The Baubles of Office, The New Zealand General Election of 2005

The Baubles of Office, The New Zealand General Election of 2005, edited by Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts, Victoria University Press, March 2007, 600pp, $49.95.

reviewed by Nicky Hager


Following each election since 1987, Victoria University has held a conference and then produced a book about the election. This book is the seventh in that series, containing 31 contributors and 31 chapters and stretching across 600 pages.

The first area that stands out is the book’s thoughtful analysis of politics under New Zealand’s MMP electoral system.  It is easy to blame MMP for all sorts of political problems, and many people do. But political scientists Stephen Levine, Nigel Roberts and Rob Salmond, remind us that before MMP, the election system “had been among the democratic world’s most disproportional”, meaning that governments were a poor reflection of how people voted. They assessed the first four elections under MMP against the arguments of its original supporters and opponents and concluded optimistically:

“MMP politics in reality is closer to the vision of its supporters than to the fears of its opponents… Politicians and voters alike are making MMP a more effective instrument of democratic politics with each election.”

Similarly, political scientist Therese Arseneau looked at the 2005 election result and concluded that its implications — “slowing down legislation and loosening the Cabinet’s stranglehold on the House” — are “some of the reasons New Zealanders wanted MMP in the first place.” 

There are also four interesting chapters on Maori and MMP, including an optimistic chapter by Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples. Maori politicians, he wrote — “whether it is us doing it, or [Labour Party MP] Shane Jones, or whoever – were bringing their people “the idea of hope, that we are going forward, and that we are going to get our people out of the sort of dependency trap that so many of our people are trapped in.” Political scientist Maria Bargh had observed the progress of the election marae by marae. She wrote about the very different style of marae-based electioneering, revealing a little known aspect of our democracy.

Other chapters cover election advertisements, media coverage, environment issues and the complex post-election process of forming a government. It is also a book of record, including data on the election results, details of election campaign advertising and a chance to read each elected party’s views on the election. The space provided by a book, unlike the usual short news quotations, allows room for ideas and longer-term issues to be discussed.

The breadth of different voices provides a valuable resource but also uneven quality. Next to the good chapters are others that are more like quick newspaper commentaries. The book’s publicity press release states “New book reveals the full story of the 2005 election”, but it does not. The book is mostly a compilation of information already on the public record, parties talking about themselves and commentaries on these. There seems a lack of curiosity about what was happening below the surface. For instance, the genuineness of election policies and the truthfulness of election advertisements and messages attracted almost no comment, and nor did election finance issues, the influence of lobby groups and sophisticated modern electioneering techniques. Overall there is too much superficial ‘horse race’ style commentary.

For instance, a crucial issue is the harmful effect that ‘successful’ short-term election tactics have on public feelings about politics and the functioning of our democratic system. But this hardly featured, with the notable exception of political scientist Jon Johansson’s chapter called “Brash, Orewa and the Politics of Race: ‘Critic and Conscience’ in a Desperate Campaign”.

Johansson wrote about the National Party’s use of race as a (pakeha) vote winner and also Labour’s lack of leadership when confronted with these tactics. He wrote of “an implicit moral dimension, an ethical leadership element” that should guide parties’ and leaders’ policy decisions. “To deny any moral consideration whatsoever,” he wrote, “is ultimately to prefer power to politics and control to leadership”.

Ideas like these are on a different level to much of the book, as was his discussion of the influence of leaders’ and advisors’ attitudes to the public. On race, he concluded that “National and Labour were linked, paradoxically, by their sharing a fundamental mistrust of the public’s intelligence over Treaty and race issues”. He also wrote about the value (and problems) of university academics consciously playing the role of ‘critic and conscience’ in society, noting that little if anything has been written, at least in New Zealand, about this aspect of an academic’s life.

The book would have been better if more contributors had been willing to step beyond the safety of recording details and providing more or less bland commentary, and instead they had analysed, criticised and taken a public position on the bigger issues. Like the chapters on the progress of MMP, this offers much more to the reader and the country.