Blue wash bad for democracy?

The day after the 2005 election a journalist rang to ask me why the provinces went blue.

The question was a response to the gains by National of seats like Invercargill, Aoraki, East Coast, Napier, Tukituki, Tauranga, Wairarapa, and Whanganui which blue washed provincial New Zealand, leaving just West Coast Tasman, Dunedin, most Christchurch seats, New Plymouth, Palmerston North, Wellington and most Auckland seats red.

He wondered if it was socially liberal legislation such as legalising prostitution and civil unions. I replied that I didn’t think these’d had a significantly greater impact in the provinces than they’d had in cities.

The change was more a reflection on the calibre of National’s candidates and the commitment they’d made to winning combined with disenchantment with Labour MPs who’d not been effective in their electorates.

But it was also a growing concern over the negative impact of Labour’s policy and in this the provinces led the country because this time, as a map from Wikipedia  shows the country is even even bluer – National gained West Coast Tasman , Otaki and New Plymouth, leaving Palmerston North   as the only general seat outside Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington and Dunedin held by Labour and they now hold only two of the Maori seats too.


It wasn’t just the provinces which went blue. National also picked up Auckland Central , Maungakiekie and Waitakere as well as the new seat of Botany.

This is great for National and I also think it’s great for New Zealand.

But is it good for democracy?

Electorate MPs face the people who put them in parliament, they work for them as individuals, they see the impact of government policies on them and if they’re effective, they feed that back to Wellington.

It’s the party vote that counts in the make-up of parliament and government. But electorate MPs play a very big role in attracting the party vote.

Good local MPs contribute a great deal to the image of their party, they are a walking talking advertisement for it and its most accessible representative. They build up personal support that can transcend party affiliation – people who can’t bring themselves to vote for a party will give a popular MP their candidate vote. This increases their majority when their party is in favour and may help them retain their seats when the tide turns against their party.

Electorate MPs also play another important role in a democratic country, they also help motivate and encourage volunteers.

Parties on the left often complain that it’s easier for National because our supporters are wealthier and so we have more money. That’s not necessarily so, we have members across the income spectrum and you only have to go back to 2002 to see that Labour can get more money than National.

National’s real strength is not the incomes of our supporters, it’s the number and commitment of its grassroots members and ironically the Electoral Finance Act constrained spending so tightly, it gave national an advantage because campaigns depended on volunteers more than ever.

And that’s why I ask if the bluewash is good for democracy, because one of the things it shows is that other parties don’t have good grassroots support throughout New Zealand.

That’s a concern for them but it’s also a concern for the country because political parties have a great deal of power under MMP and if they don’t have strong memberships that power is based on an unstable foundation of ideology rather than the stable one of broad based and committed supporters.

Hat tip: Kiwiblog.

14 Responses to Blue wash bad for democracy?

  1. Inventory2 says:

    Perhaps people realised that a change of governmentwas inevitable, and made a conscious decision that their Electorate MP’s will be a lot more effective if they are from the governing party.


  2. […] Homepaddock writes on the impact on democracy of National taking virtually all provincial electorate seats. A thoughtful post. worthy of a wider audience. […]


  3. homepaddock says:

    I2 – that may have influenced some people but it was easier to do that when the other parties and their candidates were almost invisable.


  4. Pointer2 says:

    Provincial towns…Invercargill et al in the South, Wanganui and similar in the North…will always have a pretty even voter split between Nat and Lab for party votes. That hasnt changed much this year, which is probably a high tide election for Nats. The difference for the electorate vote is, as you say, largely to do with strong candidates on the Nat side, which comes directly from having strong local party structures, and there is a significant difference in membership numbers…Nats are comparatively very healthy. Much of the practical support Labour gets comes from unions, esp EPMU. While helpful, it doesnt do much to grow the Labour base, or produce genuine local candidates.


  5. stef says:

    Good local MPs contribute a great deal to the image of their party, they are a walking talking advertisement for it and its most accessible representative.

    The one problem with your argument is that you make the assumption that all list MPs are based in main centres and don’t do electorate work when clearly that isn’t true. Pansy Wong was a Canterburian until a few electoral cycles and I know that she did do a lot of electoral work for people from different parts of Auckland which I imagine her office will continue to do now she is an electorate MP. Of course you might argue that she is a ‘special case’ given she is the first MP of Asian descent. But then there are list MPs like Shane Jones up north and Tim Groser our west (who must have been doing something right to come within a few thousand votes of a Labour stronghold like New Lynn).

    Likewise there are volunteers on the left who aren’t involved in unions but do the boring but necessary stuff like put up hordings, distribute leaflets, canvass the electorate, organize fundraisers, act as scrutineers and rent-a-mob when required. Good list MPs know how to tap into this networks which may not share a common geography but do share a common interest.


  6. homepaddock says:

    Stef – you’re right that good list MPs also do good work but most aren’t in the provinces and less likely to have a provincial base and the visibility and accessibility that goes with.

    Tapping into networks is good for issues and causes but that’s not the same as someone who’s on the spot and gets a broad cross section of people working together for the party as a whole as an MP based locally does.


  7. stef says:

    Tapping into networks is good for issues and causes but that’s not the same as someone who’s on the spot and gets a broad cross section of people working together for the party as a whole as an MP based locally does.
    But just like bad list MPs there are also crap electorate MPs, my now former local one being a prime example.

    As for tapping into networks, that’s kind of what campaigning is. I spend a fair chunk of my week not sleeping in my electorate, my spiritual home is west Auckland and I work in the central city. My point is that geography might be vitally important for some people, but for others not so much for others who might define themselves in other ways.


  8. hp: You may be exaggerating the role and effect of the local MP. On Auckland’s North Shore, for example, all significant parties – not just National – had candidates door-knocking and showing up at markets and fairs and walking the streets and speaking at candidate meetings. I know the Green candidate has been door knocking for 6 months and knocked on thousands of doors. Labour’s Hamish McCracken was also out there.

    In Auckland, the EFA wasn’t much of an issue. There was nothing we couldn’t do because of the EFA.

    But what we coouldn’t do was get fair and accurate coverage in the only newspaper in town: The NZ Herald. The Herald was STRONGLY anti-Labour. It went well beyond mere bias and into overt campaigning for National. The Herald also unilaterally declared this election to be a two-party election and gave minimal coverage to anyone else and rarely on the issues they actually wanted to talk about.

    Around NZ we have the Fairfax monopoly in some cities and the APN monopoly in the rest. Neither media chain backed Labour and all were for National. As they were last election, too.

    That Auckland went for National had more to do with monopoly propagandizing by the monopoly daily newspaper for the Aucikland region. Despite the claims made about the EFA, it was actually the Herald who shut everyone down…..not the law.

    The Herald:

    – devoted an entire section to John Key on two consecutive Saturdays. Money can’t buy promotion like that.
    – Ran about 50 stories on Winston Peters and Owen Glenn – at least 16 on the front page – while deep-sixing the story about John Key’s tranzRail shares. They didn’t even cover the story about his Fletcher shares.
    – Didn’t report the news that numbers on the dole had reached a 35 year low at 17,456.
    – Didn’t report that the NZ government debt had fallen from $20 billion to $2 billion. That’s there the tax money went. No one in Auckland knows.
    – Wrote many articles focusing on the COST of the ETS while not writing a single line I can recall about the cost of doing nothing.

    I could go on all day and into the night.

    If you want to know why people are swinging to National, I;d suggest it is partly – at least – due to the monopoly press in New Zealand being uniformly lined up with and backing National.

    This is nothing new. The newspapers in Ontario, Canada work the same way. Three corporate owners, two aligned with the Liberals and one with the Conservatives…and no one else gets coverage….certainly not good coverage. At least those are divided. here in NZ, two foreign billionaires who own our daily print media both back National.

    Of course it isn’t monolithic. Each paper or chain will have its token liberal or lefty….but the overwhelming and overriding message over time is most definitely for National.

    Only during the campaign do they start to introduce balance. The previous two years – at least (20 in the case of the Dominion Post) have been quite unbalanced.


  9. homepaddock says:

    Stef and Truthseeker – your examples are about cities. I’m talking about the provinces – Labour has only 7 MPs in the whole of the South Island – 3 in Christchurch, one in Waimarakariri (which could at a pinch be called provincial) and 2 list MPs – one stood in Nelson and I think lives there, the other stood in Waitaki and lives in Dunedin but that’s the whole of the rest of the South Island without a Labour MP near by.

    I haven’t checked the other parties properly but can think of only 1 Green MP in the South Island (in Dunedin) in the last parliament.


  10. J.R.M. says:

    Truthseeker- What about the TVmedia reporters especially TV3 Barry Sloper Trotter Armstrong and others show adistinct left bias , Many in the media also show adistinct Labour bias ,the Press, ODT oamaruMail both in editorials and reporting. J.R.M.


  11. bobux says:


    You have somehow failed to notice that Labour actually won the last three elections, and I don’t think there has been a great upheaval in newspaper ownership since 2005. Care to explain why the Herald and Dominion didn’t swing the previous three elections for National too?

    You sound remarkably like the US Democrats who insisted sinister right-wing forces had rigged the previous two election results. Then they found an appealing candidate, got their fund-raising sorted out and miraculously, the rigging stopped!

    Face reality – Labour looked tired, their negative campaign turned people off, and they were carrying the burden of nine years accumulated mistakes. If Mike Williams had installed himself as editor-in-chief of the nation’s media, it probably wouldn’t have made a blind bit of difference.


  12. stef says:

    Homepaddock but there are plenty of voters in the cities, nearly 55 per cent live in the four main centres. For those who live in smaller places the local electorate MP might be a big deal hence why we have the South Island quota. But I stand by my point that especially in this age of the internet geography isn’t an inherent defining characteristic of politics and if parties choose to ignore areas because they don’t seem so vote rich, they do so at their peril.


  13. homepaddock says:

    Stef, one wo/man-one vote is a basic requirement of democracy. That is why electorates are based on population (with a 5% tolerance) and so provincial electorates are so much bigger than city ones and they keep getting bigger because city populations increase faster.

    The logical consequence of that is that there will be more MPs in cities.

    The problem is that with MMP all but a very few of the list MPs are based in cities (and I’ll have to check but I suspect most are in Auckland and Wellington) so there are more MPs per person in cities than in the provinces.

    Because of that most of the parties are ignoring the provinces which aren’t vote rich and that’s not good for policy formation or democracy.


  14. […] Blue wash bad for democracy? This increases their majority when their party is in favour and may help them retain their seats when the tide turns against their party. Electorate MPs also play another important role in a democratic country, they also help motivate … […]


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