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Op-ed: For the centre-right to win elections, they have to turn up

The following op-ed is written by Taxpayers' Union Executive Director Jordan Williams and is also available on the NZ Herald website (Premium) here.

Conventional wisdom says oppositions don't win elections – those in power lose them.

So much for conventional wisdom. If ever someone in power had set themselves up for a voter revolt, it was Phil Goff. After promising to eliminate wasteful spending and keep rates under control, his new local fuel tax, targeted rates, and waste charges worked to extend Len Brown's legacy of costly council bloat.

The undercurrent of ratepayer resentment had become a torrent of vitriol, judging by jeers at town hall debates. Going into the campaign, Phil Goff's net favourable/unfavourable rating according to internal National Party polling was negative 30 per cent – even lower than the hapless (now former) Wellington Mayor Justin Lester.

And yet Phil Goff's victory on Saturday was a trouncing. He brought in more than twice the votes of his closest challenger. Clearly, even with a deeply unpopular status quo, voters expect a palatable alternative to rally behind.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see John Tamihere failed this basic test. Why would Aucklanders on the centre-right rally around a former Labour Minister, risking betrayal and disappointment? And why would more moderate voters elect a man who casually drops Nazi slogans into election debates?

Voters who this year should have led a ratepayer revolt opted to keep a clear conscience, voting for protest candidates like Craig Lord, or skipping the vote entirely.

Even so-called centre-right ticket "C& R Communities and Residents" could barely get more than a few candidates over the line outside of its Ōrākei stronghold. Its campaign was confused, even going so far as urging candidates not to give any specific commitments on rates and spending, despite this being the key issues it was running on. What should have been its campaign strength, and Goff's weakness, was given away.

Results outside of Auckland for the centre-right weren't much better. Christchurch re-elected the Labour-aligned Mayor Lianne Dalziel, Wellington's National Party-aligned "Wellington Party" failed to fire, and Dunedin elected the Green Party's Aaron Hawkins. In Hamilton a solid centre-right mayoral candidate was sidelined by a contest between two middling ones. The one place a Labour mayor has been booted out, in Wellington, it's in favour of a career councillor who in 2017 stood for New Zealand First.

So where are our palatable centre-right alternatives? Or to make the point more obvious: where the hell is the National Party?

Every central government election since 2002 has proven that the National Party brand is, at the very least, recognisable and palatable for centre-right voters. Faint praise indeed, but this is stellar compared to the performance of hodgepodge local tickets.

The constitutional role of political parties is to identify candidates on behalf of their supporters, to act as a quality control, a signal, and symbol. Without the National Party, every centre-right candidate has to start from nil to build recognition, and a campaign infrastructure.

No wonder the high profile candidates that were urged to stand for the Auckland Mayoralty by senior National Party figures turned it down – the party could not be relied upon to do anything to help them. This is what happened in 2016 to Vic Crone, who was well-meaning but naively talked into standing for Mayor by National Party figures who had no intention of helping her.

Even as someone who has an interest in local government, I struggled to work through the laundry list of candidates to figure out who to vote for. The Taxpayers' Union was bombarded with enquiries from members across the country asking us to issue "voting guides".

Labour and the Greens have long since cottoned on that local government matters, throwing their branding and resources at candidates they deem electable and ideologically sound. It works: On Saturday in Auckland, four Labour-branded councillors were elected, plus 27 local board members.

Those of us on the centre-right might not like the effectiveness of this strategy, but we ought to respect it. If you believe in your cause, why wouldn't you take advantage of the most valuable commodity in marketing – name recognition?

National's refusal to fly its colours in local elections is timidity bordering on negligence. Long suffering ratepayers and businesses in neglected territories from the Far North to Invercargill are more than capable of rallying behind change: they just need to see that choice on the ballot paper.

If National truly believes its principles of limited and accountable government are important, then entering local elections is a moral necessity.


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