The 2017 New Zealand General Election: A Digital Review

By Frank Kibble.

The General Election that has just been fought in New Zealand was a deeply captivating and forever-shifting contest. Bill English’s National Party were looking to hold on to power for a fourth term but lost support due to voter fatigue with their supposed failure to deliver on promises. The Labour Party, who only appointed Jacinda Ardern eight weeks before the election with polling results flagging, rode the wave of her immense worldwide popularity. They sought to pick up young votes from the Greens, who were beset with a false benefits claim scandal involving one of their leaders but managed to recover.

There is yet to be a decisive result, with the votes leaving a hung parliament and the two main parties appealing to the minority NZ First Party to form a government. A decision from NZ First as to who they will go into coalition with is due on 12th October. I was in the country for nearly two months of the campaign before polling day and aside from the political intrigue I was taken by the extent to which digital platforms played a part in the democratic process. There were some amazingly innovative and important projects undertaken that stakeholders in the UK could certainly learn from.

One of the foremost purveyors of such platforms was alternative news site The Spinoff. They ran a comedy webseries with the New Zealand Electoral Commission that proved incredibly popular and published guides for electronic voting for Kiwis living overseas. This resource was available to expats in the 2014 General Election yet only 40% of them cast their votes. This time around The Spinoff sought to address this.

Voter advice application, gained popularity during the election.

They also tapped into the strong connectivity of New Zealand’s coffeehouse culture by launching with popular café chain Muffinbreak. This user-friendly site laid out each party’s policy very clearly for visitors to ‘heart if they liked it. Users could also ‘unsee’ what party each policy belonged to, a tool designed to help eliminate preconceptions and media bias.

The site was visited by thousands in the run up to polling day and was accompanied in Muffinbreak branches by promotions and an unofficial ‘Bean Poll’ designed to encourage customers to vote. Such initiatives quite clearly targeted young, tech-literate metropolitan types which ensured Labour and the Greens enjoyed strong support in the cities (as is the case with most digital platforms).

Vice New Zealand also got in on the act, releasing the retro gaming-themed ‘Battle to the Beehive’ that features the party leaders engaged in combat with transport, health, green energy etc. This follows a trend for amusing interactivity this year that has already spawned the Melenchon-focused ‘Fiscal Kombat’ for the French Presidential Election and ‘CorbynRun’ in the UK General Election. Like its predecessors, ‘Battle to the Beehive’ sought to get web users engaged with the policy debate through a fun and nostalgic medium.

Also hard at work before the Election were the Design+Democracy team at Massey University in Wellington. They developed a sophisticated political matchmaker tool called ‘On the Fence’ that posed social media users the choice of agreeing or disagreeing with statements on contentious issues.

A match would then then be calculated from the responses for the user, with the result not always expected! This follows other match makers such the tool available on crowdfunding site Crowdpac in the UK and US but succeeds in cutting through misconceptions in a country where news comes largely from one major national daily and the county press.

Design+Democracy’s aim is to boost citizen engagement in the democratic process in New Zealand. ‘On the Fence’ is their main focus these days but in the past they have developed projects that address involvement in local government and youth politics. Rather ingeniously they produced a tool for discussion during the redesign of the New Zealand flag debate of 2015 that was named Flagpost.

The brains behind it was Thomas Le Bas, who developed it as part of his Master of Design course. On the much-maligned flag design process, Thomas says that “what the government was offering as an ‘open’ process was to me more the illusion of inclusion. Flagpost was made to be a way for the public to discuss, vote on and tag flag design submissions in a public forum while trying to facilitate a more designerly process.”

It was this striving for a more democratic consideration of the flag design that attracted 12,000 site visitors to the site and 150,000 page views in the two months that the design consultation was open for. This gets to the essence of what the Design+Democracy team are seaking to achieve: to construct digital platforms that engage the citizenry in situations where the democratic process is flawed. ‘On the Fence’, which first was run in the 2014 General Election, advertised on Facebook and Twitter and developed a strong following amongst social media users.

Indeed often digital democracy practices are merely the preserve of these types alongside the techie community and academia. However in New Zealand this is not so much the case with even the mainstream media appealing to voters via digital platforms. Arguably the most prominent tool of its kind that was used in the Election was VoteCompass, used by broadcasting network TVNZ to gauge public opinion on certain issues.

It was originally designed in Canada by Vox Pops Labs as a questionnaire, the answers to which would map a voter’s ideal match based on party policy. It has been used in several countries and in New Zealand in the 2014 General Election when it was a big success. TVNZ sponsor it and run commercials encouraging viewers to use the tool. They appeal to voters by asking them to select the issues they care the most about which their broadcasters will then question politicians on. In this they are aided by a team of academics who analyse the voter data and provide commentary on the results.

One could argue that VoteCompass displays evidence of a healthy digital ecosystem within New Zealand’s democratic process. The same messages were broadcast to young and old; left and right; rich and poor. The tool is facilitated by almost total wifi coverage in metropolitan centres and expansion of connectivity into even the most rural of areas in recent years. It displays a real desire by media leaders to boost participation in the digitally-marginalised by harnessing technology to include them in the debate.

It should be applauded, as should all initiatives that were at work during the General Election. New Zealand has a small population concentrated in a few cities so perhaps the reach of these digital platforms may appear magnified. However in several important respects the country is leading the way in using technology to help foster a more politically-engaged populous and inclusive democratic system.

Frank Kibble is a History graduate from the University of Exeter and is currently travelling through Australasia.

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