New Zealand election: November 26

New Zealand will hold one of its triennial national elections tomorrow, and all the polls suggest the ruling conservative National Party stands on the cusp of an extraordinary achievement: a parliamentary majority achieved under a proportional representation voting system. The final poll from New Zealand Herald-Digipoll has the National Party on 50.9 per cent, while Roy Morgan (a phone poll of 959 respondents) has it at 49.5 per cent. The opposition Labour Party on the other hand is languishing on 28.0 per cent and 23.5 per cent respectively. The National Party is nonetheless a few points off its peaks from earlier in the campaign, and intricacies of the electoral system mean a simple majority of the vote might not be enough to translate into a majority of seats. But with two minor parties including the substantial Act New Zealand committed to support a National Party government, Prime Minister John Key’s hold on office looks secure in any case.

Under the mixed-member proportional system, voters are given a “party vote” as well as voting in first-past-the-post elections for 70 constituency seats. It is the party vote which is of interest to casual observers, as it ultimately determines the partisan composition of the parliament. In addition to the constituency members, 50 “top-up” seats are allocated in such a way as to give each party a share of seats more-or-less proportional to its share of the vote – provided they either clear a 5 per cent threshold of the national vote or win a constituency seat. The other peculiarity of the New Zealand electoral is the seven single-member Maori electoral districts: voters opt to be on either the Maori or the general roll, and exercise their constituency vote accordingly.

For the latter reason, the only constituency seats of interest to non-local observers are those which might be won by minor party candidates whose parties poll less than 5 per cent nationally. Success will entitle them to between zero and five extra seats, depending on the size of their party vote. Barring surprises, the only two seats which appear to fit the bill are Epsom, held by Rodney Hide of free-market liberal Act New Zealand, and Ohariu, held by Peter Dunne of the religious-cum-centrist United Future New Zealand. Act New Zealand currently has five seats in parliament on the back of its 3.6 per cent party vote in 2008, which would have been zero if Hide had lost his seat – although he in fact won very easily. Dunne on the other hand retained Ohariu narrowly, and United Future did not score enough party votes to win further seats. The 2008 election also saw the parliamentary demise of the once-prosperous New Zealand First party after its leader Winston Peters lost his seat of Tauranga, and it fell below the threshold in the party vote. However, the polls suggest it has undergone a surprising (to me at least) revival: their support is at 5.2 per cent from Digipoll and 6.5 per cent from Roy Morgan. Peters is top of the party’s list, and is not contesting a constituency seat.

The other operative minor parties are the Green Party, the Maori Party and, to a lesser extent, the Mana Party, a breakaway from the Maori Party formed when Hone Harawira resigned from it (New Zealand electoral law then obliged him to face a by-election in the seat – his success presumably stands him in good stead to retain the seat tomorrow). The Green Party won the seat of Coromandel in 1999 but has otherwise relied on clearing the threshold to win representation. It had a struggle achieving this until its vote lifted to 6.7 per cent in 2008, and is expected to do substantially better this time, with polls consistently indicating a vote in double figures and a representation of at least 14 seats (although Australian experience suggests they might not meet such lofty expectations). The Maori parties make the outcome in the seven Maori seats relevant to the final party totals, giving the Maori Party in particular the opportunity win substantial representation without clearing the threshold. The party won five seats in 2008, one of which it lost with Harawira’s departure earlier this year, but this time it will be encumbered by vote-splitting with the Mana Party. The other two Maori seats are held by Labour.

As noted at the beginning, the peculiarities of the system can distort the proportional conversion of votes to seats. Firstly, the capacity of the Maori Party in particular to win more constituency seats than its party vote would entitle it to can result in an “overhang”, meaning a greater number of seats in parliament than the normal 120. Its five-seat haul caused this to happen for the first time after the 2008 election, boosting the total number of seats to 122. This affects the National Party’s chances of winning a majority as its share of the vote will only be converted into a share of the base 120 seats. Another theoretical possibility for an overhang is that the National Party will so completely dominate the constituency contests that it will emerge with more seats than its party vote share allows. To do so it would need to win as many of 60 out of the 70 seats. Without having investigated the situation too closely, this doesn’t seem to me to be entirely implausible in circumstances where one major party is so completely dominant in a single-member electoral contest (witness the New South Wales state election). Another point in the National Party’s favour is that they will benefit from the 5 per cent threshold, as votes for parties which fail to reach it will be excluded from the seat calculation – hence lowering the bar to obtain a majority of seats.

The other feature of tomorrow’s poll will be a non-binding referendum on the electoral system, with all indicators pointing towards the retention of mixed-member proportional. Voters will first be asked if they wish to keep MMP or change to another system, and then given four options to choose from if MMP is abolished. Two of these – first-past-the-post and Australian-style preferential voting – involve a complete reversion to a single-member constituency system and the abolition of proportional representation. A thirde, the Australian Senate-style single transferable vote, would do the opposite – constituencies would be abolished and all seats determined at national level (CORRECTION: Martin B in comments points out that the plan is to have 24 to 30 districts proportionally electing between three and seven members, giving minor parties much higher hurdles to clear – what is known in the trade as “low magnitude” PR). Finally there is the “supplementary member” system, which would be similar to MMP except that the party seats would simply be allocated according to the parties’ shares of the total vote, rather than being used to achieve an proportional result overall by “topping up” the constituency result. This would reduce the number of minor party MPs without eliminating them entirely, making majority government easier to achieve.

The supplementary member system is favoured by the National Party, but all other major players favour the status quo. The latter seem likely to get their way: the Digipoll referred to above finds 54.4 per cent planning to vote to keep MMP. On the second question, 29.9 per cent favour first-past-the-post, 17.2 per cent favour the single transferable vote, 13 per cent favour the supplementary member system, and only 11.4 per cent favour preferential voting. Much further reading from Antony Green, and also Charles Richardson at Crikey. I suppose it’s also possible that some actual New Zealanders have had something to say about the election, but here I reach the limits of my knowledge.

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.

83 comments on “New Zealand election: November 26”

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  1. Looking at the New Zealand election has confirmed to me that we have the best parliamentary election process and I for one will never support changing it.

    I mean lets take the Christchurch Centre result, apprantly the Labour candidate that is currently tied will not gain a seat bu a different Labour candadite will, if thta is true then that is just weird.

  2. [Oh, of course: “The result will now be settled by the 3717 special votes which are still to be counted.”]

    And failing that:

    [(5) If there is an equality of votes between constituency candidates for a district and the addition of 1 vote would entitle one of those candidates to be declared elected, the Electoral Commission must, without delay, apply to a District Court Judge for a recount under section 180, and all the provisions of that section apply accordingly, except that no deposit is necessary.

    (6) If on a recount under section 180 there is an equality of votes between constituency candidates and the addition of 1 vote would entitle one of those candidates to be declared elected, the Electoral Commission must determine by lot which of those candidates is to be elected.]

    Drawn out of a hat, in other words.

  3. [Could someone confirm if I am understanding this system correctly but you get two votes basically a senate and HoR vote in one?]

    You could say that, if “by HoR vote” you mean a vote for a local member, and by “senate” a vote to determine the ultimate party composition of the chamber (achieved by adding “top up” members to the constituency total to produce a proportional result, so that Labour will get an extra one of these if it loses Christchurch Central, but won’t need it if they win).

  4. Tonight, National went forward but their friends Act, United Future and Maori went backward. Furthermore, if the National’s friends had a bad night tonight, their collective futures are not much better.

    ACT is only in parliament due to patronage of National and have ceased to be seen as an independent party by the public, their 1 % vote has reflected this tonight. United Future is merely a vehicle for Peter Dunne who will be 60 at the next election. The leaders of the Maori Party, Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples will retire at the next election, meaning that the Maori Party will only have 1 incumbent MP at the next election.

    However National does have a key advantage to counteract its fading coalition partners.

    The party votes won tonight by NZ First and the Conservatives total 9.5%, these parties attract socially conservative voters which may not have a home in 2014 and will be up for grabs.

    Winston Peters will be 69 in 2014, there is no guarantee that he will run again. NZ First as a party is highly dependent on his image and it is hard to see NZ First doing anywhere as well as it did tonight without Peters.

    Colin Craig showed that $1 million dollars can buy 2.76% of the party vote but not a seat in parliament. Will he continue the Conservative party, maybe? Even if he does, in 2014 it will not be the fresh force it was this time.

    National will be in a prime position to pick up these votes. Not all NZ First voters would necessarily go to National, some will go to Labour, in fact some were probably on loan from Labour tonight. But NZ First’s key over 65 base would more likely go to National.

    Labour on the other hand would have to try to pick up these socially conservative voters from a centre-left position. Compounding this handicap, they will also be trying woo social liberals from the Greens. In this position Labour is at a disadvantage in a contest with National for the near 10% of social conservatives which may be up for grabs in 2014.

    National may be running out of friends but it is well placed to maintain its party vote.

  5. Mexicanbeemer said @ 52;

    [Could someone confirm if I am understanding this system correctly but you get two votes basically a senate and HoR vote in one?]

    Sorry, and I don’t mean this to sound narky, but that is without a shadow of a doubt one of the more stupid Q’s I have seen on what is apparently a fairly erudite blog.

    No wonder most Kiwis shake their heads at the absolute ignorance Australians have in general about their, supposedly cousin, country.

    It is exactly the same voting system as Germany m’beemer. Australia’s system at Federal level anyway is positively luddite ‘FPP in drag’ bollocks by comparison. In NZ if a party gets 42% of the party vote overall them they get exactly 42% of the seats as a rule, barring overhang seats, of which there were very few tonight.

    In NZ (as in Germany), you get two votes, an electorate seat vote and a party vote. Your electorate vote is FPP But your party vote,the most important vote, is weighted overall so as to represent the total count. So every vote counts. Literally.

    No senate vote at all. NZ has only a House of Representatives.

  6. Interesting to note that in Australia, Canada and now New Zealand, the traditional major centre-left parties are all bleeding heavily to the Greens and such, while the traditional major conservative party is consolidating its hold on the right.

  7. Grantplant – I confess to a degree of ignorance of New Zealand’s voting system and rather than see your comments as narky, I am grateful that you have provided me with some insight into the Kiwi way of doing things.

  8. 51

    The Labour Candidate in Christchurch Central was not on the list so is not eligible for a list seat. This was chosen by Labour and the candidate. It was a deliberate tactic in several seats to get a Labour MP elected in the local electorate used in several seats and worked in some (like West Coast-Tasman) but not all of them (it failed in Invercargill).

    The MMP system has 2 components, the proportional and the local seats. The Local seats are determined by FPTP of the local vote and the candidate who wins the seat, is an MP. The proportional element is decided by the party vote where 120 seats (in NZ) are divided proportionally among the party votes of parties who got over 5% and/or one or more local seats. The seats are then mixed by the local seats won by a party being subtracted from their proportion of the 120 (and the candidates of those parties who won are to if they were on the list) and if a party wins more local seats than their party gets in party seats then they are added to the 120 of Parliament as overhang seats. Once the local seats have been subtracted from the count the rest of a parties seats are given to their candidates in the order they are on the party list.

  9. 61

    Well it was slightly more complicated in Canada. The centrist-centre-left major party (the Liberals) was overtaken mainly by the centre-left-left party (the New Democrats) becoming a main party and the Greens also gained with a lot of non-Tory vote-splitting. The was also a low voter turnout.

  10. Grantplant 60 – I am all for bringing back the Legislative Council.
    (BTW am I right in assuming it was a nominated for life house?)

  11. 67

    It was nominated for life, then 7 year terms from 1891 and Legislation was introduced to convert it to an elected house (6 year terms and STV) but it was suspended due to WWI and never proclaimed but could have been until the abolition of the Legislative Council in 1950 (the Reason that NZ adopted the Statute of Westminster).

  12. Poor old New Zealand a system for representing the people even worse than Tasmania’s guaranteeing second rate compromise government.
    New Zealand also proves yet again that the Greens are not really an environmental party but the old left wing of Labour basically socialists and social democrats, or to put it another way those folk who are anti the establishment.

  13. Thanks David (#58). Quite a comparison because in Australia a polling place with less than six voters, rather than being sensitively reported, would most likely just be abolished as a polling place, with some other way of getting the votes in being found. Possibly it would be covered by Remote Mobile Team (I’m just looking at Lingiari (NT) which had 22 of those in 2010.)

  14. The New Zealand election may be an echo of a core issue in Australia: that the centre-left vote has yet to address effectively its structural separation into labour and greens parties.

  15. There’s a touch of genius about the NZ system, by allowing for local member representation but with a mechanism to allow for an ajustment of seat totals to reflect the overall %. The 5% threshold for parties that don’t win a single member seat keeps out the loonie fringe, whilst allowing for parliamentary representation for those parties than get above the threshold! The parliamentary representation of the Nationals and allies as a % of seats will closely (but not absolutely) align with their combined vote%. In an Australian context, although simplistic, a 60/40 2PP vote would lead to parliamentary wipe-out of the losing side. In NZ, they would still end up (more or less) with 40% of the seats, but with seats shared between the minority parties. Its a great system!

  16. 60

    The German system is far more complicated because of their federal system. It is done on a state by state basis. The sort of way it would be done in Australia but we could not have overhangs.

  17. 75

    The Nexus.

    The ban on seats crossing state boundaries.

    Seats based on state population.

    Territory overhang seats may be possible though but giving the Territories the possibility of overhang but not the states would be politically unpopular and not 100% fair either.

  18. Poor New Zealand. When I was there in the 1960s, working for a newspaper, it was a progressive country. How sad that it has regressed to its present sorry state. Sad.

  19. Two points from the above discussion
    * The situation in Chch Central is NOT the same as in Nunawading. The NZ Act requires the EC to “determine by lot which of those candidates is to be elected.” That’s what the RO at Nunawading did when she pulled a name out of a hat, in the belief that this would fair to the candidates. But the Court of Disputed Returns found that the Victorian Act requires the RO to CAST A VOTE, not make a random choice.
    * The Greens in Canada and the UK actually lost votes at their most recent elections, despite winning one seat in both instances. In both cases the reason was the same – the existence of a more credible left-of-centre alternative, the Lib Dems in the UK and the NDP in Canada.

  20. 80

    Another left of centre party probably does not explain the Green vote going down in Canada or the UK. Both Canada and the UK have FPTP and so vote splitting is a major concern compared to Australia`s preferential voting or NZ`s MMP. Increased targeting of seats is probably a factor as well. Also the LibDems won`t be a credible Left of Centre alternative at the next election in the UK.

  21. Psephos – why would Lib Dems have been seen as a credible left of centre alternative when they were looking like being in bed with the Tories?

  22. The six vote rule applies mainly in Maori electorates. Every polling place takes vote for both the local General and Maori electorate. However, the different size of the rolls means that most polling places will take far fewer Maori votes than General votes. The Maori electorate of Te Tai Tonga, which covers Wellington and the entire South Island, has many polling place that record few if any votes from the Maori roll.

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