Was the 2017 election a vote for change? Or was it an endorsement of the status quo? The answer is yes ... and no.

Have a look at this picture of Rubin’s vase and see what you see: is it two faces looking at each other; is it a wine goblet? The true answer is that it is both; yet because of how our brains are wired to perceive the world, whichever image you choose to see, you then cannot see the other.

I was reminded of this phenomenon yesterday whilst reading Claire Robinson’s strong argument at The Spinoff against understanding the official election result as being one "for change". It’s not so much that I think she is wrong to say so, but rather that viewing the outcome in this way requires blanking out another, equally plausible narrative.

Before getting to that, however, if (as Claire suggests) anyone in Labour actually believed that special votes might switch the four seats needed to allow the Labour-Green bloc to pull ahead of National-ACT, much less giving Labour the four required to allow it to govern with NZ First’s support alone, then they have no business in politics.

The final shift of two seats from National to Labour and the Greens realistically was all that could be hoped for based on previous voting distributions – although it is worth noting that had fewer than 5000 of National’s voters instead backed Labour, a third seat would have transferred between those two parties. So far from being “disappointing”, the outcome of the special vote count was exactly as expected.

That official result then leaves the opposing blocs in the House quite closely balanced, albeit that National’s 56 seats (or, 57 with ACT’s support) still is larger than the 54 held by Labour and the Greens. New Zealand First’s 9 seats represents the sole decider of who will govern, now that Vernon Small has taken the “Teal Deal” out behind the barn and given it the ending it so richly required.

Those numbers provide us with our agreed facts. There then is no way to interpret them that does not involve some form of observer bias.

Squinted at one way, they look like an endorsement of National’s last nine years of governance. Refocus your eyes and they represent a majority vote in favour of parties who campaigned on a clear platform of change.

Claire’s article makes a strong argument for the former view. However, it only seems fair to note she has some reason for doing so.

In November of 2016, Claire confidently predicted that, based on historical modelling, “National will overcome the ‘third-term blues’ to win another general election.” It’s not the first time that she has used precedent to forecast electoral outcomes. A similar claim made a full year before the 2014 election proved to be quite accurate (as I later had cause to recognise while consuming a healthy dose of humble pie).

Given this prior commitment, it’s not surprising that Claire regards the election result as “a vote for the status quo”. And depending on what NZ First does this week, she may very well turn out to be correct. But there is a counter-narrative that is at least worth considering.

First of all, the last nine years has not just been about National alone. They could not have governed for that time without three other support partners.

Post September 23rd, two of those partners have been ejected from the House entirely, whilst the third has been reduced to spitting distance of becoming an overhang seat. While National may have retained much of its support base, its governing options have been both radically reduced and fundamentally altered.

Indeed, National’s only path back into government has Winston Peters as its gatekeeper. Meaning that the issue is no longer whether the voters think the status quo should prevail, but rather if NZ First wants change to occur.

I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. And I strongly suspect anyone who claims they do is projecting a somewhat unwarranted confidence.

It is true that, as Claire notes, a decision to allow National to govern (whether with active support or by abstention) has the benefit of being a two-party arrangement. I made the same point straight after the election, and repeated it again on Saturday once the official vote count was announced.

But against this is the fact that (apparently) a majority of NZ First’s support base favours a deal that would allow Labour to govern. And remember that all those supporters cast their votes based on a campaign with the tag line “had enough?”.

Then there is the fact that much of NZ First’s policy platform looks easier to mesh with Labour than with National (but perhaps not so much with the Greens?). And the fact that Winston Peters really seems to dislike some individual National Ministers (but was originally a National MP?). And a Labour-Green arrangement is the fresh future (but National has experience and stability in running the country?).

For every reason that you can think of for NZ First wanting to go one way, there seems to be an equally cogent reason for it going the other. And unless we believe that Winston Peters (and NZ First generally) genuinely has no option but to permit National to govern, the ultimate decision as to whether this is a “change” election or a “retention of the status quo” depends entirely on whatever decision those reasons produce this week. 

That being so, perhaps the better analogy for our election result is less Rubin’s vase and more Schrodinger’s cat. Until we can observe Winston’s choice, it is simultaneously a change and a not-change election at the same time. 

Comments (16)

by Kat on October 08, 2017

The answer is that NZ remains roughly divided down the middle. So the yes/no view is pretty much what it is. The diffence this election is MMP may just have matured to the point where voters get it that its about who can form a govt rather than which party has the most votes.

But one half, give or take a few swingers, still view Labour/Greens as a bunch of communists and the other half view National/Act as a bunch of Nazis. Winston certainly has his work cut out.

by Alan Johnstone on October 08, 2017
Alan Johnstone

Supporters of both sides feel they have a moral mandate, as you say a solid case can be made in either direction.

Winston is stuck between a rock and a hard place, whatever way he goes he upsets a lot of people, including a chunk of his voters.

I don't envy him. It's one thing being kingmaker on 13.5% of the vote and 17 MPs like he was in 1996, whatever choice he makes now carries a risk of killing his party.

Whatever happens, it's going to be messy.

by Kat on October 08, 2017

My thoughts are that if Winston for whatever reason goes with National then it will ultimately end in a mess, especially for NZF.

If he wants to be seen doing something different he must either go with a Labour/Greens coalition or sit it out.

by MJ on October 09, 2017

It's clear that the status quo argument is balderdash.

The government will change. How much it will change will be what we see. 

But the Maori, Act, UF, National alliance is gone. The vote has changed that much at the very least.

by Henry Barnard on October 09, 2017
Henry Barnard

The bit that intrigued me in Professor Robinson's article that you reference is this.  She says:

"But my research over the past 21 years has shown that where there is a genuine mood for change it shows up in the public opinion polls 12-18 months out from the next election, when more respondents start preferring the major opposition party over the government."

I would very much like to follow this research up.  Has this research been published? Has it been peer-reviewed?  Are concepts like `Genuine mood for change' well defined variables in this field of research?  Are there degrees of `genuineness'? Does the research rely on on any comparisons or is solely focussed on the NZ scene?  What was the methodology used? and so on.

It is a crucial part of her commentary and the fact that she seems to draw on `expert knowledge' is one that we should pay particular attention to.

by Dennis Frank on October 09, 2017
Dennis Frank

I've a BSc in physics from way back,  and I'm happy to endorse your analogy Andrew.  We carried out experiments designed to discover that the electron is a particle, and proved it was.  We also carried out experiments designed to discover that the electron is a wave, and proved it was. 

Thousands of students all over the world have done so in the 80 years since Schrodinger & the other Nobel prizewinning physicists arrived at their consensus that subatomic reality consisted of both characteristics of the electron.  The term `wavicle' has achieved some currency as a meme to help perception of the unitary reality underlying the divide that perception creates. 

A similar application of both/and logic can be generalised from it's traditional application in the maths of computing and applied in political science as theory.  I doubt political scientists are doing so already, yet Winston is demonstrating the efficacy of the theory via his twin-track negotiating strategy - no doubt by instinct, unaware of the theory.

So the question of whether he chooses the left or right somewhat masks the deeper question of whether he sees himself as either in terms of identity politics.  Obviously his political path originated on the right, but he's been operating from the center for a long time now.  Polling has shown that the electorate divides in a three-way split in western countries nowadays.  The binary frame we inherited from the French Revolution no longer describes the reality in voterland.  Media framing of politics in accord with our bicameral parliamentary system is therefore delusional.

Winston's been given the power to choose the next government by our electorate.  Media commentators keep moaning about it to demonstrate that they don't get MMP.  He's wielding that power because our centrists have learnt that he will represent them effectively in controlling both the left and right.  He is exemplifying a major structural development in our democracy:  the emergence of a third political force that limits the extremist tendencies of the left & right.  This triadic structure is our new political reality.  It makes the old binary structure of parliament irrelevant.

So the old right/left divide that Kat refers to above is merely a traditional perception now.  Perceptions can trump reality, in the short to medium term, but fake news tends to be transitory and political commentators eventually get real when they realise their reputation is threatened by maintaining an untenable line.  Binary thinking is a relic of the past.  They know swing-voters create our changes of government, have done so for many years, they just haven't deduced the general principle driving that behaviour.  Centrists control the balance of power, and they now constitute around a third of the electorate in most western countries.  Anticipate a political praxis in which centrists become adept at articulating common ground.  I suspect both leftists & rightists will become increasingly marginalised in future, as common sense prevails.

by Andrew Geddis on October 09, 2017
Andrew Geddis


I don't know if Claire has published anything peer reviewed on this, but my understanding is that it is a correlative claim (with a causative explanation attached): whichever of the two major parties is ahead in the opinion polls 12-18 months out from an election will be in government following that election, because most voters essentially have decided at that point how their ballots will be cast.

In her favour, the claim has held true so far through NZ's MMP history. Whether it does so in 2017 seems less certain to me. 

by Katharine Moody on October 09, 2017
Katharine Moody

It seems to me that Claire Robinson's argument/research applies an FPP lens on an MMP electorate. She notes that not once under MMP has either National or Labour received 50% of the vote (good point) - but then hangs her argument (for change or status quo) on which of these parties is leading in the polls in a run up to the election (this is where the argument falls over).

Under MMP,  'the Government' is the coalition of governing parties - and for the past three elections we have not had a change in 'the Government'.  This time round 'the Government' lost two legs whilst retaining one arm, and the previous three parties in Opposition all campaigned on the premise of changing 'the Government'.

And that is what they have done. Regardless of what happens, the electorate gets a change in 'the Government' - because that's what the majority of voters voted for.

The Government lost the election. I don't get it - how hard is that?

by Chuck Bird on October 09, 2017
Chuck Bird

The argument that the majority voted to change the PM is wrong on two counts.  Firstly, there have been a number of polls showing the majority thought the country was heading in the right direction.  Secondly, while it is true many NZF voters had the expectation that NZF would go with Labour many did not have that view.  Some expected NZF would go with National. Others myself included voted NZF because some of their policies.  I strongly support direct democracy or binding referenda particularly on the Maori seats but also on other issues like smacking where MPs thought they knew how to raise kids better than the majority of good parents. 

I believe that the majority of NZF voters feel the same on binding referenda regardless of which party they hope NZF will go with.  Below is a link to Muriel Newman’s NZCPR website with readers’ comments.  I do not know how many of them voted but I suspect quite a few.


If NZF goes with Labour and does not get a binding referendum on the Maori seats it will be the end on NZF.  It would seem now that National would agree with that as well as a new binding referendum on smacking.

by Andrew Geddis on October 09, 2017
Andrew Geddis


TBF, I think Claire is using "change in the Govt" as shorthand for "change in the major party leading the Govt". Whether that's a useful lens is debateable (i.e. was the 1999-2002 Labour/Alliance Govt "the same as" the 2002-2005 Labour/United Future Govt, and was that "the same as" the 2005-2008 Labour/NZ First/UF Govt?).


This is why trying to impose binary motives on large collectives is a bit of a mug's game.

by Tim Watkin on October 09, 2017
Tim Watkin

I think Claire's argument that it's 'devastating' for Labour is paper thin. It may not be a mood for change like we've seen before under MMP. It may not be an FPP-style mood for change. It may not be much of a mood for change at all. Because change is not one thing.

But the bottomline is that the vote represents the ability for the parties involved in negotiations to change the government.

Surely that's the key thing (as I've written in my excellent piece), rather than trying to dissect a mood.

by Eszett on October 09, 2017

The biggest argument that this was not a vote for change is that Naional held it's party vote for the the 4th time in a row in the mid 40s.

While with 44.4% it's the lowest percentage of all four election, they have continously grown their total votes over 4 election. It is remarkably for a fourth term government party. 

Having said that, Labour / Greens are at 43.2% which is quite close. If they had gotten ever so slightly more than National, I think it would be a stronger argument for change.

Hopefully soon the lid will be lifted and we'll find out whether the cat is red or blue.

by Andrew Geddis on October 09, 2017
Andrew Geddis


Surely that's the key thing (as I've written in my excellent piece) ...

When are you planning on posting that?

(Oooh ... burn!)

by Chuck Bird on October 09, 2017
Chuck Bird


I did not think I could convince you of the merits of binding referenda but was pointing out the reasons of some who voted for NZF and it was not which party NZF would go with. 

by Andrew Geddis on October 09, 2017
Andrew Geddis


That was the point of my comment! Trying to collapse all the various reasons people had for voting for various parties into "change" or "not change" over simplifies things (a lot).

by william blake on October 09, 2017
william blake

The 'mood for change' seems to be contained to the voters who can feel that a vote for the left is no longer wasted. There was no change on the right. Will there ever be?

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