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Voting in the time of Malaise

By Tulia Thompson

The other night, I got up at 2 a.m because I couldn’t sleep. It was unseasonably warm, and we still had our winter duvet on our bed. I was replaying news stories about the election in my head, election news had turned into pain points. My dog Lucy slept peacefully through it, twitching slightly and snuffling, because she has no interest in politics.

Eventually after turning over so often I was certain I would wake my partner, I decided to get up and unstack the dishwasher. At least I was doing something productive. There was the quiet way that space at night opens up differently to you, like that Front Lawn song. As I sorted the cutlery drawer, I realised I had election-induced insomnia, and that it will probably last up until the election (and probably a few nights after).

In the run up to the election, I felt let down by both the meagre offerings of the major parties, and the ugliness of the campaigning.

The Spinoff have a series of stories called ‘Hot Seats’ on the close electoral races, but reading them makes me feel a profound sense of unease. An article by Stewart Sowman-Lund explores whether Nicola Willis will flip the Wellington electorate of Ōhāriu. Willis seems extra; both effervescent and tactical. While door-knocking, she encounters two families next door with different takes on sex education. She says, “That’s amazing, two houses in a row with completely different views”.

I think what made me uneasy is that divorced from policy decisions, Nicola Willis could seem like a kind of annoying but likeable Lesley Knopes from Parks and Rec. Personality politics means we focus on her friendliness and efficacy, rather than how National’s policy will create punitive sanctions for beneficiaries. It’s like seeing the wolf dressed as Grandma, before you see her teeth.

My experience of voter unease was really cemented for me when I was walking around Pak n Save, with a frie buying snacks, and she said she felt blah about the election. Neither of us felt enthusiastic or energised even though we both follow politics fairly closely. And it’s not about losing, it’s a deep sense of political lethargy. Don’t get me wrong - I love being part of a losing battle as much as any Arts graduate - I just like feeling there is something worth fighting for.

Max Rashbrooke has written an opinion piece for The Spinoff about why we are feeling confused and fatigued this election. He argues that we are grumpy voters (only ⅕ of us think we are heading in the right direction, which is unusual here) in part because of inflation and the cost of living, but instead of wanting political change to the left or right, voters are ‘valance voters’ who base their voting on competency-based measures (like effectiveness) rather than ideological ones (like policy).

Rashbrooke points out that both main parties are sticking to the centre-line, with similar overall budget lines. He says, “When it comes to big-picture questions about the tax take, the role of government or the delivery of services like health and education, their pitches are pretty similar”.

In a Guardian article, Tess Clure and Eva Corlett discuss ‘mainstream malaise’, how our appetite for minor parties is fuelled by lack of support for the centre, “The combined “centre” now sits at 61.5% – its lowest point since 2002 – down from 81% at the 2017 election and 76% in 2020”.

The problem with both National and Labour’s narrow-sighted fight for the centre is that it limits political action to the confines of neoliberal policy making. Why do I call this (centrist) political action neoliberal? Because underpinning the limited policy decisions of both parties is a resolute adherence to the 30/30 rule ( where the tax take and debt is kept to 30% of GDP) so that all government decision-making is superseded by this fiscal rule. It means that adhering to a “value” of financial restraint - that neoliberalism believes is good for economic growth - is valued more highly than any other societal need.

Bernard Hickey says the 30/30 rule is ‘fatally flawed’. He explains that Labour’s agreement with the 30/30 rule led to "the Labour-led Government’s go-slow on infrastructure and housing investment in its first two to three years as it bore down on capital spending and operating spending to achieve those targets”. Hickey says this is what stopped Kiwibuild from being implemented effectively, and what stopped Labour from taking on the recommendations of the Welfare Advisory Group.

It’s why so many of us felt let down.

A 2016 article by Jonathan D. Ostry, Prakash Loungani, and Davide Furceri for the International Monetary Fund argues that neoliberalism has been oversold. They argue that there is an ‘adverse loop’ where market openness and austerity can led to income inequality. They say, “There is now strong evidence that inequality can significantly lower both the level and the durability of growth”.

What if the main parties actually seriously tried to address income inequality? What a different election that would be. They might be surprised to realise that income inequality stops growth, and increases crime.

So how do you bring yourself to vote while feeling sleep-deprived, lethargic and depressed?

Remind yourself that we are a MMP system, which means that your vote - even for a small party, and even for a party in opposition, is still useful. Your vote is tallied into the percentage of votes, which is translated into the proportion of seats in parliament, and so even if your favoured party is in opposition, you voting means they are more likely to be able to block harmful legislation.

I’ve found some political energy back by having conversations with my 10-year-old stepson about the election. He is this big, gangly kid with curly, dark hair who loves animals and playing Dungeons and Dragons. These holidays we went to the zoo and watched the little blue penguins hiding under an upturned boat.

My stepson and I watched the minor party debate on T.V. His Dad was making dinner, so I found myself having to explain the differences between parties - without swearing, which is my go-to approach really. I wanted to explain the differences between policy without resorting to bad mouthing any of the candidates. That was even more difficult.

He wanted to know how me and my partner were voting, and why we were making those decisions.

In the same way we are teaching him to play fair, we are teaching him that Government needs to care about social justice. We are showing him that we vote based on our values. Not because our votes will necessarily make a difference, but because teaching him to think about the social good is so vital to the experience of being human.

And that is why I will get out there and vote despite my lingering feelings of dread and voter fatigue, because I still believe in our collective responsibility to create a more just world. Voting is our concrete, tangible way of participating in our political system. We can still show our political leaders that we want transformational change.

Tulia Thompson is of Fijian, Tongan and Pākehā descent. She has a Ph.D in Sociology. She is a freelance writer.


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1 Comment

Merrill Hansen
Merrill Hansen
Oct 10, 2023

brilliance !

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