Our friends across the Tasman

Only three more shopping weeks to go until the September 17 New Zealand election, the fourth to be held under the country’s clunky Mixed-Member Proportional system. Voters get to choose both a favoured party and a representative for their local constituency, of which there are 69 including the seven Maori electorates. To these are added 51 list MPs (sometimes a couple more if the dice land a particular way, on which more later), apportioned to give each party eligible for representation a total number of seats proportional to its share of the party vote. To be eligible, a party must win either 5 per cent of the party vote or at least one constituency seat. The system puts majority government effectively out of reach for both the Labour and National parties, such that the real game is the mix of minor parties in the middle and the capacity of the major parties to engage them in stable coalition government.

Helen Clark’s Labour Government came to power at the 1999 election in coalition with the Alliance grouping of left-wing parties led by former Labour member Jim Anderton, which had until recently included the Green Party. The Labour-Alliance Government relied on the support of the Greens until the election held on 27 July 2002, which was called a few months ahead of schedule partly because of another split in the Alliance. This election gave the National Party its worst ever result, and their slack was largely taken up by minor parties. Labour was up only 2.6 per cent, but it emerged spoilt for choice for coalition partners and was able to form a new majority without the support of the Greens. The new coalition retained Jim Anderton, by now leader of the marginal Progressive Coalition (since renamed the Progressive Party), and the larger United Future New Zealand, which merged secularised Christian party Future New Zealand with the United Party of Peter Dunne, a former Labour minister who declined to accompany the party on its post-Rogernomics shift to the left.

The above chart shows the projected seat outcomes from Fairfax New Zealand’s Poll Tracker, which aggregates polling from various agencies and makes assumptions about constituency seats being won by the United Future, Progressive and Maori parties. It demonstrates the substantial revival the National Party has enjoyed under the leadership of Don Brash, and the return to earth confronted by minor parties who profited from its slump in 2002. Support for Labour is more than holding its own, but the National Party revival combined with the relative strength of their erstwhile coalition partners, Winston Peters’ New Zealand First, means the Government has a serious fight on its hands.

Much could depend on the vagaries of the MMP system, which makes life exciting for minor parties whose support hovers around the 5 per cent threshold. A large weight of recent polling suggests the Green Party has fallen to about this level since its peak of 7.0 per cent at the 2002 election, hence the sudden disappearance of the Greens at the August 17 poll in the above chart. Should the party keep its head above 5 per cent it will win six or maybe seven list seats, probably making it impossible for the National Party to stitch together a majority. If not, it will lose every one of the nine seats it currently holds – unless it wins a constituency seat, which nobody expects. Party “co-leader” Jeanette Fitzsimons managed to win the seat of Coromandel at the 1999 election, with 39.2 per cent to the National incumbent’s 38.5 per cent, but she fell well short in 2002, finishing third behind the Nationals and Labour.

Jim Anderton’s Progressive Party has nowhere near 5 per cent support, but its 1.7 per cent in 2002 was good for an extra list member after Anderton retained his seat of Wigram. This he managed despite a slump in his vote from 49.4 per cent to 36.0 per cent, while Labour was up from 17.4 per cent to 25.6 per cent. If that’s the start of a trend, he might be in trouble. Anderton is 67 and unwisely forthcoming in telling reporters opposition isn’t good enough for him, but the New Zealand Herald reports that he is expected to hold. No such threat faces New Zealand First, with Winston Peters seemingly invincible in his electorate of Tauranga and the party tracking well over 5 per cent besides. Peter Dunne of United Future is similarly strong in his seat of Ohariu-Belmont, although his party’s poll ratings have plunged. The libertarian ACT party has fallen on even harder times, its support base presumably having been won back by the National Party. It holds nine list seats and looks certain to lose them all.

The newest entrant is the Maori Party, founded last year by former Labour member Tariana Turia when she quit the party over a land and seabed title dispute. For reasons the Poll Bludger doesn’t quite understand, Turia felt obliged to quit her Maori electorate seat and win it back at a by-election sat out by both major parties. All polls have the party at well below 5 per cent nationally, but polling shows it on course to win as many as five of the seven Maori electorates, mostly at the expense of Labour. This means the party could win a greater share of seats than their proportion of the party vote would normally warrant (known in the trade as an “overhang”), in which case the distribution of list seats would produce a parliament with more than 120 seats and a target of 62 rather than 61 seats to form a majority. The website of the pro-MMP Electoral Reform Coalition informs us that the nationwide party list system makes such an outcome “virtually impossible” – which would no doubt be true, if not for the Maori electorates.

Despite the National Party’s resurgence, Labour’s steady improvement in the polls throughout the campaign suggests they should be able to stitch together a coalition of some description. If Labour does well enough in its own right, it could end up covering for the seemingly inevitable losses of its own coalition partners. Otherwise it will have to rely on the Greens, a prospect that would trouble party hardheads. The wild card is the prospect of a Greens wipeout – Jeanette Fitzsimons tells the New Zealand Herald she doesn’t think this a risk, and she’s probably right. If she isn’t, the prospect emerges of the Nationals cobbling together an agreement with New Zealand First and perhaps United Future. Recent experience in South Australia suggests it does not pay to take minor players’ sympathies for granted, and it’s not impossible that New Zealand First could end up in the Labour camp – it was no foregone conclusion that they would support the National Party after emerging with the balance of power in 1996. But given the Nationals’ recent ideological assertiveness, it’s hard to see the Green, Progressive or Maori parties going the other way.

Entertain the whole family with this MMP quiz – I got 80 per cent. Better yet, the New Zealand Electoral Commission website thoughtfully provides an MMP seat allocation calculator, which is the kind of thing its Australian counterparts leave to us psephological weblogs.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.