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.

The by-election gazette: final edition

The pace has quickened noticeably as the New South Wales triple-M by-election campaign has entered its final week – at least in Marrickville, the only one of the three seats where anything is at stake. For those who have a particular interest in the outcome, you could do worse than to log on to this site Saturday evening and hit "refresh" every minute or so. Booth results will be plugged into the Poll Bludger’s patented psephometer as they come through, so that adjusted swing results may be calculated and quick-time commentary maintained along the lines of my Queensland by-election coverage.

Marrickville (Labor 10.7% vs Greens): It was earlier believed that Carmel Tebbutt’s upper house seat was being left vacant so she could resume it if worst came to worst, but she has now announced that she will leave parliament if defeated on Saturday. There is nothing the Poll Bludger enjoys less than being perceived as cynical, but he can’t help interpreting this as a sign that Labor does not expect to lose. The pecularity of Tebbutt’s current position is starting to attract attention – she is still serving as Education Minister despite having resigned from her upper house seat on August 26. Political opponents and talk radio populists are making an issue of the ministerial salary she continues to receive, and of her absence from Parliament while a spate of arson attacks hits state schools – some of which are located in Macquarie Fields.

Macquarie Fields (Labor 23.5%): Something I hadn’t considered: Macquarie Fields is largely contiguous with the federal electorate of Werriwa, where voters were dragged back to the polls in February following Mark Latham’s retirement. Presumably the aggravation factor among those who do not care to have their weekends interrupted will be even more pronounced here, at the expense of Labor candidate Stephen Chaytor. This gives further reason to expect that both major parties will shed votes to independent and minor party candidates. They include: Greens candidate Ben Raue, 20 years old and already a veteran of two campaigns for Werriwa – first for the October 9 federal election, then for the February by-election; Janey Woodger, who has run in various elections over the past 10 years with Australians Against Further Immigration, doing well enough in the Werriwa by-election to get her deposit back; One Nation candidate Bob Vinnicombe, whose past efforts have been closer to the city in Blaxland (federal) and Auburn (state); independent Ken Barnard, who is running to protest against four-storey flats in Ingleburn; and Denis Plant of Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party, who appears to be an Anglican pastor.

Maroubra (Labor 22.5%): Who cares. Keep your eye open for my concluding summary of Saturday’s New Zealand election which I hope to post tomorrow evening.

The by-election gazette #7

I was recently reading through my earlier posts on the triple-M by-elections and was pleased to see I had been early off the mark in poking fun at the Daily Telegraph over its rough handling of John Brogden. This was prompted by a number of articles in the week before his career implosion which savaged his decision not to run in two of this Saturday’s three unwinnable by-elections. When news of his indiscretions at the Australian Hotels Association function became public the following Monday, the Telegraph ran an item peppered with quotes from "senior Liberal sources" who spoke of long-standing "concerns over Brogden’s political judgement", with the by-election decision listed as a key example. As I said at the time, the widespread currency of this assessment surprised me. But viewed in the context of an internal campaign against Brogden facilitated through a media with a demonstrated fondness for stirring the pot, it starts to make a little more sense.

Antony Green helps us put the decision in a more constructive context with a paper for the New South Wales Parliamentary Library on the last 40 years of the state’s by-election history. It tells us that a sharp upturn in the incidence of one-sided by-elections can be traced to the final re-election of the Wran/Unsworth Government in 1985. Neatly, Green’s study covers 40 by-elections before this point and 40 since, the number of one-sided contests skyrocketing from three in the earlier period to 25 in the latter. Quite why this shift has occurred is not clear, but in terms of recent practice there was obviously nothing remarkable about Brogden’s decision. As Green puts it, "it is understandable why the Liberal Party has chosen not to contest all three seats. While there were dramatic swings in Bass Hill and Rockdale following the retirement of Premier Wran, swings of this size are the exception. All three seats being contested on September 17 are substantially safer than any of the seats that saw dramatic swings during the period of the Unsworth Government".

Marrickville (Labor 10.7% vs Greens): The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Labor has been asking voters if they agree with Greens candidate Sam Byrne’s assessment of Anthony Albanese and Carmel Tebbutt as "the king and queen of Marrickville", which Byrne says he can’t remember saying. Most of the publicity generated by the Greens’ campaign has related to Tebbutt’s actions as Education Minister, the highlight being a desultory slanging match about homophobia. The Sun Herald tells us that an advisor to Tebbutt, Penny Sharpe, will fill Tebbutt’s upper house vacancy if she succeeds in her bid for the lower house. The vacancy has been left open since Tebbutt’s resignation so that she may resume it if she fails.

Macquarie Fields (Labor 23.5%): New Liberal leader Peter Debnam showed an early aptitude for the gentle art of understatement when he was recently heard "playing down the Liberals’ chance of winning". With a dissolute Opposition confronting an unpopular Government, expect a pronounced surge in support for independent and minor party candidates.

Maroubra (Labor 22.5%): Two entries back, I speculated as to whether Michael Daley’s preselection margin over Penny Wright of 140-110 included Wright’s affirmative action bonus. The answer is that it did, so Daley’s victory was more comfortable than I suggested.

The by-election gazette #6

As you are all no doubt aware, a fair bit has changed in New South Wales since the last by-election campaign update. John Brogden’s travails have so dominated media coverage of state politics that this site has been left with very little to report, except to note that the turmoil has obviously been to Labor’s advantage in Macquarie Fields. Nominations closed last Friday, and the ballot papers are ordered as follows:

Macquarie Fields: Bob Vinnicombe (One Nation); Ben Raue (Greens); Ken Barnard (Independent); Steven Chaytor (Labor); Denis Plant (Christian Democratic); Nola Fraser (Liberal); Janey Woodger (Australians Against Further Immigration).

Maroubra: Michael Daley (Labor); Kerri Hamer (Independent); Beth Smith (Christian Democratic); Nick Stepkovitch (Independent); Anne Gardiner (Greens); Victor Shen (Fishing Party).

Marrickville: Saidi Goldstein (Christian Democratic); Malcolm Woodward (Independent); Chris McLachlan (Independent); Carmel Tebbutt (Labor); Sam Byrne (Greens); Michelle Bleicher (Australian Democrats); Alasdair MacDonald; Lorraine Thomson (Independent); Pip Hinman (Socialist Alliance).

Dark horse in upset at Randwick

Last night’s Labor preselection for Bob Carr’s seat of Maroubra produced a surprise result, with Randwick councillor Michael Daley defeating Penny Wright 140 votes to 110. It is not clear if Wright’s 110 votes include her affirmative action weighting – if not, the margin would have been a narrow 140 to 132. Most reports suggested that the main threat to Wright was another Randwick councillor, Chris Bastic, with whom he had a deal to exchange preferences. Yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald has much, much more.

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.