Who should I vote for in 2017?

Chuan-Zheng Lee
8 min readSep 20, 2017

In most things I write (mostly over at The Co-Op, where my co-blogger Andrew Chen is running an excellent series breaking down “A Policy A Day” until the election), I hope to convince you of a proposition. This is different. Every three years, I spend dozens of hours pondering over how to cast my vote. Knowing that many of my friends spend those same dozens of hours cheering for a party, this is a post a brief tour of my hesitations and uncertainties, provided in the naive hope that partisans might be interested in what a swing voter is thinking.

A few priorities, for context. My three major voting issues are housing, superannuation and immigration. This partly reflects their importance, but the real reason I set these apart is that they have fairly obvious answers — or at least, obviously wrong answers. Anyone who thinks the current super age is sustainable, with or without the Cullen Fund, is deluded. In housing, it astounds me to see people talk about immigrants or even speculators when the foundational cause is artificial constraints on the supply of land and vertical space, in the form of restrictive planning regulations. As for immigration, well, I’m tired of watching politicians use immigrants as a punching bag, even if they’re ostensibly in denial about it.

I’ve read and followed as much as I can, and watched all the debates and interviews I’m aware of. But like everyone else, most of my life is not about New Zealand politics. Therefore, the following lacks both the rigour and coherence I usually aim for. If there’s some answer to a question somewhere on a party’s website, I probably haven’t seen it. But I tend to think that what parties trumpet for the media is also a reflection of their priorities, so something for which I have to look hard to find probably isn’t going to sway me.


Two months ago, I had more or less already ruled Labour out, mainly because of their repeated anti-foreign and anti-immigrant positions, but also noting their pledge to keep superannuation unaffordable. But then, Jacinda Ardern — someone I’ve often said will one day be prime minister — took over. I sat up, wondering if this could be the great turnaround.

Alas, it has not. While Ms Ardern has scaled back the xenophobia, when asked, she continues to defend Labour’s immigration policy using the same baffling contradictions that plagued the rhetoric of Andrew Little, her predecessor. Her party has retained its fantasy on superannuation. Ms Ardern seems to think that she can segregate the housing market into “affordable” and “existing”, the former not affecting the latter. It’s not clear to me how KiwiBuild would overcome a lack of space to legally build houses, or even how it would increase (as opposed to replace) development. After promising a “relentlessly positive” campaign, she’s relentlessly kept up her line about National’s nine years to solve the country’s problems. She may be right, but it’s not the campaign she promised, nor one that inspires confidence in her.

Look, Ms Ardern’s had a tough job. Steering such a wayward ship back on course would be a superhuman feat, and would — as far as my vote is concerned — have required her to make U-turns on major Labour policies. But if elections are about the future, the last seven weeks have failed to persuade me that the Labour of tomorrow is not the same as the Labour of the last five years: one without constructive ideas and apt to use Asians as a misguided scapegoat for the country’s woes.

A vote for Labour would be in hope that Ms Ardern will be the prime minister she deep down wants to be, instead of the one she’s campaigning to be. That’s not a compelling case, to put it mildly. Of the parties I was seriously considering, Labour is the only one I’ve ruled out. But I hope Ms Ardern will continue as leader of the opposition, so that she can have three years to remould the Labour party, rather than two months.


If I wanted to use my vote in pursuit of left-wing values, the Greens would have it before Labour, by a long margin. Unlike Labour, they have plans to achieve a lot of what they want, in more precise terms than broad platitudes about values or visions. Personally, I’m often confused about why their plans are desirable and I’m not always convinced their targets are backed up by planned actions. But that’s true of all political parties, and at least some of their policies seem pragmatic: among others, I’m sympathetic to their rental warrant of fitness idea (for itself — it won’t help with affordability), and their plan to transition farming to more sustainable practices seemed like an effort to be constructive rather than punitive (though I note allegations from farmers of a lack of awareness of existing work in the area).

One notable contrast with Labour is that the Greens actually did make an about-turn on immigration. In one of the debates, James Shaw repeatedly refused to give a quota, saying that the question of what values drive our immigration policy need to be answered first. I’m willing to forgive him for not knowing the answer to that, because to be honest, I don’t have a rigorous answer, either. A couple of points against, though: Like Labour, their ideas for solving the housing affordability crisis totally miss the mark. On superannuation, they don’t even have a plan.

In 2014, I decided against the Greens, citing Metiria Turei’s insistence on slogans over thoughtfulness. They’ve now shed Ms Turei, and James Shaw exhibits no such tendency. If someone like Julie Anne Genter makes it into the co-leader’s seat after the election and they make it around the Cabinet table, I’ll be hopeful, but anxious, about their contributions.


The astute reader, having seen my three top voting issues, may be eager to point out that there is a party that aligns well on all three. Don’t worry, I’ve noticed. The Act Party alone plans to lift the super age sufficiently quickly, address the restrictions preventing housing development, and has consistently criticised other parties for implying that immigration is a problem. It’s a relief that there’s one party not afraid to say all three.

There’s just one problem: David Seymour is wrong on pretty much everything else. When arguing that Te Reo Māori should be optional in schools, Mr Seymour repeatedly neglects to differentiate it from existing mandatory subjects. Act’s plan to reduce the sentences of prisoners who participate in education programmes is laudable, but the rest of their conception of criminal justice is not. Their income management idea for long-term beneficiaries is counterproductive and inconsistent with classical liberalism. It’s bizarre to tie funding for teachers’ salaries to participation in collective agreements. What do I do with a party that is right on the three things that matter, and wrong in the rest of their manifesto?

In 2014, they didn’t even have three major policies I could applaud, but I still ended up giving them my vote, sacrificing political alignment for the intellectual honesty espoused by its then-leader, Jamie Whyte. This won’t work this time: Mr Seymour doesn’t share Mr Whyte’s rare penchant. On some issues, he displays a confident lack of awareness.

All that came to light during the campaign. Before then, I remember being impressed with Mr Seymour’s work during the term. He picked his battles wisely, spoke up on certain issues where no-one else would, and emphasised topics where he could apply Act principles without coming across as overly ideological. I tend to think such traits should be rewarded. It’s a pity the last six weeks have made that more difficult.


I don’t buy the narrative that, because National’s been in government for nine years, any remaining problem in New Zealand is an indictment on them. (I didn’t buy it in 2008 about Labour’s record, either.) Large social changes take time to effect. I’m more interested what they’ve done so far, and (like for other parties) their plans for what to do next.

In fact, Bill English’s appearances in interviews and debates have persuaded me that, more than any other political leader, he has a deep understanding of public policy and the challenges government faces, and is focussed on moving things forward. Of course, that is partly an incumbency bias — when you’re the government, you have access to the advice of the public service that the opposition does not.

For that reason, it takes more than that for an incumbent to get my vote. You’d think that, with its knowledge of current initiatives, an incumbent would be able to propose at least potential solutions to the country’s challenges. Sadly, not so. I see Mr English’s commitment to lifting 100,000 children out of poverty, but have seen about as little on how to do this as I have from Labour. On housing, National’s “new urban planning law” lacks detail, and they want to subsidise first-home buyers, a move that given the underlying artificial scarcity of land, is more likely to exacerbate than alleviate affordability woes. Their one promising policy is their proposed initiatives in maths, technology and second language education — in fact, it’s surprising that they’re alone in this, given how much everyone talks about the digital and globalised economy. This is important to me, but probably not important enough to single-handedly win my vote.

Māori Party

I admire the Māori Party’s work. Given an opportunity to work in government to improve the lives of Māori (and others), they’ve dutifully set to work doing so. I’m not overly familiar with the results of Whānau Ora, their flagship initiative, but people generally seem positive about it. Like everyone, they have biases, but obviously not left-right ones — notice, for example, their stance on charter schools. Still, as you might predict, their priorities are not the same as mine. This makes it a hard to see them as a first option, rather than a fallback.

Nonetheless, some things to note: Their position on immigration (though not talked much about, presumably because it’s not a priority) is almost exactly the sort of thing I’d want to see. I don’t agree with every detail, but the gist of it, which is positive about immigration and international students, is opposed to populism and advocates Treaty of Waitangi education for immigrants, is encouraging. Their housing policy, like most parties, is unclear in some aspects and misses the mark in others.

Sometimes I wonder if my priorities are misplaced. My compatriots have spent the last few years constantly talking about housing affordability, so I assumed it would be a top priority. But there’s surprisingly little scrutiny of plans to alleviate the rise in prices, let alone thought about what the real causes are. And I don’t exactly have anything in it personally — it’ll be at least few years before I move back home, and in any case I’ve given up on the idea that owning a house should be on my bucket list. So perhaps I’ll be okay with voting for a party that’ll let housing scarcity continue for a few more years. That would at least alleviate the most difficult trade-off I have to make.

But then, maybe not. I’ve got a couple more days to think about this, so we’ll see.