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NZ: National likely winners, but status quo will remain

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23 October 2008 09:21

Guest blogger: Derek Quigley is a visiting fellow with the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU. He is a former New Zealand Cabinet Minister and co-founder of the ACT New Zealand Political Party.

Helen Clark – New Zealand’s Prime Minister since 1999 – and her coalition Labour Party-dominated government, should lose office at the 8 November election. The main opposition party, National, has been consistently ahead in the polls since February 2007, with the average of five polls in September giving it a lead of 15% over Labour. If this reflects National’s position on election night, it will win sufficient seats to be able to form a Government on its own.

However, pre-election polls are one thing and election night results are another, particularly as New Zealand has had, since 1996, a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system.

MMP replaced the first-past-the-post electorate based system which favoured the two main parties. The results of the 1984 election illustrate this: then, Labour secured 43% of the vote and won 56 seats; National got 37 seats with 35.9% of the vote; and Social Credit retained its two seats with 7.6%. In contrast, the newly formed New Zealand Party won no seat despite securing 12.2 % of the overall vote.    

Under MMP each voter now has two votes. One is an electorate vote for the candidate of the voter’s choice, with the person gaining the most votes winning the seat. The second vote is for the political party of the voter’s choice. The 2008 contest will be for 120 seats. Sixty-two will be 'general' or non-Maori geographic electorates; seven will be geographic Maori electorates; and, the remaining 51 seats will be allocated from political party lists. 

In practical terms, the party vote carries more 'weight' than the electorate vote, although both contribute to the final mix of MPs in parliament. The party vote is the mechanism which determines the 'proportionality' of the various political parties in parliament. It ensures that their percentage of the overall nation-wide party vote is close to their final share of seats in parliament. 

The mechanics of MMP are as follows: a party's share of seats in parliament is filled first by any of its candidates who win electorate seats, and then by candidates from the party list. If, for example, National’s leader and deputy leader are 1 and 2 on their party’s list and both win electorates, their names – along with the names of others on the party list who have won electorates — are taken off the list in favour of people below them (in descending order) who haven’t won an electorate. This process continues until 'proportionality' has been achieved.

There is a mechanism or 'threshold' to avoid a multiplicity of small parties getting into parliament. A party has to get 5% or more of all of the party votes, or win one or more electorate seats to achieve representation. Following the 2005 election, there were eight parties in parliament. Four were there with less than 5% of the party vote, but won constituencies. Of these, one has 4 MPs; two have 2 MPs; and the fourth has only its electorate MP as it gained insufficient party votes to carry another MP into parliament.

Despite the National Party’s current healthy lead over Labour, it has two potential hurdles to overcome before it can form a government. First, New Zealanders regularly cast between a fifth and a third of their votes for parties other than Labour or National. As a result, no single party has won an absolute majority of votes since 1951 when there was a snap post-waterfront-strike election. This implies a high probability that either of the two major parties will have to seek accommodations with 'third' parties to form a government. 

The situation of the current Clark Government illustrates National’s dilemma. Labour currently has 49 MPs, eleven short of an absolute majority. It was able to guarantee confidence and supply after the 2005 election by dint of an agreement with the New Zealand First Party (seven seats), another agreement with the United Future Party (two seats), and a third with the Green Party (six seats).  

Secondly, if National does not obtain an overall majority on its own, it may face a situation where it has no natural coalition partner or partners with enough seats to enable it to form a stable minority government. The Maori Party is a possibility as it is likely to finish up with six or seven seats. However, as National has a policy to abolish the Maori constituencies, this may not sit well with Maori, despite the fact that these seats are an anomaly. 

They were set up on a 'temporary' basis in 1867 when Maori were allocated four seats after Britain established Westminster-style parliamentary government in New Zealand in 1852.  Since then, there have been various moves to abolish them, with the strongest push coming from the Royal Commission which proposed the adoption of the MMP electoral system in 1986. It recommended that if the country were to adopt MMP, the Maori seats should be abolished.  It argued that under MMP, all parties would have to pay attention to all voters, including Maori, and that the existence of separate Maori seats marginalised Maori concerns.

Following a referendum which lead to the MMP electoral system, Parliament drafted an Electoral Reform Bill, incorporating the abolition of the Maori seats, but this provision was never enacted. Given the National Party’s history of compromise when it needs support to form a government or stay in office, none of its policies – including the one to abolish the Maori seats — are likely to be sacrosanct!

National’s other potential coalition partner is the ACT New Zealand Party, which currently has two MPs, but is polling well under 5%. ACT is likely to retain the electorate it won in 2005, and now has former Labour Finance Minister – and the architect of New Zealand’s successful economic reforms in the mid to late 1980s, Sir Roger Douglas — as number 3 on its party list. Douglas has been heralded around the world 'as one of the most successful liberal economic reformers of the 20th century'; and as the statesman 'who dares to oppose the vicious circle of demands and promises with imperatives of economic reason, however unpopular' and is promoting low tax policies, choice in health and education and smaller government. He is however too tough for his former Labour colleagues, and clearly makes National Party MPs uncomfortable, as their leader, John Key, has publicly ruled him out as a member of his cabinet on the basis that he is 'too right wing'.

All this suggests that whoever forms the next New Zealand government will be a status quo politician and that as a result, the country – which was in recession even before the current international economic crisis – will continue to trail Australia in terms of individual income and wealth. This was not always the case and can be reversed, but not without further fundamental reform.

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