Instinct, not policy, still winning at the ballot

6:29 pm on 21 September 2017

Opinion - The election campaign has felt about a week too long. Maybe all campaigns do, but this one has felt particularly trying in the final stretch. One poll, one debate, one bald-faced lie too many.

Jacinda Ardern and Bill English talk after the second leaders debate.

Jacinda Ardern and Bill English talk after a leaders debate Photo: Supplied / Michael Bradley

By the final TVNZ debate Bill English looked about out on his feet, bored even by his own dissembling, and Jacinda Ardern was running on youthful fumes. As the nearly three quarters of a million early voters seemed to know, another few days of this torture wasn't going to make much difference.

Partly this has been a product of the campaign turning out to be something more than a terrible foregone conclusion. It's not every election you see political CPR administered so successfully on a near-terminal party, after all. How could the excitement and novelty of those early days ever be maintained?

The most remarkable thing about the 'Jacinda effect', in fact, has not been its impact on her party's fortunes in the polls, but that it has remained so unexamined. It was as if by naming it we had also explained it. But the two are not the same thing.

Writing about the change of leadership when it first happened (a long seven weeks ago now), I wondered what the equivalent of Jeremy Corbyn's performance in the UK would be under New Zealand's proportional system: "Under MMP, such a reversal of fortune would be seismic."

This is not to demonstrate any great prescience on my part, but simply to confirm that what Ardern has achieved is truly astonishing. To add (very roughly, given the volatile polling) a good 15 points to a party's ratings - given the party had to change its billboards more than its policies - suggests a deeper truth about our political instincts has been revealed.

When I say deeper, in a sense I mean shallower. For all the intense scrutiny of policy, the terabytes of online commentary and social media nit-picking, a simple change of face was all it took to shift the dial.

TOP's Gareth Morgan was virtually apoplectic at this evident lack of depth in the collective electoral mind.

"When 20 percent of the population moves in 24 hours on a smiley face," he railed, "you look at it and go, 'Jesus, they cannot be this thick'."

As the self-appointed patron saint of policy politics, Morgan probably spoke for many who despair that electability seems to be about something other than the pure contest of rational ideas in a perfect world of enlightened self-interest.

But, as has been pointed out by observers of this phenomenon before, if we were really a rational species, we would have resolved the important issues by now based on evidence and reason. Even the act of voting contains an element of irrationality, in that it requires effort, and no single vote will make a crucial difference.

In short, voting is about belief. Ideologies are belief systems, and, like religious affiliations, they tend to be passed down from parent to child. Politics is intensely tribal, based on ancient enmities and profoundly emotional responses to the messy business of living in a society of others.

That is why effective political leaders often confound pundits and pollsters. Some magical mix of charisma, cunning, likeability, good timing and even good looks catches the public imagination and changes the game.

Macron in France, Trump in the US, Corbyn in the UK, Trudeau in Canada and Ardern in New Zealand are very different political propositions, but they've all demonstrated how vulnerable the establishment status quo is to the right personality at the right time.

You can, like Gareth Morgan, abhor this apparent surrender to base emotion and recoil from the selfie culture of 'Jacindamania', or you can accept (and even embrace) it for what it is. Despite the technocratic urge to reduce politics to a policy spreadsheet, it remains a deeply human thing.

Long after the squabbling over taxes and the fiscal hole in Steven Joyce's head have been forgotten, and regardless of the outcome, the 2017 election will be remembered for one thing: a human face.

* Finlay Macdonald was editor of the New Zealand Listener magazine from 1998 to 2003, commissioning editor at Penguin New Zealand from 2003 to 2005, and a weekly columnist for the Sunday Star-Times from 2003 to 2011.

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