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Across a non-scientific survey of politicians and pundits, the average prediction was 77.3% turnout. Image: Archi Banal
Across a non-scientific survey of politicians and pundits, the average prediction was 77.3% turnout. Image: Archi Banal

PoliticsOctober 2, 2023

A low-energy, small-vision campaign could spell a slump in voter turnout

Across a non-scientific survey of politicians and pundits, the average prediction was 77.3% turnout. Image: Archi Banal
Across a non-scientific survey of politicians and pundits, the average prediction was 77.3% turnout. Image: Archi Banal

As advance voting gets under way, the signs point to a significant drop in participation, reckons Toby Manhire.

‘It seems to me from a distance,” said former Tory minister Rory Stewart, beginning a question to Chris Hipkins, “maybe this is very unfair –” Doubt it, Rory, carry on. “That when I look at the National Party campaign, when I look at the Labour Party campaign, it seems – unless I am wrong –” Get on with it. “To be fighting around economics, healthcare, law and order. It feels a little bit 1990s to me. I’m not seeing a campaign that really is embracing the challenges of the next 20, 30 years.”

The observation, made as part of an episode of Stewart’s podcast with Alastair Campbell, is hard to argue with. For better or worse, the campaign has been stolid, big on the here and now, small on the hope and change. 

Stewart continued: “I’ve just been on the websites of your two parties and I honestly do think we could pretty much have seen a similar campaign run any time in the last 30, 40 years. How do politicians really create space in public conversations for talking about how much climate, AI, global poverty – how these things are coming to change the world?”

Stewart’s reference to “your two parties” betrays a first-past-the-post mindset. He’d likely have found grander visions had he explored the sites of Act, or the Greens, or Te Pāti Māori. That’s where much of the New Zealand electorate has been turning, with the combined “purple” vote of Labour and National in the doldrums, alongside the popularity of their leaders. But the big parties, the two contenders to lead the next government, inescapably set the mood, and take up most of the space.

Hipkins’ response to Stewart was “these things do tend to go in cycles”. New Zealand, he said, was very much at the “back to basics” point of the scale. That mentality has pervaded the campaign from the two big parties: the taut focus on the economy, the cost of living, the bread and butter. 

Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon at the first TVNZ leaders’ debate of 2023 (Photo: Andrew Dalton/TVNZ)

Those positions don’t spring from nothing; they’re informed by instinct, encounters with voters, and a boat load of market research. Whether it is an approach likely to mobilise the electorate to the polls is another matter. Maybe people will be encouraged to vote, given how acutely the importance of politics is felt today in their lives, in their ability to get through a supermarket shop without suffering a cardiac arrest.

More likely, and more dispiriting, is the opposite. To borrow an observation once made of UK prime minister Harold Wilson, our major party leaders have been going up and down the country, stirring up apathy, and the malaise of the moment will translate into a sharp drop in turnout. That would be further bad news for the left, who tend to be more heavily impacted when turnout is low.

The last election saw 82.2% of enrolled voters cast a ballot. It was the third consecutive increase in turnout since the low of 2011, when just 74.2% voted. The 2020 vote was arguably anomalous: not only did it take place in the midst of the Covid response, there were two referendums bolted on: on end of life choice and legalising cannabis, further encouraging people to the polls. 

That said, there was a referendum attached in 2011, too, on whether to keep MMP, and that didn’t help much, with “electoral ennui”, in the words of one commentator, dragging turnout down to its lowest level since universal suffrage. Something similar is in the air in 2023. The second leaders’ debate may have provided the fireworks the first was missing, but not so much the vision thing. Too many times in this campaign, the Chris twins have made John Key look like Barack Obama. 

Parliamentary Library.

Recent elections have seen advance voting account for an increasingly large proportion of the total. The requirement to have a special reason to advance vote was scrapped ahead of the 2011 election, but at that time places to actually cast your vote early were few and far between. As of today, advance voting signs are springing like spring daffodils across the country, in church halls, community centres, all over the place

In 2020, two out of every three votes in total were cast ahead of polling day itself. Almost a million votes had been cast with a week to go to the election. Tomorrow we’ll get the first numbers from the Electoral Commission on advance voting (a tally, that is, rather than for whom people are voting; we have to wait till after 7pm on Saturday October 14 for that). But we’ll soon get some clue to how enthusiastic people are about voting. Even if this year’s numbers don’t match 2020, when the Covid spectre meant more advance voting locations and a longer advance vote period, the availability and normalisation of advance voting should militate against a 2011-level slump.

How low could it get? Across a non-scientific survey of 28 politicians and commentators who took part in the Spinoff Gone By Lunchtime Megapod, the average prediction was 77.3% of enrolled voters. (See the full list of predictions below.) That would be a big drop – close to 5% of the electorate – putting us just below the 2014 turnout of 77.9%. 

All that said, elevating charisma at the expense of all else in pursuit of higher engagement is a dangerous course. To return to Rory Stewart: in an interview with the London Evening Standard, the enemy and inveterate critic of Boris Johnson was blunter about his Hipkins encounter. “I’ve just been interviewing the prime minister of New Zealand,” he told the paper. “Everything he said was really sensible and yet, of course, even I was slightly thinking: that’s a bit boring. So you know, I’m suddenly thinking, at least Boris Johnson’s funny. Where’s the charisma?” As the luckless Hipkins sits in Covid isolation this morning, be sure of this: we’ll take him, or the other Chris, over charismatic Boris any day.

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