Bryce Edwards: Voters have sent a very strong signal, but will Central Government listen?

Bryce Edwards: Voters have sent a very strong signal, but will Central Government listen?

The results of the local government elections will be very difficult to process for the political left. Overall, it was a disaster for progressives, and a boon for conservatives. The left has to deal with a sea change of gigantic proportions, in which favoured liberal candidates – such as Efeso Collins running for the Auckland mayoralty – have been trounced. The other Jacinda Ardern-endorsed mayoral candidate – MP Paul Eagle in Wellington, was humiliated with his fourth place.

The extent of the wipe-out for Labour, Greens, and leftwing candidates was like a mirror image of the wipe-out of the National Party just two years ago at the 2020 general election. Throughout the country, progressives have done very poorly, with very few exceptions.

The capital was the only place where Labour and the Greens could celebrate, with Tory Whanau being elected mayor. But in her case, she says she won by positioning herself as the “change candidate” that conservatives could vote for.

Change is in the air

It was the “change candidates” who prospered throughout the country, with a rising mood of anger and disenchantment with the status quo. And so outgoing Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins, who ran as a Green Party candidate, complained he was a victim of an anti-Establishment mood that was sweeping the country. The so-called “woke mayor” lost in a landslide against him.

Candidates on the hustings report that they have witnessed rising anger towards the Labour Government amongst voters they’ve talked to. There is no doubt that the cost of living crisis, the housing crisis, the climate crisis and so on are making people dissatisfied with a government that seems to be focused on all the wrong things.

According to Stuff political editor Luke Malpass there is a new “grumpiness” out there “in which a ‘I’ll turn the joint around’ sort of message resonates well.” He argues that Whanau’s “platform for change” was the same successful campaign message employed by Phil Mauger and Wayne Brown who won the Christchurch and Auckland mayoralties, respectively.

He says the Government needs to take notice: “this result will have Labour a bit worried. The sweep up and down the country suggest – at least to a degree – that there are voters who are ready to change and keen to lean into candidates with claimed competence or who stick to the knitting.”

The New Zealand Herald’s editorial yesterday had a similar reading of the situation: “Change is in the air the length of the country as several key local government elections opted for new brooms. The Government will be looking at the results with pursed lips as some Labour-annointed or linked mayoral candidates were shunned for those leaning right.”

The Herald explained that the left’s Auckland mayoralty candidate, Efeso Collins, suffered due to his “status quo” reputation during a change election. And with the centre-right Brown being elected, “It’s a first for the supercity after having leftist leaders since its inception almost 12 years ago.”

Collins in Auckland and Eagle in Wellington may even have suffered from Ardern’s endorsements of them. They both had much worse results than forecast. Herald political journalist Thomas Coughlan therefore pronounced that Ardern’s stardust has settled and her “once unshakable star power” has finally been repudiated. He says Labour received a bloody nose in the campaign.

A message to Labour over its reform programme

Coughlan explains that the Government now faces some tough decisions: “Labour now has to ponder whether it wants to go to war with a nation of right-wing mayors over Three Waters and RMA reform, or whether to drop or modify the policies (modification being far more likely) in recognition of the fact the electorate in many, perhaps most, parts of the country appears to have rejected them”.

Similarly, according to rightwing commentator David Farrar, “There were many reasons why so many left candidates lost – three waters, anti-car transport priorities, rates affordability etc. If Labour is sensible they will listen to the voters and ditch their Three Waters legislation. But if they refuse to listen, well they may get the same shock next year.”

Local Government NZ has also put out a similar analysis about the Labour Government’s reform programme being unpopular and an explanation for the degree of change in the election results. LGNZ’s president Stuart Crosby explains the reaction to Labour’s programme: “That is quite upsetting to a large number of people. That’s not to be unexpected there is that shift in political thinking… And it does lay a platform for the general election coming through this time next year as well.”

It’s the Government’s flagship policy of Three Waters reform that seems to be the most contentious with the public, and the leading candidate for Labour to axe if it wants to avoid a red-green bloodbath next year. As Nelson’s new mayor, ex-National MP Nick Smith says, the Government would have a “death wish” if it continued with this particular policy.

Will Labour listen?

Leftwing commentator Martyn Bradbury isn’t optimistic that the political left will draw any sensible lessons from the big defeats of the local elections: “The ramifications of the Left being smashed so badly should be a wake up call for the Left but it won’t.” He argues that they will focus instead on the victory of Tory Whanau, which he explains by the fact that “Wellington is the wokest city in NZ”.

Bradbury thinks the left will therefore double down on woke policies instead of going back to leftwing basics. He concludes: “The Left have spent far too much time talking and very little walking. Voters don’t believe we have the capacity to make transformational change any longer and are drifting back to the Right.”

In their upset over the big shift to the right throughout the country, many liberals are resorting to complaints about how the election was run to explain the failure of their preferred candidates. This comes across as sour grapes and an inability to face the reality of the public mood.

Nonetheless, there are some big questions about why voter turnout appears to have dropped, once again, to a record low – of about 40 per cent. In fact, once you consider that about 10 per cent of eligible voters aren’t even on the electoral roll at the moment, the real turnout was actually only about 36 per cent.

This record-low turnout is a problem. As some on the left have pointed out, it means that only about 10 per cent of Auckland have voted for Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown. But it also reminds us that the left’s favourite winner from the weekend, Wellington Mayor Tory Whanau, with about 16,000 votes, also only has a small fraction of support in the capital city.

So, it’s true that the latest election indicates that the current Labour Government has got a popularity problem. But this election also shows that most elected local politicians also have a legitimacy problem, supported by very few voters.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.  


Further reading on Local Elections

Luke Malpass (Stuff): Local election results point to change – but how much?
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Stardust settled, Labour gets bloody nose in local elections(paywalled)
David Farrar: The slaughter of the lambs
Hayden Donnell (Spinoff): Winners, losers, big losers, and gigantic losers from the 2022 local body elections
1News: Analysis: Councils tilt right, Auckland sees poor turnout
Richard Harman: The angry election (paywalled)
Isaac Davison (Herald): ‘Appetite for change’ – New mayors in most major centres in strong election for right-leaning mayors
Nik Dirga (RNZ): Changing of the guard across country
Herald Editorial: Mayoral chains rattle to the right in key areas (paywalled)
Ashleigh McCaull (RNZ): First wāhine Māori elected to lead their cities identify major issues
1News: Three Waters is ‘death wish’ for central govt – Nick Smith
1News: NZ ‘pushing back’ against Govt policies, Carterton’s mayor says
Mark Quinlivan (Newshub): New Zealanders have rejected Three Waters and housing intensification with council votes, ACT’s David Seymour says
Cherie Howie (Herald): Candidates’ campaign highlights and lowlights
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Landed gentry boomers turn local politics right, online voting is not the answer & danger for the left in 2023 elections
Scott Palmer (Newshub): Christopher Luxon, Jacinda Ardern, Chlöe Swarbrick react to results
Kelvin McDonald (Māori TV): ‘Huge increase’ in Māori mayors

Andy Asquith (Stuff): A new dawn or a false dawn?
Michael Neilson (Herald): Calls for review over ‘extremely concerning’ record low turnout
André Chumko (Stuff): It’s time to improve our local body election systems. How?
Erin Gourley and Nicholas Boyack (Stuff): Low turnout and a toxic environment: what’s wrong with local government elections?
Nicholas Boyack (Stuff): Local Government NZ calls for voting review after ‘very disappointing’ turnout
Tom Dillane (Stuff): Local Govt NZ execs echo Ardern in seeking review of voting process after ‘disappointing” turnout
RNZ: Luxon calls for local body elections reform
Katie Ham (Stuff): National Party leader Christopher Luxon adds to calls for a review of local government voting process

Todd Niall (Stuff): How the leading campaigns won and lost the Auckland mayoralty
Tim Murphy (Newsroom): Wayne Brown: The storm before the storm
Simon Wilson (Herald): 10 big jobs for Auckland’s new mayor (paywalled)
Matthew Scott (Newsroom): Auckland Council’s shift away from Labour
Jonty Dine (RNZ): Mixed reactions to Wayne Brown voted as next Auckland mayor
Newshub: Siouxsie Wiles ‘gutted’ by Auckland Mayoral result
Herald: Losing Auckland mayoral candidate Efeso Collins says he will quit local politics
Todd Niall (Stuff): Auckland Transport directors stay after chair resigned due to mayor Wayne Brown’s call to leave
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): New Auckland mayor Wayne Brown cancels interviews

Georgina Campbell (Herald): Wellington mayoralty: How an unknown beat a Labour MP(paywalled)
Steven Cowan: Tory Whanau: A corporate lobbyist is voted Wellington mayor
Marc Daalder (Newsroom): Whanau bucks trend in referendum on leadership
Hamish Cardwell (RNZ): Failed Wellington mayoral candidiate Paul Eagle says ‘everyone voted on party lines’
Michael Neilson (Herald): Tory Whanau, Green Party-backed Wellington Mayor, on bucking right-wing trend across New Zealand
1News: Wellington’s new Green mayor Tory Whanau on the climate crisis
Kelvin McDonald (Māori TV): ‘The best day of my life’: Tory Whanau wins Wellington mayoralty
RNZ: Tory Whanau wins Wellington mayoralty: ‘It was just such an amazing moment’
Erin Gourley (Stuff): Even split of fresh faces and experience on Wellington’s new council

RNZ: New Dunedin mayor Jules Radich: Landslide results shows need for change in direction
ODT Editorial: Ballot box brutality
Otago Daily Times: ‘It’s devastating’: Aaron Hawkins surprised at decisive loss in Dunedin mayoral race

Skara Bohny (Stuff): New Nelson mayor Nick Smith gets down to business
Chris Hyde (Herald): Hawke’s Bay chooses the status quo, but can they fix its problems?(paywalled)
Tess Brunton (RNZ): Nobby Clark steps into Tim Shadbolt’s shoes as mayor of Invercargill
Erin Gourley (Stuff): Too close to call: the mayoral races where a few votes could change the result
Alisha Evans (Local Democracy Reporting): Western BOP’s new mayor to bring a ‘younger perspective’
Matthew Rosenberg (Local Democracy Reporting): Wairoa Mayor Craig Little pleased to win ‘horrible’ campaign


Other items of interest and importance today

Andrea Vance (Stuff): Why the National/Labour donations trial raises troubling questions about our democratic defences
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Will 2023 deliver NZ’s most extreme government in 30 years? (paywalled)
Henry Cooke (Guardian): From minister to lobbyist in three months: New Zealand needs to do better on transparency
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Faafoi does a Neale Jones and the Professional Managerial Class advance
Thomas Mead (1News): ‘Less than adequate’ – Govt proposes ACC reform
Johnny Blades (RNZ): Treading water: the plight of the First Term MP
Daisy Cousens (Sky News Australia): Ardern’s war on ‘disinformation’ is a thinly-veiled attempt to ban the opinions of anyone who disagrees with her

Susan St John (Daily Blog): Child poverty in NZ – what is the truth here?
Max Rashbrooke (Stuff): Sacrificing 50,000 workers on the altar of inflation is madness
Rachel Sadler (Newshub): Government removes qualification requirement for migrant chefs as part of new immigration support for hospitality, tourism sectors
Liam Dann (Herald): Time to hit pause on interest rate hikes? (paywalled)
Rob Stock (Stuff): The woman fighting New Zealand’s ‘unfairest tax law’

Ben Espiner (The Platform): First we tweak democracy – now we tweak journalism
Audrey Young (Herald): The Supreme Court’s audacious decision on tikanga(paywalled)
Cushla Norman (1News): Ellis co-accused demands answers following court ruling
Ricardo Simich (Herald): Spy’s Auckland Power List: Who really pulls the strings in the City of Sails? (paywalled)
Sasha Borissenko (Herald): Amazing comments in Law Society review, but a less amazing outcome (paywalled)
John Gerritsen (RNZ): Education Ministry puts record keeping software on hold due to cybersecurity concerns