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Plenty of reasons to be either alternately ecstatic or bummed from a superficial, by-the-numbers look at the New Zealand general election results (depending on whether you hang right or left), but the total voter turnout of 73.8%, the lowest in 124 years, should give us all cause for thought and concern. In 7th form, I sat the Scholarship-level English exam and got told I’d come fifth in the country. My jubilation was tempered by that hollow, gnawing feeling in the back of my mind, the inevitable and unspoken knowledge that there were probably about 12 people in the country who had bothered to sit it. There’s probably a bit of that amid the celebration going on – doing really well isn’t quite so awesome when realise you’ve succeeded in an unusually small pool.

But let’s go back – 1887. Turnout: 67.1%. This was before women gained the right to vote (an oddly-worded Herald article had some thinking that figures were artificially low before that – turnout has always been based on total eligible registered electors, and prior to 1893 a woman in New Zealand couldn’t be one). It was also before the birth of the political party system as we know it, before Labour, National, Reform, or the Liberal Party. And yet there’s some eerie similarities when you peep the Encyclopedia of New Zealand for a snapshot of New Zealand in the 1880s, when:

 “…a group of politicians who could best be designated “prudent” endeavoured to grapple with what had become the problems of acute depression. For from 1879 on, without any intermissions till 1895, the country knew hard times: declining prices for its exports of wool, a diminishing output of gold, a high level of indebtedness, both private and public, low and falling wages, unemployment, and destitution in the towns. No resolute answer was given; ministers hesitated between retrenchment and taxation on the one hand, and renewed if reduced borrowing upon the other. For once borrowing had become established, it was hard to control; half-completed works prevented an absolute cut, and borrowing could still appeal as a miraculous panacea. So much was this so that the old magician, Vogel, could return to power in 1884, in alliance with Stout as premier, upon a promise to borrow and spend on the grand scale once again. Within three years it became clear that the magic had faded; 1887 brought Atkinson and “caution” back, and saw an end to overseas borrowing for the best part of a decade. An era in New Zealand life was over…By the end of the 1880s, hard times seemed to have come to stay: in 1887–90 more people left the country than arrived…

 …(The 1887–1890 government) attempted, rather half-heartedly, to bolster up local industry by tariffs, while small-scale land settlement continued. At the same time stringent governmental economy was applied. In brief, Atkinson was attempting to keep a depressed New Zealand going by using what she had – her land and her small factories – and not by relying upon what she might borrow.”

I’m not going to bullshit here and claim to be au fait with 1880s NZ economic history anymore than anybody who reads this – but we can see some of the past echoes, can’t we? Prudent politicians with a pessimistic and limited vision; low wages and high private debt; a glum see-saw between borrowing, and taxation, and retrenchment; a draining exodus of the skilled and intelligent (no points for guessing where). Significant new ideas were ventured (land tax reform, industrial relations legislation, constitutional reform) but were tarred as too radical and damaging by those who opposed them. A term or so deep into this morass, how motivated would you be to get out there and vote? Hi 2011.

Obviously plenty of the structures and institutions are different, but some of these situations feel equally intractable. If you’re thinking of going to Queensland and getting a mining job in the next 12 months or so because work here is miserly and sparse, why hold a stake in our democratic outcome for the next three years? If you’re worried about paying more taxes, but you’re worried about high unemployment, and a useless public service, and asset sales (which figure into that terminal retrenchment-tax-borrowing shuffle nicely), and too much debt, maybe you just feel paralysed. Maybe you don’t even know anything about any of these, and electoral politics is a little like a Dungeons & Dragons board game that you didn’t really want to follow at the start and couldn’t possibly begin to follow now (in which case, thank you for getting this far. I promise I won’t start talking about coalition partner strategies and party lists and any of that pundit geekscum shit). Also now we basically have no gold. Sweet.

 On the Other Hand

Voter turnout has been decreasing in most established democracies over the past 30 years or so. Which is not to absolve New Zealand’s responsibility for sorting its shit out, but to get people who are soulsearching on this to cast their net a little wider than blaming, say, Phil Goff. Or MMP. Or The Feelers. Or offering up a comparison of the 1887 general election. I don’t know.

Here’s a pretty good table of what I’m talking about (perhaps take it with a pinch of salt, because it says the NZ 2005 turnout was 61.6%) What’s happening in NZ could be seen as broadly similar to what’s happening in a country like Ireland (72.9% in 1982, 62.6% in 2002) or Finland (75.7% in 1983, 66.7% in 2003) or France (78.5% in 1986, 60.3% in 2002). We were beating these countries at getting out to vote then, and we’re still beating them now. But the downward trend is there. The unspoken fear, of course is that you end up like the States, which has sort of functioned as the running conversation piece for moderately apathetic people to make small-talk about very apathetic people for years. I don’t think we’re quite going this way, but we might well have under an ongoing two-party, First-Past-The-Post style system. So there’s that.

Probably where a Rage Against The Machine lyric would go, if we were the worst  people ever

The other big worldwide trend – bigger than the 1880s, maybe even bigger than the 1930s given time, is the international economic crisis that began in 2008 and never really went away. Currently, this crisis has devolved into a endless series of national or regional crises that begin to feel a little bit like losing someone to a series of strokes. The killer blow never quite comes, but each time there’s a little less left. If that’s a cruel idea in the abstract, it’s crueller in its specific impacts – the jobless, the homeless, the hungry. And those same people look at their governments and see promises that amount to resuscitation, not rejuvenation.

Up until a few years ago, one strain of thought was that decreasing turnouts in Western democracies was related to contentment – if you’ve got your needs and some of your wants covered, what more would voting get you? The trend could continue from here, but with none of the wants and fewer and fewer of the bare needs. If changing the government by way of an election won’t help, why bother? In other words, it’s a decline that subs out contentment for despair and then heads on its merry course.

In the United States (or the United Kingdom), there’s no way for ideas beyond that mere resuscitation to enter the mainstream party political discourse. I wonder if that’s a key to the persistence of the Occupy movement in both those countries – ideas that don’t have any way in to the halls of influence have to hammer angrily (but peacefully) on the doors. Alternative ideas, and the people who might have the capacity to carry them out, are in our Parliament, albeit not in the positions of most influence yet. It’s 1887, it’s 1931, it’s 2011. Can ‘no future’ become ‘no, future!’? Can people give a shit?

I feel like there are some ways to do this. In part two, I’m going to try and outline them. Good news: it’s concise. Bad news: it involves a Star Wars analogy.