Since arriving last Friday, I and New South Welshman David Nouri have been based in Wellington; New Zealand’s capital. Wellington and Canberra have a lot in common. Apart from the icy winds and housing most of New Zealand’s government departments and public service, Wellington is a long established stronghold for the New Zealand Labour Party. Although this makes winning an outright majority in seats like Wellington Central a tall order for the Nationals, maximising the party’s share of the vote remains a key priority thanks to New Zealand’s mixed-member proportional voting system, or MMP.
In the same way that it’s critical for the Liberal Party to shore up its Senate vote in safe Labor seats in Australian elections, a strong presence in New Zealand’s left-leaning electorates helps grow the National’s country-wide ‘party vote.’ Unlike the vote cast for a local candidate, the party vote determines the quota of non-seat allocated MPs, like Prime Minister Bill English, that are elected. In a race this tight, a solid party vote across all seats could be the difference between a near loss and forming government come election day.
It was clear from Saturday morning that the National’s candidate for Wellington Central, Nicola Willis has run an energetic campaign that’s succeeded in lifting the profile of the National Party in a seat with the highest Greens party vote in the country. On Monday we spent the morning on Victoria University’s city campus, talking to students about how the National’s strong record of economic management has delivered a vibrant job market with a wide-ranging opportunities for today and tomorrow’s graduates. Making this point effectively is especially important for The Nationals in light of the Labour Party’s financially irresponsible pitch to make university education free.
On this point, a conversation I had with a software engineering student was instructive. After taking a Nationals flyer, the 19 year old turned around and told me that he was appalled that the Nationals weren’t planning to increase taxes on the wealthy to make life more affordable for students like him. My response was that as a small, high-skilled economy, being able to attract talented and high performing entrepreneurs and professionals was vital to New Zealand’s future prosperity. What’s more, as a prospective software engineer he would likely soon be taking home a pay packet far above many of the New Zealanders whose tax would ultimately help subsidise his free education.
At a time when young people are increasingly attracted to the siren song of socialism and big government largesse, it’s crucial that parties of the centre-right can communicate to young people using values, economic logic and most of all, common sense.
On this score, one of the things the Young National’s excel in is social media. I’m told that last week alone their content reached a staggering 1 million Facebook users. A standout for me was an infographic with several thousand ‘likes’ bearing a quote from Bill English that read ‘hard-working New Zealanders are not an ATM for the Labour Party’ – a pitch-perfect slogan to combat the opposition’s big-spending policies which are set to be funded by a loosely defined grab-bag of ill-conceived tax hikes.
Like the Young Liberals, the Young Nationals play an important part in ensuring the party’s message reaches as many voters as possible in the final sprint to election day. Roadsides (or ‘human boarding’, as they call it here), letterbox dropping and leafleting to pedestrians are all staples of daily campaigning.
If National is re-elected for a fourth term, the lesson for Australia will be two-fold. First, it would provide welcome encouragement that a focused election campaign ground game, backed by cutting edge social media, can still prevail in the face of a populist and charismatic leftist opposition party. Second, it would demonstrate that traditional centre right governance, consisting of a lower tax-burden, a targeted social safety net and light-touch regulation can still be a winning formula for long-term electoral success, provided it is communicated successfully to the electorate.
John Slater is a member of the Young Liberal Nationals in Queensland.