Strange Times in Politics

Strange Times in Politics: New Zealand 2014 General Election Update

By: Dr. Bryce Edwards

It’s being widely touted as the strangest election campaign in living memory. There have certainly been some unusual elements inserted into New Zealand politics in the lead up to polling day. The most colourful have revolved around the Kim Dotcom and his Internet Mana Party and emails sent by former Justice Minister Judith Collins, while the most scandalous relate to allegations about bloggers and spin doctors in Nicky Hager’s new book, Dirty Politics. Together with other interesting minor parties vying for a place in Parliament, and controversial political songs and YouTube videos, this election is far from boring.

Will these colourful elements help increase voter turnout? Or are they making the public even more cynical about politicians? Are they a sideshow and a distraction from more meaningful policy debates? Or will they motivate more public debate and interest in how the country is run and in the strength of its integrity systems, something that has led to international perceptions that New Zealand has one of the most trusted public sectors?

Meanwhile, according to the polls, the policy concerns of voters are more traditional than usual in this election – based particularly around the economy. The Government is pitching its message that it has managed the country out of recession and economic growth and other indicators are very positive. Opposition parties are drawing attention to inequality, continued unemployment problems, and other negative social indicators.

The other major focus is on coalitions – which parties will work with whom. And once again, minor parties look to be destined to play a crucial role in determining who will govern after 20 September

These are some of the questions we might ask when reflecting on the wider health of electoral politics over the next few weeks. There are a number of areas in which New Zealand electoral politics lacks full integrity and health, and this election campaign allows us to measure whether the situation is improving or getting worse.

With the last election producing the lowest voter turnout in over a century, there is much greater emphasis this year in concerns about public engagement. And with mass disillusionment with political parties, the onus is on parties to show that they are relevant and are offering a diversity of meaningful policy options and differences about how society is run.

There are other perennial concerns with the way that the election is run. The most problematic is the division of election broadcast advertising resources by the Electoral Commission. Once again some parties are dissatisfied with the allocation process and results, with the Conservative Party seeking legal remedies to change this. The party also controversially took TV3 to court to ensure that its leader Colin Craig was included in a minor party leaders’ debate.

All told, this strange election campaign has demonstrated that there is still much work to ensure integrity and transparency in our election processes.  Time will tell whether it has been instrumental in stirring up the the ire of New Zealand’s fair-minded society to shed its complacency about the importance for our political leaders being accountable, transparent and ethical.

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