-leaning voters could therefore lead to a very close race indeed.
In 2014, the Labour and Internet Mana parties have both talked up the idea of re-engaging the young and the disenfranchised (non-)voters, in order to expand the pool of left-wing votes. Labour’s former MP Shane Jones used to talk about 800,000 voters missing from the last election. So local party organisations on all sides will work hard to get their supporters out to the polling booths on the day.
National appears to be trying to reduce left-leaning voter turnout by making the election as boring and uncontroversial as possible. They offer no potentially controversial policies like asset-sales this time around. Mr Key says that National will go to the electorate to seek approval for his government’s past achievements. Full stop. No mention of GCSB legislation or asset-sales. No bold promises either.
A complacent electorate that is simply bored with or confused about politics and sees no urgent contest of ideas, policies or personalities will vote in relatively low numbers. For National to regain office they need to avoid controversies that might stir up support for the left, and to battle electoral complacency among those who are content with the status quo.
Of course, events between now and the election could upset that plan. Something galvanizing could come up before 20 September. But not if Mr Key can help it.


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