Beware the split vote

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    During nearly 40 years on Waiheke, I’ve learned to duck all predictions around the outcomes of democratic elections, at least until they are over, by which time they are no longer predictions, of course, but have some use in determining future decisions.

    It was Gordon Hodson, the gentlemanly island politician and Auckland City councillor in the early days of the first Super City amalgamation (and long before Dirty Politics was a twinkle in anybody’s eye) who concluded, from bitter experience, that the simple lie trumps the complicated truth every time.

    From a clear-eyed millennial (also before the days of Dirty Politics), there was the equally useful generalisation so visible in the global political and financial hegemony run out of US Republican think-tanks. “The Left is right at all costs. The Right wins at all costs”, she concluded.

    Our particular form of MMP has certainly delivered an interesting political beast this last few weeks and, adopting an anthropological method, we will need to get down to some study if it is to be fit for purpose.

    Split votes have long been understood on Waiheke, the discord between developers and treehugger factions having been tattooed into our DNA since the 1970s when various members of the warring factions on this theme ended up on police charges for cannabis (the long-haired side) and weapons and smuggling (would-be developers).

    The Auckland Central electorate has also had a major vote split phenomenon in the last three elections. National MP the Hon Nikki Kaye has won the seat three times, this year with 13,198 votes, Labour’s Helen White (11,617) coming a close second and the Greens’ Denise Roche taking what would have been a deciding share with 2838 votes.

    On the party vote, Labour’s 11,340 votes and the Greens’ 4170 significantly outnumbered the National Party’s 11,773.

    The same split-and-lose electorate pattern was visible throughout polling night, Labour candidates missing out on electorate seats by a few hundred votes, usually far less than those garnered by the Green candidate, none of whom were a numerically-serious contender.

    In addition, and continuing to push back against the media commentariat’s assertions that the country “voted for the status quo” rather than the “change” ignited by Jacinda Ardern’s new leadership, there is also the New Zealand First mandate which was hardly status quo.
    Two-thirds of New Zealand First voters polled by Colmar Brunton for ONE News before the election said they were in favour of Labour rather than National leading the next government.

    There’s also Winston Peters’ firebrand speech to a New Zealand First convention in July that would have left his his party faithful convinced that they were firmly in the ‘change’ camp and not about to tolerate another three years of National stewardship.

    We vote, as in the rest of life, in the same way we subliminally judge and act on the first 20 seconds of meeting a salesperson or new acquaintance.

    Lacking useful public analysis of the inner workings and outcomes from our particular brand of MMP, election by election, we’ve not mastered the nuances of its essential structure, let alone the gerrymandering of an entrenched majority.

    In the structural view, electorate voting for the ‘local’ MP would indicate a personal endorsement for the candidate and their role or performance in the district. They’re the face you know.

    Party votes are much more a hostage to each party’s fortunes in Parliament – and in the media.

    In a better world than we’ve had for nearly a decade, they would indicate approval and spark debate on policy and our values as a society.

    In the vacuous populist model, it turns into a personality contest for the most airtime. Truth is seldom insisted on. The Opposition benches hardly count and the winner, unashamedly, takes all.

    However, uncomfortable as it’s been, there has been some useful process since the special votes were released last weekend. Policies and their underpinning values have had more airtime and comparative assessment in the last week than in any general election for decades.

    Those who would govern us have been rudely required to genuinely parse through their manifestos, put some legs under policies and pit them against the opinions and judgements of not only their political opponents but also the perceptions of a country of well-educated, intelligent and innately generous citizens, a very high proportion of whom are prepared to pay the collective price to rebuild a fair and workable society.

    As we reach the endgame, and as Spinoff commentator Simon Wilson said this week, “The major parties acting responsibly with their promises? Wouldn’t that be something.” • Liz Waters

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