Kiwis Get to Choose

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Not a word to the panjandrums in Canberra, but across the Tasman a Left-Right divide seems to have been discovered. Tweedle Kim and Tweedle John would find the prospect distinctly alarming, but in New Zealand opposing political parties have conflicting policies.

In a nation seen to be split on questions of race, the economy and social issues, NZ faces a real choice on Saturday.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark

Depending on which foreign-owned newspaper you read, Helen Clark is either heading for a record third term by a margin of a little over four percentage points, or her opponent, the former NZ Reserve Bank Governor and ANU graduate, Don Brash, has his nose in front by a little under seven points.

So it’s a cliff-hanger, with a lacklustre Labour holding out the promise of abolishing interest on student loans and the Nationals waving the carrot of tax cuts for all. Slashing the public service is on the Brash agenda, while Clark wants to embed social democracy. She offers targeted tax cuts, while he plays an outrageous race card, talking of abandoning both the long tradition of special Maori electorates (set up in 1867) and programs that are race-based. `Merit not race,’ says Brash of money for tertiary education.

‘People are comparing them to the Ku Klux Klan,’ says a leading Maori commentator, Willy Jackson, ‘but I don’t believe the Nats are in any way as bad as our people think.’ Kicking Maori is, he says, a way of getting ahead electorally. In a salutary reminder of the high rate of imprisonment of Maori, one of its party leaders was seeking votes from jail inmates this week. Prisoners serving up to three years may vote.

Although Brash says he would consult the electorate on some vital issues, he seems likely to revert to follow-the-leader when it comes to foreign policy. He famously told US Senators that under him the nuclear-free policy, which gives NZ some identity and pride, would be ‘gone by lunchtime.’

One of the weird aspects of NZ elections is that local candidates may miss out but still get into office. Under the mixed-member proportional system (MMP) set up in 1996, 69 of the 120 members are elected on the electorate vote and the rest by party vote. Parliament comprises members chosen by the percentage of party votes each party gets, known as ‘list’ seats, and MPs directly elected. To win a seat a party has to have at least one MP elected in an electorate or get at least 5 per cent of the vote.

Don Brash

Don Brash

So, when it comes to the seat of Otago, for instance, Labour’s David Parker, who wrested it from the Nats after 27 years, is tipped to lose this time, but get into Parliament anyway because he is high enough on his party’s list.

Overall last election Labour won 52 seats, Nationals 27, NZ First 13 and the rest went to minor parties.

Another intriguing aspect of this election is the decline of NZ First, which is threatened by the new Maori Party and seems unlikely to make the cut. Its leader, the wily, preening Winston Peters courted the xenophobes’ vote by outing Middle Eastern ‘terrorists’ in the migrant community with a fervour unseen since the days of reds-under-the-bed. Peters’s mob stands for ‘the right to stop being swamped by a flood of immigrants’ and to be able to walk down the streets in safety. But Peters is forever personified, in the words of the late PM, David Lange, as almost missing a meeting because he was delayed by a full-length mirror.

A masterly smear merchant, Peters this week accused his National opponent of sexual harassment, thus possibly ensuring NZ First could not go into coalition with the Nats. Desperation to get back into parliament overwhelmed Peters’ desire for personal power.

This is a rare intrusion of ‘biff’ in a contest that has seen Brash say he did not go hard at Clark in a televised debate because she was a woman. Mind you, his supporters at the debate chanted ‘lesbo’ and similar niceties at the PM.

So the question of trust has been raised.

On the one hand, a CEO from the age of 30, and after 14 years running NZ’s Reserve Bank, Brash became an MP just three years ago. He likes to spend time alone on his kiwifruit farm, and TV ads show him tie off and grinning. But he is a hard man, with more than a passing resemblance to Mr Burns in The Simpsons. His offer this week of relief for motorists hit by rocketing petrol prices was painted as cynical and desperate by Clark, and she may be right. Just a fortnight after he publicly vowed not to do so, Brash offered to cut petrol tax by 5 cents a litre from 1 October to April Fool’s Day next year.

A leaked email written by a special adviser to Brash, said he had to be ‘sloppy, soft and wet’ and open up the cheque book because ‘soft-centred voters are inherently self-interested and will vote according to what they can get out of you.’

Brash also stands accused of lying after he denied he knew about a $NZ500,000 campaign against Labour and the Greens run by the secretive, fundamentalist members of the Exclusive Brethren Church, who are angry at gay marriages and what they see as a lack of law and order. Pamphlets widely distributed by church members are similar to those handed out against the Greens in Tasmania, although those responsible here say their campaign is locally created.

Prime Minister Clark on the other hand, is a lover of opera, classical music and cross-country skiing, and she has poured millions into the arts. Ironically, she was found to have signed a work she did not paint. She was also found to have confirmed to a reporter allegations against a Police Commissioner (Fairfax newspapers dispensed with journalists’ confidentiality when hit with a writ).

Conversely, Clark issued a pledge of her electoral promises at previous elections and she has carried them all out.

Even after thirty years of political campaigns Clark seems rattled, developing a tic in her cheek and upsetting voters when police responsible for her motorcade speeding to a rugby match were prosecuted, while she stood aloof. And she personally told off an airline pilot who criticised her while she was on board his plane.

All of this may matter little on Saturday, however, if both major parties fail to win enough seats to form government. Brash will have to court extreme minor parties. The Greens and a left-wing splinter party are Clark’s choice.

With unemployment low, tourism booming, farmers growing fat and the nation enjoying wide sporting success, there may be less of a mood for change than simply continuing the division in a country that has seen so much upheaval, is so envious of Australia, and is, in part at least, fed up with that woman.

Next week Kevin Childs will look at the wash-up from this weekend’s New Zealand elections.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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