It was the year of scandal politics — but in the end, it made little difference to voters. In 2015, we need politics that resonate. Step up John Key and Andrew Little.
"I'm sorry for being a man" is the controversial phrase that came to (unfairly) encapsulate the Labour Party this year. Dirty Politics is the one that dogged National. Both were damaging for the respective parties but Labour fared worse.
These two examples of unwanted branding explain much about the politics of this year. Labour had a terrible year, partly because it was associated with distractions and strange irrelevancies. At best, the party was perceived to be out of touch with the public's interests, at worst obsessed with political correctness. Meanwhile, National managed to convince much of the public that it had governed the country out of recession and was focused on "the things that really mattered".
What really mattered to voters in 2014?
"It's the economy, stupid" is the phrase that John Key probably had engraved on his desk (stolen from Bill Clinton's 1992 strategists). Such an unrelenting focus worked, because what mattered to the public this year were definitely policies related to the economy.
Because National was the party best able to sell itself as focused on jobs and improving people's daily lives, its electioneering slogan, "Working for New Zealand", rang true.
Countless surveys showed New Zealanders were primarily concerned with economics and traditional economic-based issues such as state provision of social services like health and education.
Traditional issues were back in vogue and, at the same time, economic indicators were looking up: economic growth continued, interest rates were down, and job numbers increased.
The public's orientation towards economics didn't necessarily make politics more conservative. In fact, surveys showed the major concerns of voters related to the rising cost of living, house prices, and the low minimum wage (and, in fact, the increasing demand for a "living wage").
What's more, according to some surveys, the single biggest concern for voters was economic inequality - traditionally a key concern of the left. Inequality was being debated everywhere. As one indication of this, the chart above shows how many articles the New Zealand Herald published this year that included the word "inequality", compared with previous years.
A year of scandal politics
Running in parallel to the solid focus of New Zealanders on "bread and butter" issues, a different election campaign was in swing, full of colour and craziness. Much of this revolved around people such as Kim Dotcom, Cameron Slater, John Banks, Nicky Hager, Judith Collins and Colin Craig.
On a more trivial level, there were election songs banned from YouTube, defamation actions about Craig's attitude to women and homosexuality, and Dotcom's "F*** John Key" video. Such was the level of craziness, when a satirical political party was established - The Civilian Party - it was deemed entirely unnecessary.
On a more serious level were state surveillance controversies and revelations. Edward Snowden's appearance to address the nation was but one significant part of a story about us being watched.
Scandals over donations to political parties were a mainstay of the year: Maurice Williamson resigned as a minister, John Banks was convicted of fraud (later overturned), Judith Collins faced endless allegations about Oravida and David Cunliffe's secret trust came to light. And, of course, Dotcom and Craig poured extraordinary amounts of money into their own parties.
Most significant of all was Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics, which produced the biggest scandal of the year and helped bring Collins down. The substance of the book will continue to be discussed for some time. But overall, these controversies seemed to produce something of a scandal fatigue for many New Zealanders. The media covered the debates in detail but for most, these simply weren't issues that mattered. Perhaps the overload of scandal, controversy and personality politics spooked voters. In such circumstances, voters revert to what they know and feel comfortable with - and this year that was either voting for National or not voting at all.
The diminished importance of social issues
Social and other non-economic issues also did not resonate with voters. In the past, elections have revolved around issues such as law and order, immigration, the environment, race relations, sexual politics (civil unions, prostitution, gender discrimination, etc), anti-smacking, and so forth. But not this year. Since the onset of the global financial crisis, the electoral pendulum has been swinging back towards traditional concerns.
Parties like the Conservatives pushed hard on law and order, binding referendums and race relations. But it wasn't enough to get them even 5 per cent of the vote.
The Greens were pushed to focus on economics and downgrade the importance of the environment. Climate change was hardly mentioned. This non-environmental focus helped keep their support up.
The Mana Party went against the grain, focusing less on economics and saddling up with a party concerned with digital freedoms. The newfound focus did little for Mana's fortunes nor Hone Harawira's.
David Cunliffe and Labour tried to orientate towards the economy - almost all of Labour's campaign was about economic policy. But in the end, for many voters their perception of Labour had already been established as that of a "social issues party" rather than a serious economic party. This perception was partly embedded by major debates about "man bans", and by Cunliffe's fabled apology for being a man. Unfortunately for Labour, there were a series of other unnecessary distractions - ranging from Trevor Mallard's moa pronouncements to obvious disunity.
Labour fluffed its biggest opportunity - taking advantage of the huge upsurge of concern about inequality. Labour should have "owned" this issue, but instead National succeeded in convincing many that it was dealing with the problem. Its 2014 Budget was key for this, especially in extending free doctor visits and paid parental leave.
So for many voters the perceived choice in this election year was between the party of apologising for being male versus the party of jobs, economic growth, and fixing problems in education and health. It was therefore never going to be a close contest between the two major political parties.
National's so-called rock-star economy credentials gave voters confidence in an era of uncertainty and colourful controversies.
Non-economic issues of corruption and integrity, state surveillance and sexual politics, were major issues to political activists and commentators. But not to voters.
Key's survival in 2015
John Key will be the "Politician of the Year" once again in many end-of-year lists. Rightly so - he has achieved what voters expect of politicians: victory. But scandals have damanged his longer-term legacy. Issues from Dirty Politics - although seemingly not of great importance in people's votes - will not suddenly dissipate. Key needs to somehow convince the public that he has greater integrity. He has the talent for turning things around, so that's still possible.
Achieving a fourth term will be a highly desirable goal for the PM, but it might depend on this critical question of integrity and being able to put the Dirty Politics controversy to rest.
It's the economy, which has been National's saving grace, that could end up being a problem for Key next year.
National promised much this year, but it still has to deliver.
It probably won't.
It sold itself on the basis of an improving economy and a Budget surplus, and there are still major questions about those outcomes. On issues of inequality, National remains particularly vulnerable.
Labour's Little opportunityIf Andrew Little is to turn Labour's fortunes around he'll need to thoroughly ditch the PC image of Labour. The party can't afford to continue to be associated with notions of the "nanny state" and "identity politics".
Such an abrupt shift won't be easy. Social liberals still dominate the party and will resist any attempt to remake it into a more traditional Labour Party. There could be an uneasy struggle for the soul and direction of the party next year.
But if anyone can bring about a re-orientation for Labour, Little is probably the one.
Being the first modern Labour leader to come from a union background means he has the credentials and nous to re-establish a more economic-oriented party.
There is a growing realisation that the unions are more in line with wider New Zealand and swing voters than Labour's more socially liberal faction.
Get ready for more scandals
The public's scandal fatigue won't prevent politicians from attempting to create more controversies. Headline-hungry parties will continue to escalate the strong aggression we have witnessed this year.
In the absence of particularly strong policy differences between the parties, there will be more focus on personalities and challenges to integrity.
So expect more scandalmongering. Some of this will be useful - we do need politicians and the media to uncover abuse of power and faults of politicians. But in the end, quality not quantity might be what the public wants from such controversies - that is, scandals that matter. The lesson from this year is that some controversies were more important than others, and that it takes a lot for a controversy to eclipse what voters are really interested in: improving our everyday lives.