Green with envy

For the sake of completeness, a post on the finalisation of coalition negotiations by Helen Clark’s Labour Government in New Zealand is in order. Last month’s election saw a National Party resurgence at the expense of the minor parties, all but one of whom (the Maori Party) emerged with substantially fewer seats. This gravely complicated Clark’s task of stitching together a majority, since she faced a disparate assortment of minor parties including several who refused to work with each other. Most expected that Labour would reach an accommodation with the Green Party, so that the strengthened position of the National Party would have had the paradoxical effect of shifting the Government to the left. So there was widespread surprise, much of it unpleasant, when Clark unveiled a deal with right-of-centre parties Winston Peters’ New Zealand First and United Future New Zealand which gave the job of Foreign Minister to Peters – a man sometimes described by his harsher critics as "racist and xenophobic".

All of which has proved very confusing for Australian observers familiar with the certainties of single-member electorates and majority government. The Poll Bludger’s local rag, The West Australian, managed three errors in 18 words this morning when it reported that this "bizarre deal" was "the only way Ms Clarke (sic) could form a minority government after a poor result in last month’s election". There is little excuse for such befuddlement over the horse-trading that inevitably follows elections held under proportional representation, which is a major feature of democracy throughout mainland Europe. Charles Richardson had some acute observations on the process in today’s Crikey email:

New Zealand has finally got itself a new government, and it’s already clear to see who are the big losers. The Greens, despite strongly supporting Helen Clark’s Labour Party during the campaign, have been left out in the cold, and now say they will abstain on votes of confidence.

This is a real lesson in power politics. Being too close to Labour was the Greens’ undoing: it meant they could be taken for granted. The other minor parties could threaten to support the National Party, and therefore had to be bought off. But the Greens stuck in the Labour camp until it was too late – until Clark had stitched together enough other deals to no longer need them.

In Germany, remember, the Greens at least contemplated going into coalition with the right (the “Jamaican option” – black, green and yellow), although it didn’t work out that way. In New Zealand, they tried to show responsibility by portraying themselves as a reliable partner for Labour. But reliability isn’t always an advantage in politics.

On the other side, ACT, the NZ libertarian party, has the same problem. They succeeded against the odds in retaining a foothold in parliament, but their influence will be negligible. They were unable to influence the new coalition because they were too close to National to join in the bidding war.

Instead, New Zealand risks becoming an international laughing-stock with the protectionist Winston Peters as foreign minister – but outside the cabinet, and reserving the right to ignore collective responsibility. According to The New Zealand Herald, Greens co-leader Rod Donald "predicted it would be a ‘reactionary’ Government and said many of the demands Labour had accepted from NZ First and United Future were ‘socially, economically or environmentally destructive’."

Helen back

The Poll Bludger caught about 45 minutes of the coverage of the New Zealand election on Sky News before casting his mind to the New South Wales by-elections, by which time he had developed an clear picture of a looming National Party victory. This was because the service Sky was using operated on raw early figures from conservative rural and small town booths without comparing them with equivalent booth results from the previous election – a matter simple enough that your humble correspondent managed it quite effectively on this site during today’s by-election count through Microsoft Excel and a lot of cutting and pasting.

The situation looked quite different by the close of play, with Helen Clark being able to deliver what effectively amounted to a victory speech at the end of the evening. The key to the situation was Labour’s ultimate lead over the Nationals of one parliamentary seat and 1.1 per cent, since both New Zealand First and United Future New Zealand had resolved to support whichever party led on these measures. Had the National Party remained ahead, their support of these parties along with ideological fellow travellers ACT New Zealand would have produced 62 seats compared with the opposing bloc’s 60. The other close shave, the Green Party’s narrow surplus over 5 per cent, was less consequential – a Labour-dominated coalition could have been constructed even if they had been wiped out, so long as Labour remained ahead of the Nationals. As it stands, there seems little chance that there will be a significant change in the current results, with the National Party looking more likely to drop an existing seat than Labour.

Labour (40.7 per cent, 50 seats): Although down two seats on 2002, Labor look set to finish one all-important seat ahead of the Nationals. The way the votes are currently stacked means there is more prospect of the Nationals losing a seat in late counting than Labour. Since both New Zealand First and United Future New Zealand have stated they will fall in behind the party that wins the most seats, Helen Clark will be able to stitch together a precarious multi-party government.

National (39.6 per cent, 49 seats): As agonising as it must have been to have watched their early lead slowly disappear, the outstanding feature of this election has been the recovery of the National Party under Don Brash. The party’s vote rocketed to 39.6 per cent from a mere 21.1 per cent in 2002, with their representation up from 27 seats to 49.

New Zealand First (5.8 per cent, 7 seats): Winston Peters looks like he will narrowly lose the seat of Tauranga which he has held since 1984 (initially for the National Party), but the party’s success in breaking the 5 per cent barrier gives him a list seat to fall back on. The party has nevertheless dropped six seats from its 2002 performance, although realistically any minor party can feel relieved if it reaches the 5 per cent threshold.

Green Party (5.1 per cent, 6 seats): The Greens have cut it very fine indeed but they do not look in danger of falling below the 5 per cent threshold, going on the precedent of 2002 when they polled 12.0 per cent of postal, pre-poll and absentees votes compared with 6.5 per cent of normal votes.

Maori Party (2.0 per cent, 4 seats): The new parliament will enjoy its first ever overhang due to the near-exclusivity of this party’s support among those who vote in the seven Maori electorates, of which it won four – leader Tariana Turia easily retained Te Tai Hauauru and three colleagues also enjoyed comfortable victories. The remaining three remain with Labor. The Maori Party’s party vote would only warrant two seats, which is why the new parliament will have 122 rather than the usual 120, with 62 required for a majority rather than the usual 61. New Zealand tabloids are no doubt calculating the cost to the taxpayer even as we speak, and this is unlikely to be the only query raised over MMP in the election’s aftermath.

United Future New Zealand (2.7 per cent, 3 seats): Party leader Peter Dunne easily retained the seat of Ohariu-Belmont which he has held since 1984 (initially for the Labour Party) with 46.8 per cent of the vote against Labour’s 24.3 per cent and the Nationals’ 20.0 per cent. This meant his party was able to hold three of the nine seats it won in 2002 despite plunging well below the threshold, from 6.8 per cent to 2.7 per cent.

ACT New Zealand (1.5 per cent, 2 seats): This party looked gone for all money just one fortnight ago, but Rodney Hide has scored his first ever victory as an electorate MP and will get a bonus list seat for his trouble. This means that every minor party that won seats in 2002 has survived, though each has also lost seats. Hide scored 44.1 per cent against 33.6 per cent for National incumbent Richard Worth, who will remain in parliament through a list seat.

Jim Anderton’s Progressive (1.2 per cent, 1 seats): The Poll Bludger had earlier suggested that a Jim Anderton victory in his electorate of Wigram was not a foregone conclusion. This was not one of my better calls – Anderton in fact increased his vote from 36.0 per cent to 48.5 per cent. However, the party vote for his Progressive Coalition was down from 1.7 per cent of 1.5 per cent, costing it its bonus list seat.

Kiwi kapers

Going by the opinion polls (of which this campaign has had an over-supply), tomorrow’s New Zealand election promises to be a humdinger. Fairfax NZ’s Stuff website has been making life easier by publishing weekly aggregates of no less than six separate polls, the projections from which have run as follows:

The talk of the late campaign has been an apparent surge in support for the National Party, largely credited to the promised tax cuts that have formed the centrepiece of their campaign. While poll results have been erratic, most have shown the Nationals surging ahead of Labour in the final two weeks. Of course, a mere lead over one’s opponent is not enough in a system where majority government is all but impossible. Coalition outcomes should never be second-guessed, but the most likely scenario for a change of government – a partnership between Nationals and New Zealand First, whose support they cannot take for granted – looms as a definite possibility, particularly if they can get United Future New Zealand or ACT on board. A lot depends on the combination of minor parties holding the balance of power, and this is where life in New Zealand gets complicated for the casual election watcher.

The Poll Bludger has done his best to explain New Zealand’s silly electoral system once previously. The point to remember is that minor parties need either 5 per cent of the vote or at least one constituency seat to win seats proportional to their national party vote. This means minor parties usually fall into one of two categories, depending on which criteria they meet. The Maori Party, Jim Anderton’s Progressive Coalition and United Future New Zealand are all likely to win representation because they have members who in Australia would be entrenched as independents. The New Zealand system offers such people the incentive to maintain their own minor parties as they can usually win at least one bonus list seat. The type of party that relies on a 5 per cent party vote to win representation is more familiar from Australian experience, and currently includes the Greens and ACT. In the middle is New Zealand First, which has usually been considered likely to meet both criteria.

Polling over the long term shows that support for the Maori Party, founded last year by former Labour MP Tariana Turia, has faded after an early burst of enthusiasm. Huge leads recorded last year in Te Tai Tokerau and Te Tai Tonga have disappeared in recent polling. Party co-leader Pita Sharples is still ahead in Tamaki Makaurau, but by a much reduced margin. The party is still favoured to win in Waiariki and Turia’s electorate of Te Tai Hauauru, while Labour appears well in the clear in Ikaroa Rawhiti and Tainiu.

ACT looked gone for all money, but a Roy Morgan poll suggests Labour may have inadvertently thrown them a lifeline in the electorate of Epsom, home base of leader Rodney Hide. The party had been suggesting locals would rally behind Hide since he seemed certain to lose his list seat safety net, unlike National Party incumbent Richard Worth. To this end it furnished the media with extremely dubious poll results that had Hide in front, which wise heads saw as an attempt to strengthen the party’s weak hand in pre-election horse-trading with the National Party. Labour however took the threat seriously, despite polls showing Hide was no better placed to win the seat than in 2002 when he came third behind the Nationals and Labour. In an illustration of the absurdities of MMP, Labour thought it best to withdraw their candidate from the race (although he remains on the ballot paper) and encourage a vote for the National Party, since a win for Hide might also have delivered ACT up to two extra list seats. The Morgan poll shows that voters in the seat felt this was "inappropriate" and reacted by rallying behind Hide, who led Worth 39 per cent to 32 per cent.

Another wild card is the possibility that the Green Party or New Zealand First will fail to win representation, which is unlikely but worth keeping an eye on because of the potentially momentous impact. Since they have no serious prospect of winning an electorate seat, the Greens will get six seats if they win 5.0 per cent of the vote and nothing if they get 4.9 per cent. In the latter case, the Nationals would be particularly well placed to put together a government. Conversely, there is the prospect that New Zealand First will not make the cut. The party has been on a pronounced downward trend in the past three months and is not assured of meeting the 5 per cent threshold. This will not matter so much if Winston Peters maintains his hold on the seat of Tauranga, but a poll last fortnight showed him well behind National Party candidate Bob Clarkson. For better or worse, that was before revelations emerged about Clarkson’s "earthy" sense of humour, which made it on to radio news bulletins as far away as the Poll Bludger’s home town of Perth.

As mentioned previously, the New Zealand Electoral Commission offers this MMP seat allocation calculator that lets you convert votes to seats – providing you pick the important electorate contests correctly. All and sundry are predicting that Jim Anderton of the Progressive Coalition and Peter Dunne of United Future New Zealand will retain their respective seats of Wigram and Ohariu-Belmont, although the Poll Bludger will keep an eye on them just in case. Beyond that, the only electorate seats that are likely to be worth your trouble are the aforementioned Epsom and Tauranga, plus all of the Maori seats.

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.

Questions and answers

Hurry everybody, download this before they realise what they’ve done. It’s a 21 page report from ACNielsen that features raw figures from their last two New Zealand polls, covering seven questions (voting intention and preferred prime minister, plus five election issues) broken down by gender, age, "region" (north, central and south), "area type" (metro, provincial, rural town) and "main cities" (Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch). There are also "weighted base" and "unweighted base" figures that are just slightly beyond the Poll Bludger’s expertise, but no doubt greatly illuminating to those of you with a proper understanding of statistics. Given these outfits’ normal standards of operational secrecy, this is breathtakingly generous stuff. As for the election itself, it will be held on September 17 and I might have something to say about it at some point if time permits.