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Christchurch East debacle a wake-up call for National

Matthew Hooton
Sat, 07 Dec 2013

Last weekend’s Christchurch East by-election was an absolute debacle for National.

In 2011, 13,252 residents of Christchurch East turned out to back John Key and the governing party. That was a staggering 46% of the vote, well ahead of Labour, which has held the seat since 1922, on a pitiful 31%.

Even more remarkable, 10,225 voters backed National’s candidate, the lamentable Aaron Gilmore. Given that Mr Key was re-elected in 2011 by fewer than 10,000 votes, it was National’s extraordinary performance in the previously Labour stronghold of Christchurch that saved New Zealand from a Labour/Green/NZ First/Maori Party/Mana coalition.

It now appears Christchurch is again red.  On Saturday, just 3506 voters bothered to turn out for National’s Matthew Doocey, a shocking 26% result.  It means that nearly 10,000 National voters in suburbs like Shirley, Burwood, Aranui and New Brighton stayed home.  Fewer voters bothered to back born-and-bred-Cantabrian Mr Doocey than ticked the disastrous Melissa Lee in Mt Albert in 2009.

National kids itself that it was the victim of a low turnout but Labour’s campaign manager, Jim Anderton, managed to motivate nearly 90% of Labour’s 2011 party vote to get to the booths to back his candidate, Poto Williams.  That’s despite her being a recent arrival from Auckland and embarrassingly naïve in claiming Labour’s main policy plank, KiwiAssure, would somehow help resolve insurance disputes with existing providers relating to the 2010/11 earthquakes.

In contrast, even with Mr Key personally campaigning on the streets of Christchurch, National couldn’t get its voters out.  The main reason the turnout was so low was because National voters stayed home.

Bungled operations
National’s campaign was designed, as always, by cabinet supremo Steven Joyce.   He sent one of his most trusted lieutenants, Auckland-based Jo de Joux, to run operations. Wellington-based PR experts guided the local media campaign.

As NBR’s Christchurch correspondent Chris Hutching reported the day before the by-election, National undisputedly won the media battle.  Seldom a day went by without Mr Doocey, Mr Key or other senior party figures appearing in the local media shaking hands or kissing babies.  It created the impression that just as National had thumped Labour for the 2011 Christchurch East party vote, it had a chance of picking up the seat.

The historic importance had that been achieved cannot be overstated: no government has taken a seat from an opposition party in a by-election in New Zealand’s history.  Had National only got its 2011 party vote to the polling booths, David Cunliffe’s leadership of the Labour Party would now be at risk and Mr Key would be on track to win 2014.

Alas, Mrs de Joux’s team couldn’t get the voters to the booths.

By-election and general election campaigns cannot necessarily be compared.  In a by-election, hundreds of one-on-one interactions make the difference.  In a general election, media management is more important. In that area, the Christchurch East experience indicates National retains the edge.  

But as she prepares to run National’s general election campaign in 2014, Mrs de Joux will want to reflect carefully on what went wrong in Christchurch East.  In 2005, remember, it was Labour president Mike Williams’ extraordinary effort in getting his party’s South Auckland supporters to the polls that kept Don Brash out of power.  Labour never tires of telling us that, in 2011, had just a handful of the estimated 800,000 non-voters turned out for Phil Goff, Mr Key would have been defeated after a single term.

Developments this week have again weakened Mr Key’s chances for next year.  Boundary changes have probably helped Peter Dunne retain Ohariu but Act is headed for oblivion in its current form.  The Maori Party is struggling and cannot be relied to back National should it hold the balance of power.  Another disastrous coalition with Winston Peters is surely off the table.  Mr Key’s other hope, the Conservative Party’s Colin Craig, has caused a furore after seeming to question the 1969 moon landings.

To scrape home, Mr Key needs the 10,000 missing National voters in Christchurch East to turn out for him in 2014, and he can’t afford any turnout debacles elsewhere.  Mrs de Joux has a lot to think about over summer.

Matthew Hooton
Sat, 07 Dec 2013
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Christchurch East debacle a wake-up call for National