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In a weekend of depressing news, the discovery that around 1 million New Zealanders failed to cast a vote on Saturday really takes the cake, no matter your political persuasion. So many attempts have been made to get to the bottom of voter apathy and yet no single explanation seem capable of shedding light on the phenomenon. Certainly in this election it can be assumed that the surety of National’s success and Labour’s demise kept some people away, thinking their vote would make little difference either way.
I must also not be alone in despairing at the almost complete lack of political coverage during the Ruby World Cup, save for the odd scandal or new polling data. From memory it wasn’t until the Wednesday following the nail-biting final that a combination of grinning jocks and slippery handshakes disappeared from the front page news, to be replaced by the sudden realisation that the election was a mere six weeks away. Is the turnout so surprising when so few could muster the energy to talk politics over the deafening roar of rugby fever?
Young people have come under even more fire for their particularly dismal turnout, an outcome that the Electoral Commission sought to avoid with its campaign to highlight the low enrolment rate of 18-24 year olds. In 2005 the Commission released a research document on young peoples engagement in political life, finding that a combination of disengagement, naivete, and distrust prevented young non-voters from making an effort. While there is not much to be done about the percentage who thought harder about the weekend than they did about their future, the dismaying revelations that many of those surveyed felt that making no choice was better than making the wrong one (or an ill-informed one) speaks to the scale of the problem.
Veteran commentator Brian Edwards had a thing or two to say on the subject earlier in the election cycle, making a strong case for the relationship between apathy and the glaring lack of civics education in the New Zealand high school curriculum . Having tutored first year politics, I can attest to the astonishing lack of knowledge that many of my fresh-out-of-school students displayed about elections, parliament and the whole democratic shebang. Many were eager to learn but it was certainly an uphill battle for those coming from a position of surprising ignorance. For the vast majority who don’t take a path through law or politics, that basic political education may never arrive. This year’s double whammy election choice (parliamentary and electoral system) may have been the final straw for those who feel overwhelmed by the many choices before them, and perhaps we can’t blame them.
Even as someone who was always going to vote, some of the commentary on this years electoral contests was off-putting to the point of nausea. Specifically, the ‘Battles’ between so-called blokes (John Key and Phil Goff) and babes (Jacinda Ardern and Nikki Kaye, in Auckland Central). It’s almost too depressing to dissect. Key and Goff’s attempts to ‘man up’ – recalling fist fights, revealing an unlikely love of Tui, claiming superior navigation skills –
merely reveal the tragic absurdity of the bloke stereotype. As Marianne Bevan over at Eleven Hours Ahead pointed out, these ‘real men’ which our would be PM’s are desperately trying to mimic never really existed. Moreover, their attempts to buy into this outdated cultural trope serve only to entrench the most harmful stereotypes for men that do linger- be strong, be the everyman, don’t think too hard about anything. Or else. It is difficult to back up my suspicion that few, if any, New Zealanders respond well to this kind of targeted pandering. Even if they did, there is zero justification on the part of both the leaders and the media for promoting the bullshit values that bloke culture perpetuates, at the expense of a legitimate discussion on real challenges that face the nation.
On the flipside, Nikki Kaye and Jacinda Ardern seem to be doing their best to rise above the tidal wave of insulting references to babes, jelly wresting and their martial status’ that have featured so prominently in coverage of their electorate. One particularly appalling article by Johnathon Milne at the Listener insisted their good grooming obviously meant they were vying to out-babe each other, and the only reason he was writing the article (and why we read it) was because the candidates were both young and attractive. And we wonder why female candidates still only make up 33% of Parliament?
Dodgy attempts to generate political controversy are not new. Nor, obviously, are double standards: me strong, you sexy. But let’s not pretend that by accepting shitty reporting and lazy stereotyping we aren’t doing more and more to turn off young people (and old, for that matter) from a crucial process that does so little to include them as is.