Sir Bob Jones

Commentary on issues of the day from the property tycoon, author and former politician

Bob Jones: General elections just ain't what they used to be

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David Cunliffe. Photo / APN
David Cunliffe. Photo / APN

It's election year; always great fun although not nearly as much as pre-MMP, this reflected by the declining voter turnout. Under first-past-the-post, both the campaign and election night were gripping affairs. Usually there were about 10 marginal swing seats making exciting television as their booth results trickled in. Some relied on absentee votes, reported days later, these always going National's way, although no longer in this age of mass travel.

Sadly, there are now few seats of interest, one reason why today's MPs are relatively unknown. Another is there are way too many MPs, plus the fact that 50 are unelected and there via the list. Today it's the party vote which mostly counts.

Last election only 74 per cent of the electorate voted. One must revert to the 19th century to match this, scattered communities and poor communications sometimes delivering turnouts then as low as 50 per cent. Contrast that with the four postwar elections which had almost 100 per cent voting.

That reflected both the degree of our politicisation and the drabness of postwar life, elections then being our Olympic Games equivalent.

People cared passionately about politics and were actively involved.

Indeed in the 1970s National boasted of having the world's highest party membership on a population basis. It was certainly high, as was Labour's, but the claim was exaggerated, buying a raffle ticket often constituting membership.

Still, a typical electorate then could have a paid-up membership of 1000 or more, plus branches, each with their chairman and committee. Being a delegate at the party's annual conference was a sought-after role. Those conferences, often 1000 or more strong, were given saturation media coverage. Today they're sparsely reported non-events, so, too, party membership, now minuscule. During campaigns candidates addressed nightly and at weekends well-attended meetings while the leaders toured the nation to sell-out audiences.

1984 was the last such passionate election, reflected by its 94 per cent voter turnout. But ironically, it was the incoming Labour Government's critical economic reforms, as were occurring worldwide with the collapse of the socialist economies, which ended the underlying left-right economic debate with victory to the right.

In turn, that killed off the philosophic divide between the parties and with it, public involvement. Today, differences between Labour and National are inconsequential, rather it's about imagery, personalities and varying policies to deal with current issues, so it's understandable why only a few deluded tribalists still belong to parties.

But the election is still a race and thus interesting, more so as polls suggest it will be tight with National and a Labour-Greens combination currently polling 50/50. The expected thriving economy should consolidate the Government's support although one suspects most folk will read about this promised new prosperity rather than actually feel it. National's prime asset is John Key. He's been an excellent Prime Minister, his genuine affability and popularity, plus his sharp intellect comprising a huge hurdle for David Cunliffe going toe to toe with him in debates. Additionally, my Press Gallery contacts report apathy in Labour's caucus through distaste for their leader which doesn't augur well for an impassioned campaign.

Labour have rightly identified their main problem, namely getting out to vote. Overseas studies show that when the wealth gap widens, low-income sectors stop voting, possibly because they feel politics are irrelevant to them.

Alternatively, it could be apathy, especially as in the modern era a wet polling day puts paid to them turning out in large numbers.

Much is made of the third parties deciding who's government, specifically New Zealand First and the Maori Party. That's presumptuous. Neither might be there after the election. Winston was just under 5 per cent then just over in the last two elections, while the Maori Party is in disarray and Harawira's and their seats may revert to Labour.

Then there's Christchurch, which unexpectedly backed the Government heavily last time in the all-important party vote, but polls suggest will not this year. So the election outcome is undoubtedly up in the air. Will Peter Dunne get up again? Probably - he's an excellent electorate MP. Can Act find an attractive leader whom Epsom can vote for? Probably. This will dismay the Press Gallery who were hugely looking forward to Colin Craig's arrival and soliciting his views on whether the earth is flat and if not, why don't we Southern Hemisphere dwellers fall off, and other such pressing issues. This bloke's an insignificant lightweight and inexplicably, has received ridiculously unwarranted publicity.

Still, with all these question-marks the Prime Minister could be forgiven for envying the recent Azerbaijan presidential election in which the results were accidentally released the day before anyone actually voted. After all, we all seek certainty in our lives. Despite its efficiency that's not a goer here, but National could consider organising cloud-seeding aircraft over South and West Auckland on election day.

- NZ Herald

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