This election campaign was a roller-coaster of unexpected revelations and controversy. For the Greens this meant our strategy of running a clean campaign, sticking to a clear plan and releasing properly costed, practical policies never made the impression it should have.
We never actually put a foot wrong, our leaders always conducted themselves well in all debates and media, and were widely praised by political commentators for their performances. Our television advertising was professional and appealing and, while some of our billboards may have been a little obtuse for many, we didn't get the same level of vandalism that others received. We were able to mobilize 6,000 volunteers and our door knocking and phone calling was at the level of a major party. In Invercargill the scrutineers we placed in our most significant booths were often sitting alone.
There will be a detailed analysis of the campaign by our review team in time but I thought I would record my initial views and conversations that I have had during the immediate postmortem.
Election campaigns generally end up as a battle between the good side and the bad. Under normal circumstances National would have been considered dirty and tainted and this should have shifted support to the left. The presence of Kim Dotcom, however, enabled National to create the impression that it was him who personified evil and they were the real victims of a dirty campaign. Despite Internet/Mana revealing the fact that New Zealanders are being subjected to mass surveillance through the XKeyscore system the much promoted big hit against Key from Dotcom was a fizzer. He became focus of negative press instead and the interviews with his unhappy staff sealed his fate and Internet/Mana were dragged down with him.
Winston Peters is always the wildcard element in any election campaign and while few will be able to describe many of New Zealand First's policies, he is the consummate politician. Winston has an ear for popular opinion and can read an audience better than most. Being the leader of a personality based party he is able to make policy on the hoof and quickly respond to situations as they arise to gain maximum support. You only have to read his responses to Family First's survey to know that he has shaped the answers to fit the audience and is likely to say something completely different to another group. New Zealand First has limited party resources and lacked visibility in Invercargill during most of the campaign (few billboards or leaflets etc) and yet in the last week Winston attracted around 120 people to a public meeting here and captured 3,525 votes in the preliminary results (1,300 more than 2011). Many of these votes would have come from past Labour supporters.
Voters were starved of any real policy analysis in the MSM. Few people in Invercargill who I spoke to were aware of our newborn baby pack and yet I thought it was a superb final policy release. The Southland Times made no obvious reference to it. We ended up with another presidential race between an experienced incumbent Prime Minister against a Labour leader who was under attack from the moment his name was screwed to his office door. It always takes a while for any new leader to find their feet and their natural voice and Key was no different in his first year or so (remember his possum in headlight moments explaining his shares in Transrail?). National's strategy of kicking the Labour leader before he can properly stand has been a successful one and being able to keep the experienced Green Party leaders out of the mix was part of that.
The Greens could hardly be called a minor party any more (something noted by many commentators) and yet during the campaign the Greens constantly ended up in the 'minor party' debates with parties that generally polled below the 5% threshold. For a good part of the last three years the Greens have been referred to as the real opposition as Labour was distracted with internal reviews and leadership changes. It does seem rather unfair to relegate a party that has been effective in opposition (and maintained double figures in opinion polls) with those that struggle to reach 1% and maintain full party status. The Green Party's previous centre stage position was manipulated back into the political wings and many voters have short memories.
Labour had a lackluster campaign, their 'Vote Positive' theme didn't resonate as well as the Green's 'Love New Zealand' and they even started ditching their predetermined 'Family, Work, Home' priorities and I often heard them using the Greens 'fairer, cleaner, smarter' language instead. The differences between the parties could be easily seen online, Labour's website had all the sophistication of a minor party, while the Green's site had great imagery and high impact. Labour's decision to campaign alone was the wrong one as commentators and voters already saw the two parties as a package deal and coordinating compatible policy releases, as we did with the electricity price controls, would have countered Key's strategy of suggesting an unworkable relationship. Labour needed the Greens to add the sophistication they lacked and we needed them to lift us out of the minor party fringes where we were continually being placed.
National did run a well organised, on the ground, campaign. Key's public appearances were managed like a rock star's and groupies in blue T shirts were organised well ahead of each visit. Blue billboards were almost as common as dairy cows and electorate candidates were well supported. National's lack of policy was replaced with busy candidates and a high level of public exposure. In Invercargill the new National candidate was paraded like royalty at almost every local event possible. While the regions had been starved of funding for many years suddenly there was a lot more spare cash to throw around and Southland's new sports stadium had a cool two million strategically thrown at it to help cover the cost over-runs.
Candidate forums and debates have largely lost their significance and I would love it if Wellington's Aro Valley meetings could be replicated around the country. Those that do occur are generally poorly attended and there is little comprehensive reporting of candidate performance by the media. Many voters enter polling booths armed with little other than what they saw on TV the night before and if it was Winston (as he often was), then so be it.
In the end there is little I think we Greens could have done differently, we were largely the victims of circumstance and in a less tumultuous campaign our goal of 15% could have been achieved. We had a goal of 10% in 2011 and in 2014, with more paid staff, much larger membership and volunteer capacity, gaining another 5% wasn't unreasonable.