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Political capital

Written By: - Date published: 2:23 pm, June 14th, 2009 - 61 comments
Categories: john key, mt albert - Tags:

John Key invested a lot of political capital in Melissa Lee. She was his hand picked candidate for the showcase Mt Albert by-election (unceremoniously pushing aside local veteran Ravi Musuku). Winning Helen Clark’s old electorate would have been a hugely symbolic victory for National, and for a while they and their pundits thought it was possible.

As it became clear that the expectations of Lee were unfounded, and a series of gaffes derailed her campaign, John Key invested more of his personal capital trying to turn the by-election into a referendum on broader issues:

Look at national picture, Key urges Mt Albert voters

Prime Minister John Key wants Mt Albert voters to consider what the Government is doing, rather than focus on local issues as his candidate Melissa Lee’s campaign goes from bad to worse.

“Because you live in Mt Albert doesn’t mean that you don’t have a consideration for the big national issues,” Mr Key told Radio New Zealand.

He told Radio New Zealand this morning that Mt Albert voters would consider the national perspective. “I believe that they would look at a government that six months ago was elected on the back of wanting to make sure we had an economic future that was strong and prosperous, that lifted education standards, and made our community safer, and those things are the very things this government is implementing.”

Well, Mt Albert voters delivered their verdict, a landslide for Labour. So did the voters ignore Key’s request to treat this as a referendum on national issues, or did they follow his advice and deliver a firm verdict on the direction of this government? Probably the former, but either way it is a slap in the face for Key. His political capital didn’t count for anything to the voters of Mt Albert, and has now been seriously diminished.

For those who follow politics closely his no show on election night, his total lack of support for Melissa Lee, is also telling. In trying to avoid the tarnish of defeat, he has only raised more serious questions about his character.

61 comments on “Political capital”

  1. burt 1

    Modesty in victory – courage in defeat.

    Both sides failed!

  2. I don’t think anyone realistically expected Lee to win. Nonetheless, her spectacular failure is something else.

    Undoubtedly, it has also been a bad couple of weeks if not months for the Nats.

    It’s a bit early to celebrate this as the start of the end for the Nats – who knows? – it will certainly tarnish Lee’s political future and also force some reconsideration of the super city plans.

    As it turned out, the result was a clear forgone conclusion.

    Losing is not the problem – failing to learn from a loss is.

    • lprent 2.1

      It wasn’t a forgone conclusion at the start of the campaign when we were selecting candidates. Then it looked level.

      However NACT started routinely tripping up and over itself. They didn’t seem to run a campaign in Mt Albert outside of a hapless candidate doing her bit with a few helpers. I got the impression that Key, Joyce etc thought that all they had to do was say that they wanted the seat and it would fall into their arms without doing any work. But I guess that is the sense of entitlement common to a lazy ex-banker. It was almost pathetic to behold.

      Meanwhile Labour was running a classic by-election campaign of concentrating volunteers in a reasonably smart campaign. It worked – hard work often does.

  3. Greg 3

    “unceremoniously pushing aside local veteran Ravi Musuku”

    The constant use of this line really annoys me. While it may be true, lets not kid ourselves here. David Shearer pushed aside Phil Twyford, Russell Norman pushed aside Jon Carapiet, David Garrett pushed aside Kathleen McCabe……… it makes sense to put a higher profile candidate in a by-election, National was certainly not the only one to do so.

    • Pascal's bookie 3.1

      Sorta kinda, but Shearer is hardly ‘higher profile’ than Twyford. Also, and too, Twyford wasn’t incumbant. He may have been ‘heir apparent’, but diddle de dee.

      That appearance of Twyford being the johnny-on-the-spot was owed just as much to Party HQ as Shearer’s getting the nod was, it’s just that HQ changed it’s mind. Surely?

      Ravi, however was a local, actually had the spot, and was booted in favour of a sitting MP Key shoulder tap.

    • MikeG 3.2

      How did David Shearer “push aside” Phil Twyford?

      I am pleased that at least one party chose a candidate that was not already in Parliament. Is seems absurd that you can stand for election to a body that you are already a member of. (I know the difference between electorate and list MPs…) All the time they were campaigning the taxpayer was paying the salaries of Lee, Norman and Boscowan.

      It also made a nonsense of lines by Melissa Lee about why she would be best at representing the people of Mt Albert – she was already meant to be doing that as “shadow” MP for the electorate.

      Congratulations to David Shearer – you have an impressive CV which shows that you have a real concern for people.

  4. Pascal's bookie 4

    “Losing is not the problem failing to learn from a loss is.”

    Quite right.

    Good thing the lesson National seems to be taking is that:

    “it’s not our fault all those National list voters either stayed home or voted for Shearer, it’s always been a safe Labour seat and we never thought we could win it anyway, neener neener, also the media. Hey look, Iran! , and isn’t Ralston insightful re Worth, who quit because Goff is obviously a pimp and we can prove it”


  5. Jasper 5

    One thing I’ve never understood about byelections is why it’s still FPP selection.

    Would it not be a better solution to make the byelections similar to the general MMP elections?

    I would imagine if the Mt Albert byelection was run under an MMP method, National may have lost a seat and Labour gain another based on party votes.

    Is there a valid reason why byelections aren’t run under MMP?
    I imagine that if a situation were to occur where a current government has a one seat majority, and lost it in a byelection, it would effectively mean a change of government before the three yearly cycle is up.

    • Anita 5.1

      I don’t quite understand what you mean. Are you saying that the by-election itself should be carried out in a more proportional fashion? (In which case preferential voting is probably the best option) Or that after the conclusion of the by-election the list seats allocated at the previous general election should be reallocated to preserve proportionality?

      • Jasper 5.1.1


        Run a byelection in the same fashion as a General Election i.e. MMP.
        After the byelection, the results for that electorate then supercede the general election results.

        Therefore Mt Albert 2009 results would replace Mt Albert 2008 results. The new results would then be reallocated in the house.

        • Anita

          So at a by-election each voter should have an electorate vote and a party vote? And then the whole list allocation for the whole parliament would be recalculated by substituting in new party votes in for the old party votes?


  6. Jasper 6

    Under the current FPP byelection system, it doesn’t retain any sense of proportionality, nor does it offer any real insight as to how the electorate views the governments performance. There were fewer than 20,000 votes cast yesterday, compared to 35,000 in November. I daresay that if a party vote was also included, the turnout would have been higher.

    Labour hasn’t gained a seat which some people believe they have. If party votes were also included in a byelection it might have been a different story.

    • Anita 6.1

      Are you just arguing for more frequent elections?

      • Jasper 6.1.1

        Not at all. If anything they should be extended to four yearly.

        • The Baron

          Hear hear. 4 yearly cycles are definately required, to provide at least two years of real policy in between the “pay my bribes” first year, and “my new bribes” year before the election.

    • Lew 6.2

      Jasper, you seem to be misinformed about how electorate candidates are elected under a MMP system.

      In MMP, each electorate is a pure unadulterated FPP contest, winner takes all. In this regard a by-election is no different to what happens for each field of electorate candidates on election day. The party vote, on the other hand, is taken only at each general election, and persists until the subsequent general election.

      Arguing that the by-election contests should be changed to be “run under MMP” is therefore meaningless – they already are. You’re actually arguing for MMP to be changed to suit what you think would be better, which is all nice and good, but MMP it ain’t.


      • Jasper 6.2.1


        I understand that the MP vote is pure FPP. When I say it should run under MMP I’m possibly confusing the issue by suggesting that the byelections should be held, regardless, in the same manner that the general election is.

        Two Ticks to keep consistency, and if a government gets changed halfway through the term, then the new government is in place until the next general election.

        • felix

          Are you saying that the voters in a by-election should be given the opportunity to re-decide who their party vote is allocated to? In the middle of a parliamentary term? When no-one else in the country is given that option?


        • Lew


          I’m saying two things. 1. That ain’t MMP (as you tacitly admit) and 2. that’d be bloody stupid.

          Think of it: parties on the up-and-up, who won an electorate seat but did poorly in the party vote there in the last general election could throw by-elections all the time in order to gerrymander the party vote. A license to print political uncertainty, and uncertainty is the enemy of progress.


  7. Jasper 7

    Felix – Why not?
    It sure would put paid to an end of the constant “strong party vote continues” as the likes of O’Sullivan and Armstrong keep bandying about. If an electorate got to recast its vote then it could be seen as a good indicator of the mood of the people in respect of the current governments performance.

    Lew: Im sure checks and balances could be locked in to prevent such gerrymandering.

    • Pascal's bookie 7.1


    • felix 7.2

      Do you suggest giving the ability to recast the party vote to the entire country or just to the electorate which is replacing it’s member of parliament?

      If to the entire country, why?

      If to just one electorate, why?

      Do you realise that the function of a by-election is to replace a member of parliament? What is the function of what you’re proposing?

    • Lew 7.3

      Jasper, I’m not a favour of opening the door to potential abuses of democratic process and then regulating them post-hoc. An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.

      Also, the onus is on you to demonstrae why your idea is valuable – not on others to answer the question “why not?”. You haven’t made that case at all – haven’t even tried, other than to talk vaguely about proportionality when it’s entirely irrelevant to the question of by-elections.


      • Jasper 7.3.1

        felix – I understand that it is to replace member of parliament.
        Recasting of votes would simply be in the electorate.

        Lew –
        Recasting a party vote in the electorate would offer the public a say in how they view the incumbent governments performance. It would certainly provide a better indicator than polls.
        Rather than waiting for a three year cycle, a by-election would offer the electorate the chance to engage more. As evidenced by the low turnout, if the opportunity to recast a party vote was there, turnout may have been higher, especially as being empowered with the ability to recast their vote would give the public the chance to take seats away (or add them) to a government.

        Perhaps another way of looking at it:

        If the Greens had won Mt Albert, then recalculating proportionality they would gain additional seats in parliament by virtue of having a solid party vote at 6.72% (unlike ACT with its 3.65%).

        Perhaps this would be a better method, unless its already in place.

        • Anita


          I am so confused 🙂

          Let’s imagine Russell Norman won Mt Albert.

          Current rules Greens gain a seat in parliament at the expense of Labour (Norman takes Clark’s electorate place, Clendon takes Norman’s list place).

          If we recalibrated proportionality after a by-election using the proportions from the general election same proportions, different MPs ( Norman takes Clark’s electorate seat, Kennedy Graham takes Norman’s list place, Tizard takes a list seat (Graham’s or Clark’s depending how you see it), – Labour and the Greens basically swap a list and electorate place between them.

          Are either of those what you’re suggesting?

          • Jasper

            Anita – I get that a lot.

            I’m confused as to how or why Tizard would end up in parliament. Why would greens/labour swap? I am under the impression that if a straight recalculation was done, using 08 results, Greens would end up with more seats?

            I’m going to concede on selecting party votes in a by-election as it would be a messy affair.

          • felix

            I don’t take issue with the messiness of it – I’m just curious about the objective.

            Any chance of giving us a clue as to why you’d single out one electorate and give them an extra round of democracy denied to the rest of the country?

          • Anita


            Um 🙂

            The list seats are assigned in (roughly) this way.
            1) The party preference votes determine how many total seats you will have in Parliament.
            2) You fill that total by first using all your electorate seats*
            3) Then filling the remaining slots with your list.

            So, the Greens are assigned nine seats based on their party vote. They fill it with 0 electorate MPs and then 9 list MPs. If Norman won Mt Albert and the process was rerun they would fill it with 1+8 – still a total of 9.

            Labour similarly would retain the same number of total MPs, by replacing one electorate MP (Clark) with their next list MP (Tizard).

            So the effect of redoing the allocation based on party vote after every by-election would be to maintain proportionality as long as seats are only won by candidates of parties with list places to spare.

            * You can overfill your total party-vote allocation with electorate MPs which is how overhangs happen.

  8. Pat 8

    Lee was a disaster, no question. But I reject the view that the Nats made a mistake by bypassing Ravi. Ravi would not have survived the intense scrutiny of the by-election either. Remember his view that he could solve the crime issue if he and John Key could spread the Lord’s word to criminals.

    The lesson for National is that they need a bigger pool of potential quality candidates, particularly in Auckland. With more competition Lee might not have passed a more rigorous candidate selection process.

    Compared to Labour who could have run Twyford or Bates and still won.

    • Draco T Bastard 8.1

      Remember his view that he could solve the crime issue if he and John Key could spread the Lord’s word to criminals.

      Well, it’d probably be better and more effective than the present policy of locking them up forever. Of course, it would require communist policy to work and National would never do that anyway.

  9. Jasper 9


    My original thoughts stemmed from a frustration of the commentators with their baseless assertations; “Nationals party vote in the electorate is still sky high, the pie’s in the oven and the booty call is on the way over” That came from, where did they get the “party vote still popular” line? Polls? Asking 2 people on the street who happen to be National supporters?

    Offering the chance to recast a party vote would go some way to confirming whether the mood in one electorate has changed and could be a bellweather for the performance of the government.

    But, having had time to think it through utilising the responses given, it wouldn’t work as it’s far from democratic and other electorates would likely demand they get the opportunity to recast their votes also.

  10. Jasper 10

    Thanks Anita,

    Still confuses me how oddities like ACT get their seats when they have only the one electorate.
    My thinking dictates that Greens would have more seats if they had an electorate but I guess not.

    • felix 10.1

      ACT won 3.65% of the party vote nationwide so they get 3.65% of the seats in parliament.

      Normally you need to get more than 5% for your party votes to be counted at all, but if you win an electorate seat as Rodney did the 5% threshold is waived and all your party votes count as if there were no threshold at all.

      I find it quite bizarre that a party with one electorate seat and, say, 3% of the party vote would get 4 seats while a party with no electorate seat but 4.9% of the party vote gets none.

      I have no idea what the reason for this is, it seems to deliberately introduce unproportionality into the count.

      I would suggest that the threshold itself is the problem and should be removed altogether or at least significantly lowered, or if retained it should be applied evenly to all parties, regardless of whether they win an electorate seat or not.

      • Jasper 10.1.1

        Thanks Felix.

        I wasn’t sure about that whole situation, but your comments and Anitas clarifies my thinking onto the right track. Thanks for that.

      • The Baron 10.1.2

        Oh yes, deliberate unproportionality.

        The original royal commission recommendation was that the threshold be set to 4% of the vote to make it across the threshold. This was increased to 5%, mainly on the basis that it is a nicer number from as much as I can tell.

        The idea is that this presents the truly extremist/fringe parties from being in parliament. It is another idea copied from Germany, which is where we got this entire MMP game from. And remember, numerical limits abound our system for exactly these reasons – e.g. 500 votes to register as a party.

        The out clause is the electorate seat – that party has already legitimately won one seat, so why should they not be entitled to the rest? Part of the country has said “not lunatic despite the threshold”.

        Simply put, I like it.

        But since this thread seems to now be all about MMP, I’m gonna give a bit of airtime to my pet peeve on this topic… that MMP entrenches the power of parties over directly elected personal representatives. Prior to MMP, parties were pretty much a convenient fiction – groupings of similarily minded MPs. Everyone had a constituency that they answered to, which meant that those individual MPs at least had the ability to exercise their own judgement and cross the floor as they needed to. In other words, the individual MPs mattered in the old system, which had the potential to be far more dynamic in terms of debate, influence and voting in parliament.

        But now we have this entrenched party based structure, which essentially means that all these things are meaningless. We instead have fixed blocks of votes, and no real way for a significant portion of MPs to dissent.

        Sigh. I’m done.

        • felix

          that party has already legitimately won one seat, so why should they not be entitled to the rest?

          The obvious answer is “because they only won one”.

          Why should they get more seats when another party can get more votes but no seats?

          This is the fundamental unfairness which led us to adopt a proportional system in the first place – that some votes were deemed to be worth more than others for no good reason other than accidents of geography.

          What we’re discussing now is the exact same issue on a smaller scale.

        • Pascal's bookie

          Baron, you say that parties were a convenient fiction under FPP, which I find funny. That’s not to say that you are wrong, but just that I perceived it almost totally the opposite way.

          Under FPP you are quite right that, in theory, the parties were supposed to exist merely as a convenient group of like minded souls. But in practice that’s not at all what happened. The MP’s were supposed to be local representatives, but that was the fiction. The parties owned FPP.

          Occasionally someone might cross the floor, but rarely, and rarer still if it meant that their party would lose the motion. Whipping wasn’t invented for MMP.

          If an MP was too bolshie they simply wouldn’t be re-selected and would have to take their chances running as an independent. Running as an independent was a recipe for failure because the electors rightly knew that an independent MP was useless. Instead electors had the choice of which party candidate to vote for, and even a third party vote was a very risky proposition.

          What you get with FPP is a two party system, everywhere it it used that is what results. If you want to enter parliament under FPP, you have to choose which of the two parties is closest to your views. Then you buckle under, get selected as either the red or blue candidate and take it from there. If you get selected in a safe seat, you’ve got a job for life.

          One of the things I like about MMP is that it brings the parties into the system at it’s heart. It recognises that political parties will be present and gives voters the opportunity to vote directly for those parties. It doesn’t pretend that the parties don’t exist, which is the only way one can defend FPP.

          My peeve is when people claim that list MPs are not elected. They are. You vote for a list of potential MPs. It’s not a secret list, and a party can’t just appoint anyone.

  11. jarbury 11

    There doesn’t seem any OBVIOUS reason why winning an electorate seat should result in waiving the 5% threshold. Can anyone think of one?

    • Pascal's bookie 11.1

      I guess it’s so that if a party is in parliament, they are there in proportion to their list vote.

      I’d rather not have coat-tails. the fact that we have the 5% threashold means that parliament isn’t exactly proportional anyway, so the iddy biddy bit better it gets through these coat tail mps isn’t, IMHO, worth the bottle.

      Personally I’d rather lower the threshold though. I don’t really care if the odd nutter gets in. It’s representative innit?

      • exbrethren 11.1.1

        “I don’t really care if the odd nutter gets in.”

        Boscawen, Garrett, Clarkson (last time) and Delahunty have got in under current system anyway. I’d go for around a 3% threshold, hopefully that’d stop a BNP/NF type situation.

      • felix 11.1.2

        I don’t really care if the odd nutter gets in.

        The threshold doesn’t seem to stop them anyway.

        edit: snap!

      • Jasper 11.1.3

        There was a discussion paper out some time ago that mentioned the coat tails.
        It suggested that the threshold be lowered to 4% as per recommendations prior to ’96, and that a party has to reach the 4% threshold before it is allocated any seats in parliament, irrespective of whether a party member wins an electorate or not.

        That would be an interesting situation. A party member at #7 on the list wins an electorate, and that party gets 3.6% of the party vote. Would #1 (ostensibly the party leader) be happy to let #7 represent the whole party in the house?

        Could see a few difficulties with that method.

  12. jarbury 12

    Imagine the Bill & Ben Party holding the balance of power.

    Could result in some interesting policy concessions.

    • Pascal's bookie 12.1

      Worse than ACT?

      • jarbury 12.1.1

        I said “interesting” not bad. Maybe they’d push for All Blacks tests to be live on free-to-air television or something like that?

        • The Baron

          Oh in otherwords push for mindless populist policies, whilst being ignorant of the real impact of those – in this case, denying the All Blacks one of their primary revenue streams, that they then use to develop the team so it can win things.

          I think you’ve just proven the point as to why parties like this are better out of parliament.

          • jarbury

            My personal opinion is that some threshold is necessary. I wouldn’t want some National Front party holding the balance of power.

            I think that the threshold is fine. If anything, what I would change is getting rid of the threshold if you win an electorate seat. I thought that MMP was designed to get away from our obsession with electorate seats and to more focus on the opinions of the country as a whole. So, Act should have 1 seat in parliament in my opinion.

          • felix

            “Oh in otherwords push for mindless populist policies, whilst being ignorant of the real impact of those”

            Baron, your comment could apply to just about any party ever elected to parliament.

            Do you really believe the threshold is a barrier to mindless populism, or only against mindless populism by unpopular parties?

  13. Maynard J 13

    Here is a thought (inspired by Anita: “Why not just remove the threshold altogether?”) for you all to ponder: The 5% threshold is in part to keep the very small fringes out, surely? Prevent them from holding teh balance of power.

    It disenfranchises those in our society who hold those ‘fringe’ views – the marxists, maoists, anarchists, left and right libertarians, bill and bendians, the religious zealots, the racist nationalists and xenophobes. Lately, NZ First too.

    How do you deal with that? They are certainly uncomfortably lumped in (out) together.

    • felix 13.1

      Are you saying we should deliberately disenfranchise those people?

      If so, why?

      • Maynard J 13.1.1

        No!! Not at all. I was merely pointing out that that is what the system does, in effect. Thought it was an interesting point to make.

        If a racist nationalist party got into power (or just got a few seats) I would accept their right to represent those people who voted them in, while doing every damn thing I could to get rid of them. But you can not take someone’s vote unless they have broken the laws of the land. Yet the system does that in effect.

        Protecting us from ourselves?

        • felix

          I totally agree.

          Let the fricking national front win a seat if they can find enough people stupid enough to vote for them. It would do more damage to their cause than they could possibly imagine to have them out in the light.

          • Lew

            Case in point: BNP over the coming EuroParl term.

            I’ll be watching with morbid fascination.


    • Anita 13.2

      The fringe parties would only hold the balance of power if the other parties gave it to them. If National, Labour, the Greens and the Māori Party (plus Act, UF, JP etc) can’t sort out a deal which doesn’t give all the power to the single National Front MP, for example, then I know who I think would be the problem, and it wouldn’t be the lack of threshold.

      • felix 13.2.1

        What’s JP? Jim Pandaton?

        Also you’re right of course.

        • Anita

          Oh, they’re actually JAP perhaps – didn’t the Progressives change thier formal name to Jim Anderton’s Progressives? Or something equally embarassing?

          • felix

            If they’re changing it again I suggest “The Jimi Anderton Experience”.

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  • Speech at opening of Nadi Women’s Crisis Centre
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  • Speech to University of the South Pacific students
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  • Minister champions more Pacific in STEM – Toloa Awards
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