Analysis: Lessons from a boring byelection

Lesson #1: Boring by-elections produce disengaged citizens. By and large, voters stayed away from the polling booths in Northcote, leading Newshub political editor Tova O'Brien to pronounce democracy was the biggest loser of this campaign – see: Clear loser in Northcote, and it wasn't the candidates.

Ms O'Brien’s main point was this: “Voter turnout is always a bit crap in by-elections, and it was crap again – just 43.7%. The advance votes showed real promise for higher voter turnout – more than twice as many people voted in advance in Northcote than they did in the Mt Albert or Mt Roskill by-elections last year. Yes, turnout is up on those (27.6% in Mt Albert, 38.5% in Mt Roskill) but it's not a patch on the Northland by-election – 64.4%, which was still crap. The general election was 79.8% – we could still do better there. So come on, guys – don't let the politicians be the only winners whether they won or not. Vote.”

Left-wing blogger Steven Cowan also points to the low voter turnout, and suggests the problem is systemic rather than the fault of voters – see: Neither representative or democratic. He says, “The Northcote by-election reveals – again – that New Zealand’s political system is broken.” 

Lesson #2: The “Did Not Vote” option was the most popular in Northcote. The 43.7% turnout figure from the Electoral Commission is based on those who voted as a percentage of those enrolled. However, the commission and Statistics New Zealand previously estimated that in Northcote there is an eligible voter population of 54,790 (of which about 9% were not enrolled). So, when you take that into account, the “real” voter turnout was actually well under 40%. And Bidois’ vote tally of 10,147 is actually only about 18.5% of the electorate. In fact, nearly two-thirds of the electorate chose not to vote at all – see my blog post, The Did Not Vote option was the clear winner in Northcote

Lesson #3: The Northcote by-election was boring. According to right-wing commentator Brigitte Morten, there is little to be learnt from the by-election results, because the results simply “reinforced the status quo.” She maintains both Labour and National ran strong campaigns – with Labour using the “star power” of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to good effect in the electorate – but there was really little of interest to follow: “If you were looking for excitement from your politicians, the Northcote by-election just might have proved that politics lately is a snooze-fest” – see: Northcote by-election: no wonder people are watching Dancing with the Stars

Lesson #4: NZ politics is stalemated. There really aren’t any great changes going on in terms of the popular support for parties at the moment, and the Northcote results were much as expected, with little change from previous elections. This point is made best today by Richard Harman in his column, Why Northcote shows NZ politics are stalemated. He says: “Overall, there was a tiny swing (1.6%) from National to the Labour/Greens/NZ First block. A swing that small hardly matters. In essence, neither National nor Labour made up ground.”

Mr Harman says this stalemate, in which the two major parties are fairly evenly weighted, shows the minor parties are going to be crucial in the future: “It is now clear the fate of Labour’s support parties will play a huge, if not dominant role in the next election. If they collapse and Labour does not try to save them with electoral deals, then the closer the contest comes to a two-party Labour v National race and National’s chances improve … So the conclusion from Saturday is that to be safe, Labour needs to start targeting National voters, and National itself needs to think deeply and seriously about its support party strategies. Until either party makes a move in those directions, the current stalemate looks likely to continue.”

Lesson #5: National is relieved not to have lost. Both Labour and National are spinning the Northcote result as a reason to celebrate. National is rejoicing in the fact that it has been able to retain a similar share of the vote (51%) as last time while Labour is pointing to its own vote increasing from 35% to 44%. In Labour’s case, its increased percentage seems to be the simple result of votes from the Greens and NZ First sticking with the main government candidate.

Audrey Young explains National’s relief, saying Simon Bridges, “always had a lot more to lose from the result than Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – given that National has won the seat for the past five general elections. A loss for Labour in a seat it has not won since 2002 would have been, and is, business as usual. The Northcote contest will be barely remembered in the annals of byelections. A loss for National would have been a major setback for a leader who has been in the job for only four months” – see: National and Simon Bridges have reason to celebrate Northcote win

Lesson #6: National’s opinion polling is more reliable than Labour’s. Much was made in the last two weeks of the campaign about internal party polling of Northcote voters. Before polling day, Simon Wilson covered this, and his conclusion is worth reading in light of the results, in which National’s (preliminary) majority turned out to be 1362: “National said its campaign polling revealed it had an 8% lead, while Labour claimed, from its own polling, that National's lead had fallen from 6.4% to 2.1%. If National was right, its candidate Dan Bidois would probably win with a 1500 majority. If Labour was right, National might squeak home with fewer than 400 votes” – see: By the numbers: why either party could win the Northcote byelection

Lesson #7: The by-election indicates National has some problems. There is a consensus that Labour ran a good campaign in Northcote. And National’s was also more than adequate. However, according to Richard Harman in a column last week, the by-election campaign has highlighted some problems for National – see: Much ado about not a lot in Northcote

The first problem for National is the strategic one of how to campaign when you have only just left office, and the new government isn’t producing any useful issues to rail against: “The Nats frankly admit that Jacinda Ardern’s government has not really done anything to provoke strong feelings of either support or opposition within the electorate. At the same time, National has to be careful how far it goes with its criticism of the government on issues like transport because only nine months ago, it was the government and therefore largely responsible for the congestion on the main roads in the electorate.”

Additionally, Mr Harman says, National has some organisational issues: “Under Jonathan Coleman the National Party organisation in the electorate had declined and to make up the required numbers for the selection meeting, National Party members from other electorates across the northern North Island were brought into the selection meeting. Many of those members were electorate officials and were conscious that the party leadership wanted the Maori Harvard- educated economist, Dan Bidois, with his stellar CV, in Parliament. It’s clear National has been struggling to get the numbers to staff its campaign and at its launch there were a number of MPs from the South Island and southern North Island present.”

Lesson #8: Advance voting is taking over, making a mockery of the old rules. This was the first election in which more people voted before polling day. According to the Electoral Commission, 57% of votes were cast in advance. This is higher than any previous by-election or general election. For example, at the 2014 election, 26% of votes were in advance. This increased at last year’s election to nearly 40%. I’m quoted by RNZ’s Charlie Dreaver as saying this is because “both National and Labour are making an effort to push voters into casting their votes earlier” – see: Campaigning rules questioned as voting habits change

With advance voting going up, this is likely to increasingly bring into question existing electoral laws that apply to polling day but not to the advance voting period. I’m quoted saying “Candidates can't really go out campaigning on polling day but they can do it in those days leading up when those people are voting, so it really means there's a contradiction, it means the rules aren't consistently applied, it makes something of a mockery of those rules.”

Finally, for details of the new National MP for Northcote, there are two profiles that are well worth reading: Audrey Young’s profile of the man who described himself as the “Fonzie” of Howick College – see: Failure is a big part of the success of new Northcote MP Dan Bidois, and Simon Wilson’s Coffee with National's candidate Dan Bidois

Rider: This content is not commissioned or paid for by NBR

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