New Zealand: The hidden election story is the Conservatives

Why did TV and the printed media ignore it, and did John Key take tea with the wrong guy?

The people vote in a general electoion on Saturday, 26 November. In the New Zealand Herald today, with some 11,000 votes cast, an ongoing online poll measures 3% support for the Conservatives, so far. 

The final OneNews Colmar Brunton poll which talked to over a thousand Kiwis over five days, calculated that the recently formed Conservatives had improved to 2.4%, prompting TVNZ Political Editor Guyon Espinar to ask "whether John Key picked the wrong party to have a cup of tea with." He was, of course, referring to the prime minister's cosy chat with John Banks in Epsom. Banks looks set to fail in the Auckland seat, while Conservative leader Colin Craig might well beat off his National challenger in Rodney. Should Craig win, the Conservatives would arrive in parliament with three MPs.

The Conservatives' campaign has suffered from limited coverage as local media has instead focussed on seemingly meatier subjects like Banks' Epsom battle and the prospect of ACT's demise, Winston Peters' prospects of breaching the 5% mark thus returning him and New Zealand First colleagues to Wellington without winning an electorate seat, and the Green surge. 

All three issues are notable, for sure. But the Greens won't work with National and, with Labour polling at c. 30%, the environmentalists are unlikely to be involved in formulating policy. And Peters claims a preference for opposition, arguing policy on a case-by-case basis. OneNews Colmar Brunton has NZ First at 4.2%, thus falling short in any event by 0.8%.

These polls are subject to a significant margin of error. And if taken over several days, many voters could well have been interviewed prior to final televised leaders' debates. On the day people might vote differently, and in past elections Green support has dropped off as polling takes place. 

So, while National is riding high, by many recent measures exceeding 50% support, the outcome remains uncertain. 

Labour has swelled its support as the campaign has progressed. Leader Phil Goff, while avoiding problematic marginals, has had a generally good press and campaign. The result could be tight. And National might need a coalition partner or two to govern. The moderate-left Maori Party, while having seen its support dip, will still gain several electorate seats. They seem comfortable in their dealings in government so far. And it looks likely to me that Key will offer them another shot at coalition. He'd like a balancing right-of-centre ally, for sure, and should ACT be unsuccessful he'd need a replacement.

Enter the Conservatives.

Due to the lack of coverage resulting from poor media interest, I don't believe any polling firm has been hired by a major publication to report on voter intentions in the semi-rural Auckland seat of Rodney. However, should Colin Craig's well-crafted, super-funded and carefully marketed campaign succeed, the Conservatives may well find themselves knocking on the Cabinet door.

The Auckland-based New Zealand Herald only list the policies of those parties already represented in parliament, together with regularly high polling minor party New Zealand First.  However, the Conservatives appear to embrace a natural constituency and will possibly achieve more votes than ACT, United Future, Mana or Maori parties.

So, what exactly is the Conservatives' agenda? It appears to include:

(1) Governance: less politicians, greater honesty, equality and unity rather than division, more referenda.

(2) Law & Order: more justice for victims, tougher action on criminals, proactive initiatives to reduce offending.

(3) Economy: a plan for economic prosperity involving bolstering the farming sector and scrapping the emissions trading scheme (ETS), reduce fuel and power prices.

(4) Families: more support for parents, scrap the anti-smacking legislation, establish impartial inquiry into family breakdown and child abuse, parental approval of teenage abortion. 

The result from Rodney electorate to the north of Auckland city at the 2008 general election was as follows:

Lockwood Smith, National, 22,698 or 60.41%
Connor Roberts, Labour, 7,063 or 18.8%
David Hay, Green, 2,890 or 7.69
Beryl Good, ACT, 1,760 or 4.68%
Tracey Martin, NZ First, 1,599 or 4.26%
Karl Adams, Family Party, 735 or 1.96%
Simonne Dyer, Kiwi Party, 581 or 1.55%
Kathleen Deal, United Future, 245 or 0.65%. 

Lockwood Smith was subsequently elected parliamentary Speaker. Mark Mitchell has replaced Smith as National candidate for Rodney. Tracey Martin remains the NZ First candidate. United Future is not putting up a candidate in 2011. The Greens and ACT have changed candidates since 2008. 

The Christian centre-right Family Party has disbanded, and the Christian centre-right Kiwi party has effectively been absorbed into the Conservatives. Colin Craig can expect to attract a considerable local following due to socal and business connections and his father Ross's work as a local Councellor. He might also expect to pick up support from former Family and Kiwi voters. On paper, he has a mountain to climb, but he is likely to have run a strong campaign.

It seems strange that much of the media failed to spot the rise of the Conservatives. True investigative reporting is apparently rare in the Land of the Long White Cloud. Perhaps the media like to witness success before taking new parties seriously. 

Yet, to be fair, journalists and camera crews might speed en-masse up to Rodney tonight in a rushed attempt to capture the scene before before polls open tomorrow. Campbell Live on TV3 has a reputation for rapid response. We'll see.

Update later on November 25, 2011:  

Well, at least TV3 News covered it, visiting the constituency and interviewing Craig and Mitchell, as well as Key wherever he was campaigning. Craig, who has a penchant for private polling, remarked that even at this late stage some 20% of the electorate remains "undecided". 

I noticed a remark from one political analyst who said, under the proportional MMP voting system, history informs that every small party that's got "near to government" suffers a fall in support at the subsequent election. 

This is certainly the experience of the minor coalition party in the UK. There, the Liberal Democrats have watched in horror as their vote share has dropped from 23% in May 2010 to an average of 9% now. 

Should Colin Craig and his colleagues reach the New Zealand House of Representatives, they would be better advised to refuse tantalising offers of ministerial jobs.

In New Zealand, the Greens have successfully raised their profile having avoided the baubles of office. This time round they could possibly double their representation if they can hold on to support as people go the polls.

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