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WikiLeaks: NZ 2005 elections too close to call

WikiLeaks cable: As National's support surges, NZ elections too close to call

September 7, 2005 As National's support surges, NZ elections too close to call

SUBJECT: AS NATIONAL'S SUPPORT SURGES, NZ ELECTIONS TOO CLOSE TO CALL

REF: A. WELLINGTON 664 B. WELLINGTON 663 C. WELLINGTON 658 D. WELLINGTON 650 E. WELLINGTON 642 F. WELLINGTON 566 G. WELLINGTON 70

Classified By: Charge D'Affaires David R. Burnett, for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d)

1. (C) Summary: Just 10 days out from New Zealand's general elections, the race is too close to call. Recent polling puts the opposition National Party ahead of the Labour Government, with one poll showing the spread as much as 8 percentage points in National's favor. National seems to have suffered no ill effects from a spate of missteps by its top officials last week, with voters apparently remaining focused more on the party's tax package, race relations stance, and other core messages. Labour has been hurt by an increased perception that PM Clark is arrogant and out of touch with "mainstream" electorate. The Government has above all underestimated the feeling of many Kiwis that they are less well-off these days and will be even less well-off with the directed spending programs that Labour has thrown up in a response to National's tax cut proposals. But the spread of the various poll numbers, together with the large number of voters who remain undecided, means its still anyone's race. We predict Labour will increasingly focus its strategy on a negative campaign: portraying National as having a secret, rightist agenda; claiming that "American-style" tax cuts will ruin the nation, and assertions that National leader Don Brash is an untrustworthy amateur.

2. (C) If National wins more votes than Labour, it still may not be able to form a government. The most optimistic poll shows National with just 46% total support, and its potential coalition partners are thin on the ground. Although support for most minor parties is relatively low during this campaign, it is likely that either major party would need at least some small party support in order to get a majority in Parliament. The Maori Party has ruled out National as a partner, Labour already has the support of the Greens and the Progressives. National has resisted aligning itself with the conservative ACT party. Don Brash has recently met with United Future leader Peter Dunne, but Dunne's party is unlikely to give National the number of seats it would need to claim a majority. National may benefit from NZ First's September 7 announcement that it will vote on major issues with whichever major party gains the most votes. End Summary.

------------------------ NATIONAL ON THE UP AGAIN ------------------------

3. (SBU) After a recent down-tick in the polls, the opposition National Party seems to be back in the lead. A September 5 Colmar Brunton poll showed the most decisive swing in National's favor, with support at 46% versus the Labour Government's 38% (margin of error of 3.2%). Conducted from August 29 to September 1, the poll showed Brash up four points as preferred prime minister to 31% and Helen Clark down five points to 40%. It is particularly significant that National's bounce follows what was deemed by the media as a bad week for the party -- leader Don Brash was forced to deny his environment spokesman's claims that National would allow logging in national forests, and Brash also got low marks in the press for claiming he had held back in a recent debate with PM Clark because she is a woman. Labour Energy Minister Pete Hodgson dismissed the Colmar Brunton survey as an erroneous "rogue" poll that does not track with other recent polls, and indeed Colmar Brunton has in the past been criticized because it tends to poll more strongly for National and negatively against the minor parties. But all of the other recent polls have also put National in the lead, albeit by a smaller margin.

4. (SBU) Much of National's support has been gained at the cost of Labour, rather than the minor parties. According to the latest DigiPol surveys, the two major parties accounted for 82.4% before the National tax policy release and 81.0% after the release -- a 1.4 point difference. However, National was up 3.1 points and Labour down 1.9 points from August 26 to September 2--a 5.0 point swing.

5. (C) In reftel E, we predicted that National's best shot at winning would be if its tax policy won over the voters. The plan, released the following week, seems to have done its job. In a recent poll, almost one quarter who said they would support National said the tax cut was the deciding factor. Another policy that may appeal to voters is National's reiteration of its view that New Zealand should end special treatment for Maori and instead address poverty as a general issue of concern for all. National has also avoided any appearance of backing the ACT party - the most conservative party now in Parliament. This probably is making it harder for Labour to successfully paint National as having a secret, rightist agenda. National has also done nothing to court another possible coalition partner, NZ First, which is the only small party other than the Greens to currently command more than 5% party support in the polls. (NB: Under NZ's MMP voting system, parties need to gain one electorate seat or 5% of the party vote in order to get seats in Parliament in proportion to the total party votes they gain.) National and NZ First's coalition in the 1990s ended up collapsing, and National does not want to remind voters of this. National's eschewing of a coalition partner is not a surprise to us, as a senior party strategist told us that a key objective would be to educate voters at the grass roots about the importance of the party vote under MMP. The Nat's goal is clearly to win an overall majority. But MMP was designed to limit the ability of any one party to dominate Parliament, and Kiwis seem to like this. It is not at all clear that voters will give National the majority it would need to avoid a coalition.

----------------- LABOUR'S MISTAKES -----------------

6. (C) Labour appears to have misjudged -- badly -- the number of Kiwis who feel they are less well off than they should be. Ironically, it's the Government's past fiscal prudence that has created its problems, and its recent moves to increase spending may have made things worse. The government's ills first began when its May budget failed to return any of its large surplus to taxpayers until 2008: the public was not impressed by Finance Minister Cullen's remarks that, "Too much jam now is likely to lead to only crumbs later." When it became apparent that voters were being lured by National's arguments that the country could well afford to "spend" some of the surplus on tax cuts, Labour responded over July and August with a number of new programs. The first -- to forgive all interest on student loans for those who remain in New Zealand -- gained the Government the support of younger voters, but these were most likely to vote for Labour or their allies the Greens, if they vote at all. The initiative at the same time may have alienated some of the lower middle-class supporters who Labour needs to maintain as its core in order to win next week. One National party candidate in a Wellington suburb told the Charge that working class voters in the district were really angered that their tax money was to go to support "spoiled" students, who are to get the benefit whether they need it or not. Similarly, Labour's biggest gambit -- to greatly expand its "Working for Families" assistance and repackage it as "tax relief" appears to have missed the mark. Although Kiwis tend to view anyone with money as "greedy," just who has enough money is of course open to interpretation. In this case, Labour's initiative would for example do nothing for a couple with two children earning NZD 90,000 (about USD 64,000), who, facing rising housing costs and a relatively high cost of living, are unlikely to feel wealthy. The plan also ignores single people and the childless.

7. (C) Labour has also undermined its credibility since, having insisted just a few months ago that the cupboard was bare, it is resorting to relative profligacy today. The Government's claims that it "found" more money in the form of increased tax revenues does not seem convincing. Those who had accepted that sacrifices were necessary for the greater good are left scratching their heads, although at least some of these continue to believe that Government spending is best directed to the "neediest." Still others we have spoken to wonder why the Government did not propose these and other new programs now on offer before being faced with a close election.

8. (C) Confronted with National's successes on domestic policy, Labour has attempted to a) undermine Don Brash's credibility, and 2) raise fears that National has a secret, rightist agenda that includes ending the country's cherished nuclear policies. Neither has proved very successful to date. Brash is anything but slick, and has an odd formality about him. Labour's attempts to portray him as dishonest have backfired. When, for example, Brash said he had done badly in his most recent debate with PM Clark because he was a gentleman and didn't like to be too harsh with women, Labour assumed voters would take umbrage. Many did, but others wrote approvingly to the papers, noting that total gender equality is a bad idea. In a strange way, Brash's inept response showed the man is no liar: anyone good at hiding the truth would have done a better job of explaining himself. National has proven more vulnerable on the nuclear issue, but has stuck to its mantra that it would not initiate a change absent a national referendum, and only then if most New Zealanders want such a vote. Some voters have said that this proves National wants to scrap the policy -- how else would the issue of having a referendum come to the fore? But National's firm position, coupled with a recent foreign policy paper on its website that promises little change, has not given the opposition much new to draw on. We also suspect that in elections, New Zealanders are like most others in the world and will vote on domestic, not foreign, policy issues.

9. (C) Helen Clark has herself borne some responsibility for her party's decline in the polls. Always perceived as somewhat arrogant, she won no favors when she last week dressed down an Air New Zealand pilot who announced over the intercom (wrongly, it turns out) that the flight she was to board was being delayed because she was trying to hire a charter plane instead. The media gave wide coverage to the fact it was the pilot's error, but those inclined to think of Clark as wanting special treatment because of her status found new grist for the mill. (The incident came on the heels of the trial of police officers accused of excessive speeding to get an allegedly unaware Clark to a flight last summer.) And while some may not care about Clark's demeanor per se, they may view her arrogance as a reminder of her party's tendency to back causes such as legalized prostitution and civil unions, which are favored by fringe groups and not "mainstream" Kiwis.

---------------- WHAT HAPPENS NOW ----------------

10. (C) It's still anyone's race, though. In addition to the wide disparity in the polls, as many as 20% of voters remain undecided on their party vote. Many may make their decision on election day, or shortly before, and some may not vote at all. We predict that during this time the race will begin to look more Presidential, focusing more on Brash and National vs. Clark and Labour. Clark will continue efforts to raise doubts about Brash and National's agenda, including through sideswipes at the United States. This has already started: the PM said yesterday that U.S. tax cuts were to blame for Hurricane Katrina, and that cuts were bad for a nation's ability to maintain its infrastructure. (In general, since we reported Labour's anti-American tactics and our response (Wellington 566), the attacks have become less directed at us and more against National.) But we doubt the anti-American card will be enough to return Labour to a comfortable position, as voters will continue to look at domestic issues to make their decisions. Clark's swipes about Katrina, for example, are unlikely to be effective given that her government was widely criticized for its response to heavy flooding on the North Island last year. Labour may also try to court the Maori vote, as it will need all seven Maori seats to win. The Maori Party's incompetence (Ref B) may help Labour here.

11. (C) The real question will be whether National can continue to appear dominant in the polls without raising questions about its ability to form a government. So far, the role of smaller parties has appeared greatly diminished this year. This is the first year in recent memory where Labour and National have differed so much in their policies, giving voters a clear choice between them. The race between the majors is also close enough that voters may be more reluctant to "waste" votes on smaller parties this year. In addition, the majors have successfully co-opted many of the issues that traditional belonged to the smaller parties. The National Party has successfully used the law and order, tax, and immigration policies of ACT and New Zealand First, and garnered significant numbers of their constituencies. Labour has successfully made in-roads on the Greens' student constituency (notably with its student loan policy), and the leftist Alliance party has fragmented to near oblivion.

12. (C) Nevertheless, in the past most undecided voters have ended up voting for smaller parties, and if that remains the case this time National may lose out. During the campaign, ACT has been courting National, but the latter has come out more strongly against helping ACT leader Rodney Hide win an electorate seat, without which his party is unlikely to survive. National is wary that aligning itself with ACT's libertarian platform will cast National as the rightist party Labour claims it is, and is also reportedly angry at ACT's campaign tricks to gain National's support. (ACT Leader Rodney Hide almost literally backed Don Brash into a corner the other day to secure a handshake, captured by the media.) Meanwhile, United Future's Peter Dunne has indicated, following a widely-reported meeting he had with Brash yesterday, that United and National might campaign together. But he has also said he will talk about a coalition with either of the major parties, depending on who gets the most votes. Although Dunne's electorate seat is safe, assuring his Party's return to Parliament, United Future is currently only polling at 2%, which would probably not give National enough support to form a government without help from at least one other minor party. National has distance itself from NZ First, largely in an attempt to avoid reminding voters about the failure of the 1990s National-NZ Coalition government. National may, however, benefit from today's announcement that NZ First will vote on major issues with whichever major party gains the most votes. Stay tuned.

Burnett

ENDS


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