As far as democracy goes, the big item on the world’s agenda this week is the Scottish Independence Referendum. And while that is clearly a massive deal, there’s something happening closer to home that’s filling up most of New Zealand’s media right now.
On Saturday, New Zealand is holding a General Election, something we do every three years, give or take. When I mentioned this on The Official Ordinary Times Back-Channel, there was some interest in me explaining how our politics works. While the specifics of our election are unlikely to be interesting to anyone who isn’t a New Zealander, it might be interesting for you to see how politics works in another country, especially since things work very differently to how they work in the US.
But before I get into the nitty-gritty I just want to add some bonus disclaimers given the subject matter I am discussing. While I do work for a Government Department, I want to emphasise that all of my posts at Ordinary Times (especially this one) are my own personal views and do not reflect the official position of any part of the New Zealand Government. Secondly, I won’t be discussing my own voting preferences.
Now, with that out of the way, on with the show.
There are two things you need to understand about our electoral system for anything else I say in this post to make any sense at all. These features don’t exist in the US, or even other Westminster countries so they should be news to basically all of you.
The first is our Mixed-Member Proportional (or MMP) voting system. MMP is a half-way point between the First-Past the Post system used by the UK and US and true Proportional Representation system. How it works is that in an election, each voter votes for a candidate to represent their electorate in Parliament (this works the same way candidate voting does in the US and UK) but they also vote for a political party directly. These party votes are tallied and each party’s gets a number of seats in Parliament in proportion to their share of the Party Vote. A party’s allocation of seats is first filled by any candidates who were voted into an electorate and the remainder are taken from the Party List: a ranked list of would-be MPs which is published by the Electoral Commission on behalf of each registered party. An important feature of the system is that in order to get into Parliament a party must either win an electorate or get at least 5% of the Party Vote. Parties that fails to meet both of these criteria get no seats in Parliament and their party votes are effectively discarded from the total votes cast. For more information, see this explanation by the Electoral Commission.
The important thing about this system is that it is far more encouraging of small parties than First Past the Post. A party need only garner the support of 5% of voters from anywhere in the country to get into Parliament (or have one candidate charismatic enough to win an election). This means that since 1996 when MMP was introduced no party has won 50% of the seats in Parliament and this means that every government these days is a coalition of one of the major parties (Labour or National) and one or more of the minor parties (the rest of the parties in Parliament).
The second unusual aspect of our electoral system is that we have two parallel sets of electorates. Upon turning 18 any New Zealand resident of Maori descent (for those not in the know, the Maori are New Zealand’s indigenous people) has the option of registering on either the General Electoral Roll or the Maori Electoral Roll. While the party votes from both electoral rolls are added together, each part of New Zealand is part of two electorates – A Maori Electorate and a General Electorate. Which roll you are on determines which set of electorate candidates you get to vote on. This is important for two of the minor parties I’ll be discussing below, as they draw their support predominately from voters on the Maori roll.
So with those points in mind, lets talk about the parties that have a reasonable chance of getting seats in Parliament. In order to elucidate the web of potential coalition deals that could form here, I’ll divide the parties into Left, Right, Centre and Outsider. As I’ve previously mentioned, I reject the concept of left and right as universal political concepts and indeed our left and right work quite differently to yours. For that reasons, I’m defining my groupings thusly:
- Right is National and any minor party that has ruled out working with Labour or that Labour has ruled out working with.
- Left is Labour and any minor party that has ruled out working with National or that National has ruled out working with.
- Centre is any minor party that is open to working with National or Labour (and vice versa)
- Outsider is any minor party that National and Labour have ruled out working with (or the reverse).
With that in mind, here are the parties in contention:
- The National Party, led by John Key. The current governing party in coalition with Act, United Future and the Maori Party. One of the two parties in Parliament that pre-dated the introduction of MMP. They held 59 of the 121 seats in the last Parliament.
- The Act Party, led by Jamie Whyte. They held one seat in the last Parliament but lost it near the end of the term when previous leader John Banks resigned following his conviction for violating campaign finance declaration laws in a local body election some years earlier.
- The Conservative Party led by Colin Craig. This is a fairly new party, contesting an election for the first time in 2011. It had no seats in the last Parliament, and at this point its best chance of them getting some this time is crossing the 5% Party Vote threshold. The Conservative Party is probably the one that would be most recognisable to an American audience.
- The Maori Party led by Te Ururoa Flavell. Up until last week, this would have been classified as a Centre party, but Labour Leader David Cunliffe recently ruled out going into coalition with them. The Maori Party split off from Labour before the 2008 election due to disagreements on how cultural claims to the Seabed and Foreshore were being handled. They had 3 seats in the last Parliament and all of them were electorate seats won in the Maori electorates. In fact they won more seats than their part vote would permit, leading to an overhang seat in Parliament (our normal compliment for Parliament is 120, not 121).
- United Future, led by Peter Dunne is another party that up until recently I would have classified as Centre. In fact United Future may be the platonic ideal of centrist as they have been part of every government (National and Labour) since about 1996. They only had 1 seat in the last Parliament, that being Peter Dunne’s electorate.
- The Labour Party led by David Cunliffe. The other party that has a history before MMP, Labour had 34 seats in the last Parliament. Recently Cunliffe ruled out forming coalitions with any parties except the Greens and New Zealand First, which is why the Left is such a small category in this list.
- The Green Party led by Metiria Turei and Russel Norman. It is the 3rd-largest party, with 14 seats in the last Parliament. The Green party have a policy of always having two leaders, one a man and one a woman.
- New Zealand First led by Winston Peters. For the past two elections I would have counted New Zealand First as part of the Left since National had ruled out working with them but they are receptive to New Zealand First this time around. This potentially puts New Zealand First in the Kingmaker role they held during the late ’90s, in fact New Zealand First determined the outcome of the 1996 election. They held 7 seats in the last Parliament.
OK folks, here’s where it gets a bit weird.
- Internet-Mana is actually a short-term alliance of two parties: The Internet Party, led by Laila Harre and the Mana Party, led by Hone Harawhira. These parties are campaigning as one, and have a Party List in common, but their alliance is scheduled to sunset six weeks after the election. Mana held 1 seat in the last Parliament and was formed when Harawhira split from the Maori Party over their coalition with National. The Internet Party is brand new, having been formed earlier this year. And while Harre has been a player in left-wing politics in New Zealand for decades, the Internet Party is being bankrolled by Kim Dotcom, a German national (though one with permanent residency here). Dotcom is wanted by the FBI for Racketeering, copyright violation and money laundering and he is currently undergoing extradition proceedings.
- If that wasn’t enough, as I write this Dotcom is holding a press event in Auckland alleging that the GCSB (our version of the NSA) has been engaging in illegal mass surveillance. This event included Julian Assange and Edward Snowden participating by video and Glen Greenwald turning up in person. I cannot even describe how odd this whole thing is.
So those are all the major players in Saturday’s election. At this point is seems likely that National will win a 3rd term in government (iPredict, our prediction market has National at about 80% chance of winning as of right now), but at this point I wouldn’t be surprised if John Key gets abducted by aliens or something it’s been that strange this year.
If you’d like more details on the main policy platforms of each party you can check out the party sites I linked to above, or you can check out this infographic from the New Zealand Herald, or the series of very short interviews they did with the party leaders on issues large and small.
If you have any other questions, just leave them in the comments.