In my last post on the 2014 New Zealand Election, I noted how strange the campaign had been this election. We had a new political party funded by a German Millionaire facing extradition to the US. Also, as John Oliver put it on his show, the governing party may have made an “Inimy” of “Iminim”, and they are now being sued by his record label. Add to that the allegations of dirty politics and that the New Zealand government engaged in mass surveillance (at an event including Edward Snowden, Julian Asange and Glen Greenwald), and I have never seen an election campaign as surreal as this one.
In the face of this weirdness, I was not actually surprised by National’s winning, giving then a 3rd term. Their polling had been strong, and the local prediction market gave them over an 80% chance of victory. What was surprising is just how well they did, and how badly Labour fared.
National increased their seats by 2, from 59 to 61. This means that a government party has increased its seats going into its 3rd term, which is practically unheard of and it means that a single party has a majority of seats in Parliament, which hasn’t happened since MMP was introduced in 1996.
Labour, by contrast lost 2 seats, dropping them down to 32, the worst performance of their 90 year history and barely more than half as many seats as National. There have already been media reports on soul-searching and recriminations from within Labour over the result. There are only two things Labour in the result can take heart from in this result: First, it’s not as bas as National did in 2002 and second, that the Greens didn’t do any better.
The Greens may be Labour’s strongest ally, but they are also a danger because it would appear they have ambitions to supplant Labour as the dominant left-wing party. They set themselves a goal of 15% of the party vote, but actually lost ground dropping from 13 seats to 12. They may pick that seat back up once the special votes are counted (that happened last time), but at best they held steady, meaning they were unable to capitalise on Labour’s losses.
The other big shock of the night was Hone Harawhira losing his electorate to Labour’s Kelvin Davis. Since Internet-Mana was well below the 5% threshold, this knocks the party out of Parliament entirely. Harawhira looked genuinely stricken as it became clear he had lost his seat, and it’s hard to see that as anything but a condemnation of his deal with Kim Dotcom and the Internet Party. Harawhira’s base comes from Northland Maori, Northland is a very rural, very poor region of the country and I suspect the Mana voters there have little in common with the urban, relatively affluent, tech-savvy crowd the Internet Party was aiming for. Some Mana candidates decried the Internet-Mana deal as a sellout before the election. One actually resigned over it. After the fact, it’s hard to dispute that Harawhira made a grave error.
The other big winner on the night (sort of) was Winston Peters and New Zealand First. This isn’t terribly surprising since New Zealand First’s brand of populism tends to perform well in a scandal-rich environment. New Zealand First gained 3 seats bringing them to 11. But this wasn’t entirely good news for Peters. For all his seats, he is still mostly powerless. National doesn’t need him to form a government and it is unlikely he will be offered much of a coalition deal, if any. Once upon a time New Zealand First was the Kingmaker, and Peters was the man who decided who would be Prime Minister. Now (just as last term) he’s merely the leader of another opposition party, if a relatively large one.
The rest was less exciting. Act held Epsom, thanks to the support of National. Similarly, Peter Dunne held his electorate. The Maori lost 2 of their electorates to Labour, but their party vote was the same as last time, so they got one list seat. The conservatives increased their party vote significantly (from about 2% to 4.5%), but not enough to actually get into Parliament.
Beyond the results, there are some process-related observations that I though you might find interesting.
- First, I think Labour has suffered by changing their leader-selection process. The traditional process in New Zealand is that the party’s caucus chooses one of their number to be leader, until such a time as they choose to elect another. But Labour changed their process to be more like the UK’s Labour Party. Now the wider party membership (including affiliated trade unions) get to vote on who leads the party in Parliament. One of the major supports of this change was David Cunliffe. Coincidentally shortly after this change then-leader David Shearer was voted out and replaced by – David Cunliffe. Cunliffe’s support came more from outside the caucus than inside it and this led to a divided caucus that made Labour look weak and divided and also led Labour to advocate for policies (such as assuming direct control of the electricity market and more activist monetary policy) that may have been too left-wing for the voting public. This speaks to my suspicion of overly democratic selection processes. I have long held that democratic primary processes lead to extreme candidates that are pleasing to the base while smoke-filled back-rooms lead to more moderate candidates. I can see an analogy to that thesis in Labour’s leadership process.
- While the political science literature has long maintained money is less effective than most people suppose, our election was a nice anecdote to go with that data. Colin Craig and Kim Dotcom collectively spent $7 million of campaign contributions to their respective parties (multiply by 100 to get equivalent figures for the US). And what did they get for it? Craig still isn’t in Parliament so he got nothing, and Dotcom arguably got less than nothing. Elections aren’t simply a question of who spends wins, and that’s something to take heart from, regardless of how much you like or dislike the end result.