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OPINION: An autopsy of the Democratic Party

Saturday 6 August 2022 | Written by Petero Okotai | Published in Editorials, Opinion

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OPINION: An autopsy of the Democratic Party
Democratic leader Tina Browne. Photo: SUPPLIED

"This column is part of a few which I have entitled " Oversimplifications". The reason for this is that almost every subject, and indeed everything that I write, almost always merits something significantly longer, if not a book, to explain the complexity and nuances, analyse the pros, cons, and counter arguments... most of which I have considered, having dwelled on many of these issues for years. However, if I did include all of these thoughts, 1) I'd never finish any of these and; 2) there's not enough room in the paper. So remember, below is an oversimplification of a slightly more complex ideas and thoughts."

On Monday we had what was in the end a rather anti-climactic and predictable election result. Cabinet will remain the same excepting Patrick Arioka who will likely be replaced by Independent Steven Matapo, or if his desires can be satiated in other ways, perhaps Tingika Elikana. There is the other complicating factor of Robert Tapaitau’s looming court case. If found guilty, that could open up another cabinet spot.

For the third election in a row, the CIP will lead a coalition government after being unable to secure a majority on its own. However, I would not consider this the political ‘failure’ for the CIP as much as was 2014 or even 2018, as after 12 years, it is almost expected that they would lose. It will now be at least a 16-year tenure in power for the CIP, a slightly concerningly long tenure for a single party, unprecedented since our first government. But in the end, this result was the best the CIP could have really hoped for and whilst not “convincing”, it was enough.

 No, the story of this election isn’t about the CIP as so much as it is about the sad performance of the Democratic party “opposition” (and I use that word loosely) and its almost inevitable demise. I have previously hinted at some of the issues I saw with the Democratic party as the “opposition”. Much of the “hopelessness” referred to my previous piece on the “audacity of hopelessness” was derived from the Democratic party itself, and the fact that they simply did not make themselves a viable alternative to CIP led government. When the election rolled around all the chickens came home to roost. So now is as good as time as any to pick over the corpse of the Democratic party campaign and figure what happened and perhaps more importantly, what needs to happen going forwards.

  1. What opposition? -  Throughout the last four years the democratic party has failed to provide a credible “threat” to the CIP lead coalition government. The starting point has to be the failure to form a government subsequent to the last election despite winning more seats in the last election than the CIP. Beside the fact that the Democratic party were unable to form a government in the aftermath of the last elections, and failed to do… anything after Mark Brown left the door wide open for a change of government after the controversial (and not very logical) choice of Tapaitau as his DPM over Rose Brown despite mother and daughter collectively holding the balance. Why not offer Rose DPM and Tehani a cabinet spot as well? How is that not a superior deal to what the CIP offered? In this scenario the Democratic government also get to keep the majority of cabinet positions (where as in the last four years the CIP only held 50% of cabinet).
  • Throughout the last four years it has felt like there was very little resistance to anything government did, in particular the bad and incompetent. There was little to no scrutiny of government’s policy, i.e. the big issues. I don’t remember a dedicated media campaign challenging government policy on any number of issues. Overspend on TTV through, the issues with renewable energy across the country, the thrice roading of the round-about at the Avatiu wharf to name only a few  - let alone the other gaffs, conflicts of interests and bad behaviour. One cannot just sit around for four years and then start complaining when the election rolls around.  As the opposition, without the budget and levers of government, your job is to critique the sitting government, and offer the public ideas on what you would do different, i.e. offer the public a viable alternative, a different (better) idea and vision of what government could be. The Democratic party failed to do that. I challenge anyone to describe what made the Democratic party different from the CIP. It’s impossible as the democratic party failed to differentiate themselves in the last four years.

To sum up, there was a lack of effort from the Demos to speak out against government corruption, there was a complete absence of critical analysis to inform their policy critique or the development of their own policy and I do wonder if many of the took the responsibility of holding government to account seriously. Perhaps the smartest thing the CIP did was increasing MP salaries across the board…

  • The Campaign - At the outset it seemed like the Democratic Party were caught napping with the weird August 1 election date, and some might say this is dirty politics, however, this is the same thing the Democratic party did in 2006 (to great effect). Additionally, Teariki Heather’s United Party were obviously ready (taking three of the Democratic Party’s seats on Rarotonga). In the absence of a clear identity established over the last 4 years, the party had to create one. What resulted was a convoluted “manifesto” that no one read (as I mentioned a few weeks back… no one reads them), with a whole bunch of different ideas and promises but nothing that truly captured the public’s imagination or the zeitgeist. In political campaigning we talk about message discipline, i.e. “play the hits”, which means stick to a few (generally 3) key messages that resonate with people. There was little discipline with a number of politicians saying a number of things. Even worse, towards the end of the campaign, the promises became more outlandish, such as the massive increases in welfare payments, and ill-considered moves like attacking the financial secretary (one of the forces providing some resistance to moral decay in government). In the last week of the election, I was fielding calls and comments where people were saying (and I am mostly paraphrasing) “we want change, but these guys are nuts, I think I have to vote CIP”. In short, as collective campaign strategy, the whole thing was a debacle.

In the end the democratic party, in failing to differentiate themselves through ideas and policy, turned this in to an election about which was the lesser evil and in that given situation, people will generally gravitate towards “the devil they know”, and was a refrain I heard over and over again by voters in the weeks leading up to the election.

So what now for the Democratic party and for the opposition? The first thing that needs to happen is accountability. What that means is that those responsible for this fantastic failure need to resign, the executive and leadership. If you want accountability in government, you have to practice it in your own party. This is not meant to be mean or a personal attack, but this is what is done in politics around the world. If you fail to win an election, you step down, the leadership steps down to allow different, new ideas to fill the place where the old ideas obviously failed. It is putting the party above the interests of the individual.

The Democratic party have the opportunity to start over and be the party of the new generation (copyright Pepsi circa 1988), with the CIP still predominantly the party of 50 to 60 year old bros.

The United Party and Teariki Heather will likely find opposition challenging. Heather did not get in to this election to come second, and it will be difficult to sustain the amount of investment he has in the last few years. Being in opposition, as we’ve stated already stated, is about being diligent in critiquing government policy and promoting different ideas about government…. Cause you can’t build stuff if you’re not in government. That is a skill that the United Party will have to learn, as well as having to navigate being in opposition alongside the Democratic Party.

QUICK HITS

  • Not enough credit goes to the team who runs the election. Yes, we’re a small country but it is remarkable we’re able to get results that evening. Congrats and thanks again to Taggy and her team.
  • A few Surprises:
    • Tina Browne in Rakahanga – effective on island campaigning in the last couple of months seems to have made the difference.
    • Steven Matapo -  once a CIP possible candidate for Titikaveka, pivoted to run as an independent in Mauke and brought superior resources to bear to take out the seat. I got intelligence a week or so before the election the seat was trending in this direction, but still a bit of a surprise.  
    • Margaret Matenga – Sel was always going to struggle to retain that seat for the third time and perhaps the CIP didn’t have the strongest candidate (with constant infighting over the CIP candidacy since the retirement of Papa Tiki). Matenga is a hard worker and I’m happy for her and interested to see what she can do.
    • RAPPA – Albert Nicholas. I’m not so much surprised that he won but by how much. United’s candidate (Makiroa) was a long time CIP and expected to take votes from Albert, but somehow Rongo lost significant ground from the last election, whether this was a reflection of the party or perhaps a miscalculation at the village level, I expected this to be a bit closer.
    • Ruaau – In many ways this perhaps should have been less surprising with Smiley having held this seat for the better part of two decades. It was inevitable that change would happen, sometimes it’s just hard to see when things have been the same for so long.

Next week: Anti-corruption strategy, why it’s important and why it probably doesn’t matter.