Politics: Winston: a foregone conclusion?

One route to paralysis in decision-making and action is to assume foregone conclusion. Climate change apostles make this mistake when they say apocalypse is imminent. Most people then shrug, figuring nothing they do will stave off doom.
Sports teams make the mistake by relaxing when long way ahead or thinking the other side inferior, then getting shock. It was foregone conclusion the All Blacks would eat France in the rugby world cup final – they scratched one-point win.
Good managers know the effect. Mediocre, arrogant or timid ones can get blindsided.
Take political management. Last year Labour thought public distaste for partial sales of state-owned enterprises was so strong it would skewer National. Wrong. National runs risk in its conclusion that in 2014 taxing income from capital gain will skewer Labour.
The foregone-conclusion effect is one of the conundrums in MMP, now being officially reviewed by the Electoral Commission in line with the legislation for last year’s referendum, which recorded lukewarm status quo decision.
The conundrum is not an MMP peculiarity. It was there under the FPP (first-past-the-post) system. MMP’s contribution is to magnify it.
From the mid-1950s to the early 1980s growing numbers defected from the National-Labour club, mostly to the Social Credit Political League. At certain point, the foregone-conclusion effect took hold in some electorates.
In early 1978 this translated into by-election win for Social Credit leader Bruce Beetham in safely National rural Rangitikei. Labour had no show of winning. Its supporters transferred in droves to Beetham. Defectors from National took him over the line. Labour at this time also looked loser nationally.
This spread to some other safe National electorates, pushing the Labour vote down, sometimes into third place, and delivering two more seats to Social Credit at the peak. Then when the relative strengths of the two big old parties reversed from the early 1980s, National’s vote in number of safe Labour electorates bled heavily to Social Credit, though not enough for Social Credit to win the seats.
Anger at the two main parties in 1990 and 1993 delivered seats to Jim Anderton and Sandra Lee on the left, and Winston Peters and Tau Henare on the right before MMP changed the rules in 1996 to give voters different options.
The foregone-conclusion effect then hibernated until 2002, when it roared back. With strongwoman Helen Clark at her peak, Labour win over weakened and indifferently-led National seemed foregone conclusion.
But many voters didn’t want one-party government. Labour’s support fell 10 points between opinion poll readings month out and the actual vote. More dramatically, National supporters poured into United Future and New Zealand First hoping they might shackle Clark. National got 21 percent of the party vote. (Its “real” vote was probably the 31 percent electorate vote.)
In 2011 National’s re-election was foregone conclusion. But its support dropped nine points from September polls to the election. And Labour’s party vote fell to 27 percent. (Its “real” – electorate – vote was 35 percent.)
Is this phase before voters are fully accustomed to MMP and vote their actual party preference, as in established proportional-vote countries? The Electoral Commission won’t answer that. Its review deals with mechanics, not atmospherics.
Meantime National and Labour must live with last year’s foregone-conclusion effect which (compounded by John Key’s poor political management in the campaign) delivered Winston Peters back to Parliament.
Peters might well turn the key in the 2014 election: if he clears five percent then he will likely decide who governs (probably National); if he doesn’t, that would boost the wasted vote, reducing the vote-share needed for majority (and lifting National’s third-term prospects).
It’s not exactly what Key ordered. But the foregone-conclusion effect can catch out even able managers, as Clark found long before Key. M

Colin James is New Zealand’s leading political commentator and NZ Management’s regular political columnist. [email protected]

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