Centre-left loses majority as provinces make right turn

By Simon Collins

Provincial New Zealand swung back to its conservative roots on Saturday, leaving Prime Minister Helen Clark clinging on to power in a Parliament in which her centre-left bloc has lost its majority.

About 5 per cent of voters in both North and South Island provincial areas swung to the centre-right. The swing was about 4 per cent in Auckland, 3.5 per cent in Hamilton and 2 per cent in Christchurch.

Among voters on the general rolls, only Wellingtonians bucked the trend and gave slightly more votes to the left as well as the right, possibly worried about public service cuts under a National-led government.

Voters in the seven Maori seats also swung heavily "leftwards" - but in a different direction. They abandoned Winston Peters' New Zealand First and other minor centre-right parties, and 27 per cent of them gave their party votes to the new Maori Party.

But 55 per cent of voters in the Maori seats still gave their party votes to Labour - marginally more than last time - even while electing Maori Party MPs in four of the seven electorates.

The net result was that the overall vote for centre-left parties, including the Maori Party, dropped from 51.1 per cent to 48.8 per cent.

The centre-right, defined broadly to include New Zealand First and United Future, climbed from 46.9 per cent to 50.2 per cent.

But the two centre parties have allowed Helen Clark to at least make the first attempt at forming a new Government because both have said they will support the single party with the most votes. Labour managed to draw 77,825 extra voters on Saturday compared with election-night figures three years ago, holding its share of the vote almost static at 41 per cent.

At this time three years ago, the national turnout was estimated at 75.4 per cent of those registered to vote. The figure rose to 77 per cent in the end because there were more special votes than expected, but it was still the second-lowest turnout in the previous 100 years.

This time the Chief Electoral Office estimates the national turnout at 80 per cent, including 218,000 special votes still to be counted, 25,000 of them from overseas.

Turnout jumped especially in the Maori seats (up 9.4 per cent) and in Auckland (up 8.4 per cent), where the most voters stayed home last time.

Maori voters had little incentive to vote when the winner was almost guaranteed to be Labour in all but one election in the past 60 years, and Auckland has a high proportion of new immigrants who may be deterred from voting by language obstacles and limited local knowledge.

After the worst result in its history last time, Don Brash's National Party more than doubled its election-night votes from 384,533 to 809,674. Its election-night percentage went up from 21.1 per cent to 39.6 per cent, its best result since 1990.

A Herald survey early in the campaign found voters switching to the right for four main reasons - tax and economic issues, Treaty of Waitangi issues and perceived "handouts" to Maori, moral issues associated with the decline of the traditional family, and immigration.

National's appeal on these issues mopped up votes from all its centre-right allies: Act (down 5.6 per cent), NZ First (down 4.8 per cent), United Future (down 4.1 per cent) and the small Christian parties, which dropped 0.7 per cent between them despite the entry of the new political arm of the Destiny Church.

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