Every three years in New Zealand, incumbent politicians must hit the campaign trail. Since 2008, I have chased votes in the Rongotai electorate. My Labour opponent, Annette King, has held the seat since 1996. She is a fine parliamentarian, a thoroughly nice person, and also a distant cousin on my mother’s side. ‘Chris says if he wins Rongotai, he’ll ask for a recount,’ she delights in telling voters. This is supposed to be a joke but, under New Zealand’s mixed member proportional voting system, winning individual seats is not the be all and end all. The number of seats a party has in Parliament is determined by a party vote, and local representatives by a separate electorate vote. As a list MP standing in a traditional left seat my job is to maximise the party vote for National.
The Rongotai electorate takes in Wellington’s rugged southern coast, the Miramar Peninsula and the working class suburbs of Newtown and Berhampore, which are fast gentrifying and turning from red to green. Its furthest boundary is the Chatham Islands, an archipelago around 700km from the mainland. It is a place of isolated natural beauty, rich cultural history, abundant fisheries and distinctively salty mutton. On my most recent trip, the twin-propeller plane was struck by lightning and my stay had to be extended by two days. There is no cellular reception in the Chathams, adding to its attractiveness.
The Newtown debate is usually the rowdiest of the campaign. In 2011, I was shoved by an Anglican vicar as I made my way out. This year, there are ten candidates lined up across the stage facing the audience squeezed into a wooden church hall. The crowd has a very particular strand of rule-bound, suburban radicalism: every mention of ‘revolution’ is cheered, but the audience will not allow proceedings to begin while party signs are blocking the fire exits. Along with Annette, the candidates include Russel Norman, a Tasmanian who relocated to New Zealand to work for the Green Party and now, holding the office of Male Co-leader, campaigns against foreign ownership. He finds himself fighting candidates from the populist Conservative and New Zealand First parties for the xenophobe vote. The Newtown audience thinks I am insufferably right wing but also thinks the same about the Greens and Labour. Dr Norman is accused of dismissing victims of sexual assault. Annette King gets a frosty reception for her party’s track record on Maori issues. I am roundly booed when I say the audience is ‘redistributionist’. More popular are a young man dressed as a shark and representing the Climate Party (his contribution to the debate is ‘learn to swim’) and also the candidate for the Patriotic Revolutionary Front. The PRF wants a benevolent dictatorship and has a leaflet showing a composite picture of Stalin and Einstein as its ideal leader.
The Monday before polling day has been billed as ‘the moment of truth’ by Kim Dotcom, a German entrepreneur and convicted fraudster who has set up a political party while facing extradition proceedings brought by the United States government. He is staging a huge, professionally branded event, live-streamed from Auckland’s Town Hall. For months Mr Dotcom has promised he will use the occasion to reveal evidence relating to a conspiracy over his residency in New Zealand that will bring down the Prime Minister. Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are beamed in to lecture the gathering about online surveillance. They hang as ominous disembodied heads on projection screens above the hall. Puzzlingly, Mr Dotcom does not address the meeting, leaving us to wonder what in the end the moment of truth was. The abrupt termination of proceedings recalls Horace’s line parturiunt montes, nascetur ridiculus mus. Laila Harre, a former left-wing MP who now leads Dotcom’s Internet Party, closes the night: ‘It is up to everyone here to speak the truth, to hear the truth and to vote for the truth this Saturday,’ she says; a kind of Dan Brown-esque revelation that the truth has been inside us all along.
The New Zealand union movement’s spiritual home is in the mining towns of the South Island, but most of its well-paid administrators choose to live in Island Bay. This pleasant seaside suburb is the scene of my final candidate’s debate. One heckler is particularly raucous. As I leave the meeting, I remind him that courtesy is contagious. He follows me down the street yelling that I work for the CIA.
On election night, David Cunliffe’s Labour has slumped to a historic low. The knives will be out to find its fifth leader in six years. Some blame Helen Clark, who ruled the party with an iron fist for 15 years, for failing to set in place an adequate succession plan. I think this is too harsh. Ms Clark deserves credit for keeping unruly and warring factions at heel for as long as she did. The last-leader-but-one, David Shearer, was a former UN worker in conflict zones. He evidently approved of my comments in the House that ‘none of his dealings with central African dictatorships or Balkan civil wars could have prepared him for the leadership of the Labour Party.’ What he and his successor Mr Cunliffe failed to realise, but Ms Clark knew, was that courting the Greens is electoral poison for a centrist social democratic party. It’s a lesson Tasmania learned too late.
By 10pm, National appears to have won an outright majority. For the first time in my three campaigns we have taken the most party votes in Rongotai booths, although Annette retains the electorate by a comfortable margin. I tell my volunteers that, on this trend, I should be able to unseat her by 2038.
Chris Finlayson QC is the Attorney-General of New Zealand