Of plagues and houses

Results finalised on Queensland’s two status quo state by-election results, and COVID-19 question marks over looming elections in New Zealand, the Northern Territory and for two Tasmanian upper house seats.

Counting has concluded for the Currumbin and Bundamba by-elections of a fortnight ago, with Laura Gerber retaining Currumbin for the Liberal National Party by a 1.5% margin against a 1.8% swing to Labor, and Lance McCallum retaining Bundamba for Labor by a 9.6% margin ahead of second-placed One Nation (UPDATE: Make that a 1.2% margin in Currumbin and 9.8% in Bundamba). As noted previously, the flow of Greens preferences to Labor in Currumbin was relatively weak, though not quite decisively so. Deep within the innards of the ECQ’s media feed, it says that Greens preferences were going 1738 to Labor (72.8%) and 651 (27.2%), though this can’t be based on the final figures since the Greens received 2527 rather than 2389 votes. Had Labor received 79.17% of Greens preferences, as they did in the corresponding federal seat of McPherson last May, the margin would have been pared back from 567 (1.5%) to 215 (0.5%).

I have three tables to illustrate the results in light of the highly unusual circumstances of the election, the first of which updates one that appeared in an early post, recording the extent to which voters in the two seats changed their behaviour with respect to how they voted. Election day voting obviously fell dramatically, as voters switched to pre-poll voting and, to only a slightly lesser extent, outright abstention. What was not seen was a dramatic increase in postal voting, which will require investigation given the considerable anecdotal evidence that many who applied for postal votes did not receive their ballots on time — an even more contentious matter in relation to the mess that unfolded in Wisconsin on Tuesday, on which I may have more to say at a later time.

The next two tables divide the votes into four types, polling places, early voting, postal and others, and record the parties’ vote shares and swings compared with 2017, the latter shown in italics. In both Currumbin and Bundamba, Labor achieved their weakest results in swing terms on polling day votes, suggesting Labor voters made the move from election day to pre-poll voting in particularly large numbers, cancelling out what had previously been an advantage to the LNP in pre-poll voting. This is matched by a particularly strong swing against the LNP on pre-polls in Currumbin, but the effect is not discernible in Bundamba, probably because the picture was confused by the party running third and a chunk of its vote being lost to One Nation, who did not contest last time.

In other COVID-19 disruption news:

• The Northern Territory government has rejected calls from what is now the territory’s official opposition, Terry Mills’ Territory Alliance party (UPDATE: Turns out I misheard here – the Country Liberal Party remains the opposition, as Bird of Paradox notes in comments), to postpone the August 22 election. Of the practicalities involved in holding the election under a regime of social distancing rules, which the government insists will be in place for at least six months, Deputy Chief Minister Nicole Manison offers only that “the Electoral Commission is looking at the very important questions of how we make sure that in the environment of COVID-19 that we do this safely”.

• After an initial postponement from May 2 to May 30, the Tasmanian government has further deferred the periodic elections for the Legislative Council seats of Huon and Rosevear, promising only that they will be held by the time the chamber sits on August 25. Three MLCs have written to the Premier requesting that the elections either be held by post or for the terms of the existing members, which will otherwise expire, to be extended through to revised polling date.

• The junior partner in New Zealand’s ruling coalition, Winston Peters of New Zealand First, is calling for the country’s September 19 election to be postponed to November 21, which has also elicited positive noises from the opposition National Party. It might well be thought an element of self-interest is at work here, with Peters wishing to put distance between the election and a donations scandal that has bedeviled his party, and National anticipating a short-term surge in government support amid the coronavirus crisis. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern may be softening in her opposition to the notion, saying earlier this week it would “depend on what alert level we are at”. There has regrettably been no polling of voting intention in New Zealand in two months, although the government recorded enormously encouraging results in a Colmar Brunton poll on handling of the pandemic in New Zealand and eight other countries, conducted last week.

New Zealand election

An electoral overview of today’s New Zealand election, which would appear to be a highly competitive race between a three-term conservative government and a resurgent Labour Party.

New Zealand goes to the polls today to decide whether to grant a fourth term to the conservative National Party, which won elections under the leadership of John Key in 2008, 2011 and 2014. The party fell just short of winning parliamentary majorities in its own right in 2011 and 2014, through which time it has had confidence and supply agreements with three very small parties: the Maori Party, which has had two seats since the 2014 election, and ACT New Zealand and United Future, who have had one apiece. With Key’s resignation at the end of last year, the prime ministership passed to Bill English, who had an earlier stint as party leader in opposition from 2001 and 2003, leading the party to defeat as Helen Clark’s Labour government was elected to its second term in 2002. Both Clark’s government and the National administration that preceded it lasted three three-year terms, so the country will be following its usual pattern if Labour is elected today.

Since 1996, New Zealand’s elections have been held under the mixed-member proportional electoral system, a model developed in Germany, which is helpfully holding its own national election this weekend (see the post immediately below this one). New Zealand’s reform was apparently the only example known to history of a country replacing a single-member majoritarian system with a proportional representation system, or vice-versa. Under MMP, voters elect both a local constituency member and cast a second vote to determine the party’s overall seat shares. To the extent that the outcomes for the 71 constituency seats don’t do the job, 49 “list” members are elected from the parties’ tickets to produce an overall seat total in proportion to the party vote result. Where a party wins more constituency seats than its share of the party vote would entitle it to, the result is an “overhang” in which the total number of seats exceeds the minimum of 120. There have typically been overhangs of one or two seats owing to constituency seats being won by minor parties with fractional shares of the national party vote.

Complicating the picture somewhat is a 5% threshold that a party with no constituency seats must clear to be eligible for its share of party list seats. This means that a party’s share of seats reflects not its share of the overall number of votes cast, but its share of votes cast for those parties who were eligible for representation. In 2011, 3.4% of votes were cast for parties that failed to make the cut; in 2014, it was 6.2%. This meant the National Party’s respective vote shares of 47.3% and 47.0% were very nearly in enough to get them over the line to parliamentary majorities in their own right, resulting in 59 seats out of 121 on the first occasion and 60 seats on the second. The share of the vote excluded from the calculation could increase quite markedly if the Green Party fails to clear the 5% threshold, as some polls have suggested they may. The party has had a tough year, with one of its two co-leaders resigning over personal scandals that also prompted two of her colleagues to resign from the parliamentary party.

The other notable complication is that the constituency seats are divided into 64 general and seven Maori electorates, with voters identifying as one or the other for purposes of electoral enrolment. The success of the Maori Party in these seats was fertile ground for overhangs at its peak around a decade ago, when it won four of the seven Maori seats in 2005 and five in 2008. However, its fortunes declined following a party split in 2011, and it only won one of the seven seats in 2014, the other six going to Labour in one of the few bright spots for the party amid an otherwise poor result.

The following is a crude poll trend measure based on the public polling results from the past term aggregated at Wikipedia (National in blue, Labour in red, Green in green, New Zealand First in tan):

What is abundantly clear is that Labour has undergone a dramatic surge since Jacinda Ardern replaced Andrew Little as leader on August 1. Beyond that, however, the campaign polls have been all over the shop so far as the relative standing of National and Labour is concerned. One poll series, Newshub-Reid Research, has persisted in recording commanding leads for National, most recently of 45.8% to 37.3%. This has been corroborated by the most recent One News-Colmar Brunton poll, which has it at 46% to 37%. Most polls conducted from the end of August through the first fortnight of September had Labour ahead, but the overall impression is that National’s position has since improved. My own gut feeling, based on Ardern’s media buzz and the normal behaviour of the electoral cycle, is that this is flattering National, but I can’t pretend this is based on a particularly deep understanding of the New Zealand political scene.

It’s certainly clear that whoever governs will require the support of minor parties, and here too the picture is hard to read. The Green Party won 10.7% of the vote and 14 seats in 2014, which it surely will not match this time. A lot may depend on whether it clears the 5% threshold, in which case it will win a minimum of six seats. If it doesn’t, those six seats will instead go to other parties, with no more than two or three going to Labour. The other big minor party is Winston Peters’ New Zealand First, which scored 8.7% and 11 seats in 2014, which Peters managed to increase to 12 when he successfully contested a National-held seat at a by-election in 2015. The party had a poll surge in July and August but has since suffered from the surge to Labour, with recent indications being that the party stands to go backwards.

The other three minor parties with parliamentary representation, who each provide National with parliamentary support, each owe their presence to success in constituency seats. That appears unlikely to continue in the case of United Future, has has held on precariously at the last few elections owing to party leader Peter Dunne’s narrow victories in his outer Wellington seat of Ōhāriu. He is now bowing out, partly in recognition of the fact that he was unlikely to retain the seat. It’s a different story for ACT New Zealand, whose member David Seymour has a lock on the Auckland electorate of Epsom with the tacit acceptance of the National Party. The Maori Party won only a single constituency seat in 2014, but its 1.3% party vote was enough to entitle it to a second seat. To repeat that performance, Te Ururoa Flavell will have to retain his seat of Waiariki – the one local poll suggests he will.

For what it’s worth, my best guess it that the Green Party will stay in the game; that Labour will outperform the late polls, though perhaps not by enough to make it to power with the Green Party alone; and that New Zealand First will emerge as the kingmaker. Should the National Party remain in government, it will require the support of the mercurial Peters and his party, a situation it has been very happy to have avoided throughout its time in office.

New Zealand election preview/live thread

As New Zealanders prepare to go to the polls tomorrow, John Key’s National Party government maintains its dominance in the polls.

Election night coverage

Summary. The National Party looks likely to achieve an absolute majority of 61 seats, having all but doubled Labour’s vote. At worst it will fall one seat short, and even that is looking less likely as the count reaches its conclusion for the night. United Future, ACT New Zealand and the Maori Party have won one seat each, so National would have been able to govern comfortably even it had fallen to 58, which clearly it has not. New Zealand First is on track for 11 seats, but the National Party’s dominance will leave it marginalised. Labour looks set to win 31 seats, and the Greens are doing less well than expected on 13. The Internet Mana ticket will emerge empty-handed, with Hone Harawira headed for defeat at Labour’s hands in his Maori seat of Te Tai Tokerau, and its party vote being exceedingly low. The Maori seats are Labour’s one bright spot – they look set to go from three seats out of seven to six, further winning two seats from the Maori Party. The other Maori seat will stay with the Maori Party, which will more likely than not supplement it with a second party list seat.

10.14pm. That forecast move away from the National Party in late counting is taking a long time to kick in, and sure enough, Antony Green’s projection now has the party “on the cusp” of making it to 61.

10.10pm. The Maori Party is keeping its head above water in the hunt for a second seat, its party vote up to 1.29% from the 1.27% observed in the previous entry.

10.00pm. One point of uncertainty I haven’t been discussing is whether the Maori Party wins a list seat to add to the one constituency seat it will retain. On current figures, their party vote would need to be about 1.2% at higher, and it’s currently 1.27%. Usually the party is in the opposite position, winning more constituency seats than their party vote entitles them to, resulting in an overhang – something we won’t get this time.

9.43pm. TVNZ continues to project 60 seats for National. When the NZEC says 76.9% counted, it means the number of individual polling place results, not the share of enrolled voters in the manner we’re familiar with in Australia. So 76.9% isn’t as much as it sounds, because many of the outstanding results to report will be large polling booths.

9.38pm. Harawira looking gone now, trailing by 467 votes and the trend rushing away from him. So a dismal night for Kim Dotcom, who is set to emerge empty-handed.

9.22pm. And now 246 …

9.17pm. … and now it’s 212.

9.16pm. Latest update in Te Tai Tokerau has Labour lead over Mana up from 13 votes to 177.

9.06pm. Hone Harawira of the Mana Party has fallen behind in a very tight race in the Maori seat of Te Tai Tokerau. So the chance of a seat for the Internet Party rests on two dubious prospects: Harawira to win the seat, and the Internet Mana party vote to clear about 1.4%.

9.05pm. TVNZ now has an actual projection, which I presume to be based on booth-matching, and it concurs with Antony Green in pointing to 60 seats for National.

8.52pm. Antony Green: “National now starting to look like it will fall short of a majority by a seat but will rely on ACT and Peter Dunne”. But: “It looks like a long wait till we know if National have a majority or not.”

8.26pm. The high vote for the National Party is looking stickier than I earlier indicated, when I said the trend was running against it. However, it seems we really have to wait to see how the trend looks when polling day numbers start to come in, as they will start to do very shortly.

8.14pm. Advanced votes appear to just be pre-polls.

8.08pm. Statistician on TVNZ dispels my idea that the early votes are from rural booths – they’re actually “advanced votes”, which I take to mean pre-polls and maybe also postals. However, it seems that these votes have traditionally been right-leaning. Actual election day votes aren’t expected to start coming in for another 20 minutes.

7.46pm. The trends as the party vote totals are updated are downwards for National and New Zealand First, upwards for the Greens, and serious-but-stable for Labour.

7.39pm. Ben Raue’s map of Ohariu suggests the bigger booths in the electorate are better for Peter Dunne than the smaller ones, so his 500 vote lead out of 11,074 counted will presumably be enough.

7.29pm. So the best guess at the moment is that we’ll have one seat each for United Future, ACT New Zealand and Maori Party; and that Mana Party will win one seat and possibly carry a list seat for the Internet Party. The National Party vote is currently giving it enough for a majority, but that will surely diminish as more results from the cities come in.

7.25pm. Labour leads in the two seats held by retiring Maori Party members, Tamaki Makaurau and Te Tai Hauauru. Too early to call either though. Labour looking set to be returned in the three Maori seats it already holds.

7.23pm. Hone Harawira, the one incumbent of the Mana Party, leads Labour in his seat of Te Tai Tokerau with 10.3% counted, though not by an insurmountable margin.

7.19pm. Colin Craig no chance in East Coast Bays, but the Conservative Party is doing okay on the party vote at 4.55% with 9.3% counted. However, there’s no booth-matching here, and I suspect the Conservative Party will get its best results from the smaller rural booths that are coming in early. So most likely they will emerge empty-handed.

7.18pm. Peter Dunne of United Future leading in Ohariu, but you would want to see more than the current 3.3% current before ruling out Labour winning at his expense. However, the best guess is that the status quo will be retained for both of these very minor parties, who have one seat each.

7.15pm. Big early lead to ACT New Zealand’s David Seymour in Epsom – perhaps National has been playing dead there. Presumably though ACT will not get enough of the party vote to add to that.

7pm (NZ time). By unpopular non-demand, I will maintain this thread for purposes of live blogging the count rather than open a new one. Polls have closed now; official results here. If anyone knows of any media outlets who are presenting detailed results in more user-friendly form, please let me know. Nothing of the kind from Antony Green, alas, but he is on the scene and will at the very least be live blogging. Those interested on this side of the ditch should tune into ABC News 24, which is relaying the coverage of One New Zealand.

Saturday morning update

As threatened below, I’ve done a final update of the poll aggregate with the final two polls. The current trend results are National 46.5%, Labour 24.8%, Greens 12.9%, New Zealand First 7.6%, Conservative 4.2%, Internet Mana 1.5%, Maori 1.3%. That suggests National again just shy of a majority with 58 seats out of 121, Labour on 31, the Greens on 17 and New Zealand First on 10, a count which leaves five seats loose either for smaller parties, or perhaps extras on the tallies of the big four.

Original post

For my deeper thoughts on the subject of tomorrow’s New Zealand election, subscribe to Crikey if you haven’t already. My article today contains poll aggregate charts which appear to put National on about 45%, Labour on 24%, the Greens on 12%, New Zealand First on 8% and the Conservative Party on a bit over 4%. The question would appear to be whether the National Party becomes the first party gain a majority in its own right (which would be a first under the current system), continues to govern existing partners, or has to rely on the unreliable New Zealand First. An outside possibility is that Conservative Party enters the equation with the six or more seats it will get if it clears the 5% threshold. One way or another, Labour will be left to lick its wounds – unless perhaps New Zealand First behaves unpredictably in post-election horse trading.

New Zealand’s mixed-member proportional electoral system combines 71 electorate MPs with 49 party list MPs, the latter being doled out in such manner that a proportional result is created when they are combined with the electorate MPs. Voters thereby get separate votes for their local member, and for purposes of determining the overall partisan balance of the parliament. However, two factors affect the cleanness of the proportionality achieved under MMP. One is the 5% threshold that must be cleared by parties which fail to win constituency seats if they are to be dealt into the overall allocation of seats. Votes for parties which fail to qualify disappear from the the calculation, so the more of them there are, the lower the bar to be cleared to win a majority. The second is the potential for a party to win more constituency seats than their share of the national vote would ordinarily entitle them to, in which case the number of seats above parliament increases above 121 (known as an “overhang”). This is particularly a possibility for the parties that compete for the Maori seats.

It appears certain that National, Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First will win seats in proportion to the national party vote. The question is whether, or to what extent, they are joined by the Conservative, United Future, ACT New Zealand, Internet Mana and Maori parties. The Conservative Party could clear the threshold and win six seats or, more likely, win nothing. Kim Doctom’s party will win a list seat for the Internet-Mana joint ticket if it clears roughly 1.6% of the national vote, and the Mana Party’s sole incumbent holds his seat. Individual seats also hold the key for United Future and ACT New Zealand, both of whom have been on the scene since the early 1990s, and neither of whom retains enough support nationally to be a chance for a second seat. A number of the Maori electorates look very close, with both Maori and Mana appearing to struggle against Labour. The Maori Party has supported the ascendant National Party through its time in office, so that each seat it gains or (more likely) loses will be weighted in the balances for the government.

For the casual observer, the interest on election night will relate to the national party vote and six individuals, three general and three Maori:

Ohariu. A northern Wellington seat which does for the religious-turned-centrist United Future party what Epsom does for ACT New Zealand. Here though the seat is contested by incumbent Peter Dunne, who has held the seat since 1984, at first for Labour. Dunne had a very narrow win over Labour in 2011, and is presumably no certainty this time. United Future failed to win a bonus list seat in both 2008 and 2011.

Epsom. This inner Auckland seat is the parliamentary lifeline of the waning free-market ACT New Zealand party, and it looks in danger of being cut after its member, John Banks, resigned from parliament three months ago after being convicted of submitting a false electoral return. The seat was first won for the party by Rodney Hide at the 2005 election, which kept it alive as its national vote dropped well below the threshold. Hide succeeded in persuading Epsom voters that they could get more bang for their buck by supporting him ahead of the National Party incumbent, who in any case had a list seat to fall back on. ACT clung to enough of the national vote to get one extra seat in 2005 and 2008, but Epsom was all it had left after 2011. Hide retired at that election and was succeeded in Epsom by John Banks, but the party’s failure to win a second seat deprived it of its leader, former National Party leader Don Brash, who had counted on winning the party’s list seat. The new ACT candidate is David Seymour, who will presumably have his work cut out given he does not enjoy the advantage of incumbency.

East Coast Bays. A safe National Party seat in Auckland, held by Foreign Minister Murray McCully, being contested by Conservative Party leader Colin Craig. Just as Rodney Hide was able to do in Epsom in 2005, Craig can argue to National voters that McCully will win a list seat anyway, and a vote for him will deliver multiple seats to his party – perhaps four or five in total, going off the poll trend. That might have been to the broader advantage of National, which encouraged Craig in the belief that the party might lend him its tacit support. It wasn’t to be though, and the narrowness of Craig’s ideological appeal makes life difficult for him. The contest here raises interesting prospects for tactical voting, giving left-wing voters a strong incentive to vote National.

Maori electorates. The result of the seven Maori seats in 2011 was Labour three, Maori three and Mana one, of which the three Labour seats and one of the three Maori seats look safe this time. The Mana Party hoped to make gains, but polls suggest its alliance with Kim Dotcom has backfired – it is under pressure from Labour in its one existing seat of Te Tai Tokerau, held by party founder Hone Harawira, and it is Labour rather than Mana that appears to be threatening the Maori Party in Tamaki Makaurau and Te Tai Hauauru, where two of the Maori Party’s three members are retiring.

Gillard vs Rudd – the re-match

The government is down a Foreign Minister this evening (the Canberra Times reports on the likely shape of the looming reshuffle, in case you were wondering), and by all accounts the Prime Minister will seek to clear the air tomorrow by calling a leadership spill for Monday. This makes the timing of the next Newspoll very interesting indeed: usually it reports on Monday evening, but it occasionally emerges a day earlier. The Prime Minister would presumably prefer that the matter be resolved before it comes out rather than after.

Beyond that, I do not venture to guess what will occur, beyond observing the consensus view that Kevin Rudd will be seeking to wound rather than kill, as he starts far behind on most caucus head-counts. Two such have been published: an error-ridden effort from The Weekend Australian which was corrected the following Monday, and this from the Sydney Morning Herald. The former was rather kinder to Rudd. There are 51 out of 103 whom The Oz and the SMH agree are firm for Gillard, and 30 whom they agree are firm for Rudd. There are four agreed Gillard leaners and four agreed Rudd leaners. The Oz has six down as undecided, but the SMH has everyone as either firm or leaning.

Gillard supporters: Albanese, O’Neill, Combet, Clare, Fitzgibbon, Owens, Arbib, Thistlethwaite, Garrett, Bird, Grierson, Plibersek, Burke (NSW); Shorten, O’Connor, King, Feeney, Macklin, Gillard, Dreyfus, Danby, Roxon, Marles (Vic); Ripoll, Emerson, Perrett, Ludwig, Hogg, Neumann, Swan, D’Ath (Qld); Evans, Gray, Sterle, Smith (WA); McEwen, Farrell, Ellis, Butler, Georganas (SA); Julie Collins, Sidebottom (Tas); Leigh, Brodtmann, Lundy (ACT); Snowdon (NT).

Oz says Gillard lean, SMH says firm for Gillard: Rowland (NSW), Livermore (Qld), Gallacher (SA).

Oz says undecided, SMH says firm for Gillard: Hayes (NSW), Jenkins, Jacinta Collins, Kelvin Thomson (Vic).

Oz says Rudd lean, SMH says firm for Gillard: Craig Thomson (NSW), McLucas (Qld), Rishworth (SA).

Gillard leaners: Craig Thomson, Bradbury (NSW); Bilyk, Polley (Tas).

Oz says undecided, SMH says Gillard lean: Symon (Vic), Singh (Tas).

Oz says Rudd lean, SMH says Gillard lean: Laurie Ferguson (NSW), Champion (SA).

Oz says firm Rudd, SMH says firm Gillard: Melham (NSW).

Rudd leaners: Murphy (NSW); Pratt (WA); Adams, Lyons (Tas).

Rudd supporters: Bowen, Cameron, Husic, Saffin, Hall, Faulkner, Elliott, Kelly, McClelland, Jones, Stephens (NSW); Griffin, Burke, Byrne, Cheeseman, Marshall, Carr, Smyth, Vamvakinou, Ferguson (Vic); Moore, Rudd, Furner (Qld); Bishop, Parke (WA); Zappia (SA); Urquhart, Brown, Sherry (Tas); Crossin (NT).

If you’re in the mood for diversion, as many have been lately, here is a review of some recent preselection action, in keeping with this site’s brief (together with an even more diverting diversion to New Zealand).

• The Liberals are mulling over whether to proceed with the endorsement of Garry Whitaker to run against Craig Thomson in Dobell, following allegations he has lived for years without council permission in an “ensuite shed” on his Wyong Creek property while awaiting approval to build a house there. Whitaker won a preselection vote in December, but there is talk the state executive might overturn the result and install the candidate he defeated, the Right-backed WorkCover public servant Karen McNamara. As for Labor, Imre Salusinszky of The Australian reports there is “no chance” Thomson will be preselected again, “with party strategists favouring the nomination fo a young woman to create maximum differentiation from the tainted MP”. One possibility is local councillor Emma McBride, whose father Grant McBride bowed out as state member for The Entrance at last year’s state election.

• Joanna Gash, who has held the south coast NSW seat of Gilmore for the Liberals since 1996, announced last month that she would not seek another term. She plans to move her political career down a notch by running in the direct election for mayor of Shoalhaven in September, which will not require her to resign her seat in parliament (UPDATE: A reader points out that the O’Farrell government is planning to change this, and that there is a strong chance it will do so before September.) Imre Salusinszky of The Australian reports the front-runner to succeed her as Liberal candidate is local deputy mayor Andrew Guile, a former staffer to Gash who has since fallen out with her. Salusinszky reports Guile is an ally of state Kiama MP Gareth Ward, “a member of the party’s Left faction who is influential in local branches”. Clive Brooks, owner of South Nowra business Great Southern Motorcycles and reportedly an ally of Gash, has also been mentioned as a possible contender, as have “conservative pastor Peter Pilt and former 2007 state election candidate Ann Sudmalis” (by Mario Christodoulou of the Illawarra Mercury).

• A Liberal Party preselection vote on Saturday will see incumbent Louise Markus challenged by aged-care lobbyist Charles Wurf in Macquarie. According to Imre Salusinszky in The Australian, local observers consider the contest too close to call: “A defeat of Ms Markus would be a stick in the eye to federal leader Tony Abbott, who backs sitting MPs, and to the state party machine, which does not wish to devote precious campaign resources to marketing an unknown in the ultra-marginal seat.”

• In Eden-Monaro, former Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Peter Hendy is reckoned likely to win Liberal endorsement.

• Andrew Southcott, the Liberal member for the Adelaide seat of Boothby, is being challenged for preselection by Chris Moriarty, former state party president and operator of an export manufacturing firm. Daniel Wills of The Advertiser reports Moriarty is a close ally of former state Opposition Leader Martin Hamilton-Smith. Also challenging is Mark Nankivell, whom Wills rates as “little known” but rumoured to be supported by another former state leader, Iain Evans. Southcott’s lax fund-raising efforts are said to have angered many in the party.

• Also under challenge is Patrick Secker in the rural South Australian seat of Barker. He faces rivals in the shape of Mount Gambier lawyer Tony Pasin and Millicent real estate agent and Wattle Range councillor Ben Treloar, but Daniel Wills reports he is expected to prevail.

• New Zealand is conducting a review into its mixed member proportional electoral system, which received a strong endorsement from voters at a referendum held in conjunction with the November election. The main concern to have emerged is that candidates can run both in constituencies and as part of the party lists which are used to top up parties’ representation so that their parliamentary numbers are proportional to the votes cast. The most frequently cited anomaly here relates to the Auckland electorate of Epsom, which has been held since 2005 by Rodney Hine of the free-market Act New Zealand party. The National Party has an interest in the seat remaining in the Act New Zealand fold, as the party is its natural coalition partner and success in a constituency seat entitles it to a share of seats proportional to its vote (a failure to do so would require them to clear a 5 per cent national vote threshold). To this end it has formed the habit of running a candidate in the seat who is also given an unloseable position on the party list, so supporters can be reassured that he will have a seat even if he loses in Epsom. One possibility is that the problem might be lessened by lowering the threshold to 4 per cent, which is what the original royal commission into the electoral system recommended before MMP was introduced in 1996.

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.