Why the centre-left lost power

It has been interesting to see the political commentator speculating about the reasons for the demise of what had been widely seen as an economically competent centre-left government which had served New Zealand well during the good times and had the experience to cope with the not so good.

Most don’t seem to be able to come up with anything more than “a swing to the right”, or it was “time for a change” – neither of which really say anything about why the electorate voted the way it did, especially when many countres overseas seem to be moving leftwards.

I’d suggest that it had a lot more to do with a Government that was perceived as losing its grip. During her first two terms as Prime Minister Helen Clark appeared decisively in command. Incompetence (apart from, inexplicably, Judith Tizard) was not tolerated. Nor was misconduct. Ruth Dyson (drunk driving) and Liane Dalziel (lying to the public) were promptly dispatched. Dover Samuels was stood down while allegations of sexual misconduct were investigated.

But in her third term, things inexplicable changed. These are the things that I think lost the centre-left the election:

  1. The Taito Phillip Field Affair Allegations of misconduct against Field had been simmering since just before the 2005 election. Instead of implementing a proper investigation with the teeth to interview witnesses under oath, Clark implemented an Claytons inquiry that was widely perceived as a whitewash designed to clear Field. Then despite further very serious allegations, Field was retained in the Labour Caucus right through to February 2007, creating a perception of tolerance of impropriety and possible corruption.
  2. The pledge card Labour’s handling of the pledge card and the Auditor-General’s report was appalling. The should have simply admitted “we got it wrong, and we’ll pay the money back” (as the Greens did). Instead, they allowed the pledge card affair to drag on interminably, and were subjected to daily allegations in Parliament of corruption. They hadn’t actually done anthing that most other political parties had done, but their reluctance to own up to their mistake and put it right undermined public confidence in them as a Government.
  3. David Benson-Pope Much like Taito Phillip Field actually, although the allegations were not so serious. The perception was created, through Clark’s continued tolerance of Benson-Pope through the “tennis balls affair” in which he had quite clearly been economical with the truth. He was finally dispatched in July 2007 after allegations of him lying to Parliament over matters relating to the appointment of a Communications Manager in the Ministry for the Environment. Clark said at the time, “The way in which certain issues have been handled this week has led to a loss of credibility and on that basis I have accepted Mr Benson-Pope’s offer to stand aside”. Pity for her that she didn’t realise he had lost credibility much earlier.
  4. The Electoral Finance Act This was handled by Labour in the most appalling way. The original Bill was so poorly drafted that Justice Minister Mark Burton deserved the sack for allowing a Bill that was such a shambles to come before Parliament. He was later quietly stood down, but by that time the damage had been done. Labour railroaded the Bill through Parliament, refusing to consider very pertinent submissions from organisations such as the Human Rights Commission or suggestions from the Green Party who were left with a “take it or leave it” option. This allowed the right to create the perception of the Electoral Finance Bill, and consequently of Labour, being undemocratic – a task which the NZ Herald took up with great gusto.
  5. Winston Peters Need I say more. Clark stood by Peters as allegation after allegation of impropriety and, in the last few weeks, even corruption emerged against Peters. In her first and second terms he would have been promptly dispatched, at least temporarily, for allegations of far less substance, but her continued tolerance of him as a Minister allowed her and her government to be tarred with the same brush as Peters.

New Zealanders don’t like the perception of tolerance of incompetence, deceipt or corruption, nor will they tolerate a Government that they perceive as acting in a high-handed or self-serving manner.

If Clark had acted decisively on these five issues above, she may still be Prime Minister.

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13 thoughts on “Why the centre-left lost power

  1. Aren’t we missing the elephant in the room here? s.59 of the Crimes Act? As Sue Bradford has pointed out herself in the past, as a Members’ Bill, the repeal of s.59 Bill came without the backing on an awareness raising campaign that other government initiatives aimed at improving safety and health among the population might have had (eg smoking in bars, violence against women). I don’t think we can underestimate the impact this piece of legislation had on some sections of the Labour vote. Yes it was an issue of communication rather than actual policy, but once the perception of the bill set in, it was very hard to shake.

  2. Had I written this post I would have called it ‘Why the centre-centre lost power’! The left’s turn is still to come.

    I’d agree that the s59 bill probably hurt Labour’s soft socially conservative vote. Labour deserves credit for sticking with it given that increasingly apparent damage it was doing. Conversely I reckon a lot of Green and potential Green voters were really proud of that bill, and we were not hurt at all.

  3. I’ve always considered s59 bill to be one of the finest bills we’ve got through, and commensurately it increased my opinion of Sue Bradford, who put up with threats, rednecks maligning her character, and all kinds of BS along the way, and withstood it with incredible good grace – and the staunch support of her fellow Green MP’s, and the Bowen House staffers.

  4. Stevedore – good point re the post title – I agree that a government consisting of Labour, NZFirst and United Future can hardly be categorised as centre-left – it was certainly the most right-leaning of the last three Labour-led administrations.

    Bethany – I don’t agree that s59 had a huge impact in turning voters away from the centre-left.. It has to be remembered that National supported the Bill once the compromise position had been agreed.

    If s59 were a huge issue for voters, I would have expected the two parties that formed as a direct consequence of its amendment (the Kiwi Party and the Family Party) and strongly opposed it to make a significant impact at the election. But on election night they together received a miniscule 0.89% of the vote.

    I would also have expected the Greens, who led the s59 amendment, to be punished electorally if it were a huge issue for voters. Instead, the Greens were the only party with a cooperation agreement in support of the last government to swim against the outgoing tide and increase their percentage of the vote.

    Where I think s59 did make an impact was in John Key’s successful potrayal of himself as the broker of the compromise that allowed the amendment to be passed with the support of the vast majority of Parliament rather than a slim majority. I believe that was a turning point in creating the public perception of him as an inclusive politician and of the National Party as moving away from the hard right ideology of the Brash leadership – a perception that National needed to create if it were to pick up the votes of people in the centre who are more appreciative of pragmatism than ideology.

    EDIT: I should have added that the most recent research into public opinion regarding s59 and physical discipline would also support the view that it was not a big election issue.

  5. Pingback: Toad on why the centre-left lost power | Kiwiblog

  6. ” I don’t agree that s59 had a huge impact in turning voters away from the centre-left.. It has to be remembered that National supported the Bill once the compromise position had been agreed”.

    It was. I’ve lost count of the number of Labour supporters I know who hated that bill, and changed their vote accordingly.

    The especially didn’t want the Greens anywhere near power. Your vote hasn’t moved much since Values, now has it.

    “If s59 were a huge issue for voters, I would have expected the two parties that formed as a direct consequence of its amendment (the Kiwi Party and the Family Party) and strongly opposed it to make a significant impact at the election. ”

    No, they didn’t get the vote for the reason they could not make a difference.

  7. two reasons you missed out

    s59 of Crimes Act

    Helen Clark.

    Taito Field has as much of an impact as banning smoking in pubs. ie none.

  8. dave, you miss my point. It was not Taito Phillip Field himself who had the impact, it was Helen Clark’s mishandling of the allegations against him.

    And those against David Benson-Pope and Winston Peters.

    Her handling of each of these promoted a perception of a government that was tolerant of impropriety and even corruption.

  9. Roger the cabin boy: You cite a some instances anecdotally.

    The survey evidence I have linked to would not support that anecdotal evidence.

    And BTW there was no character in Captain Pugwash named “Roger the Cabin Boy”. Nor was there a “Seaman Staines” or a “Master Bates”. That is all an urban myth.

  10. Thanks anarkaytie.

    The cabin boy’s name in Captain Pugwash was actually “Tom”, which does not have the same connotations as “Roger”.

    The “Staines” and “Bates” characters are a total fabrication.

    I watched this stuff as a preschooler. Personally, in my desire of a male hero, I preferred George of the Jungle at that age.

  11. I’m not going to tell which of my nephews likes George of the Jungle … but he’s only 6 and a half!

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