On Saturday, New Zealand is holding a General Election, something we do every three years, give or take, and like the last time I thought it would be interesting to outline our political system and what is happening in this year’s election.
Given the subject matter of this post, I would just like to emphasise that I am making the comments in my capacity as a private citizen. Most especially, my views do not represent that of my employer.
Let’s begin by discussing the way our electoral system works.
New Zealand’s legislature is a unicameral parliamentary body, which means that our legislature has only one chamber (The House of Parliament) and the head of our government (the Prime Minister) is elected by Parliament from among its number. So voters do not vote directly for the Prime Minister; instead they vote on who becomes a Member of Parliament (MP for short) and whichever party (or parties) holds the majority of seats selects who will be Prime Minister.
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 need a little explanation.
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 a 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 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 fail to meet at least one 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 only has to 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; this also 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 (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. I reject the concept of left and right as universal political concepts and indeed our left and right work quite differently to yours. Parties that would be left-wing in the US are more right-wing here and one of our centrist parties would be right-wing in the US. For this reason I’m going to define the left-right axis based on our coalition politics. I’m going to divide the parties into Left, Right, Centre, and Outsider:
- 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).
- The National Party, led by Bill English. 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 58 of the 121 seats in the last Parliament. English took over leadership of National from John Key in December, when Key resigned for no reason. That may sound flippant, but there really wasn’t a reason in the normal sense. National was doing well in the polls and Key held the support of his caucus. There was no scandal and none has appeared subsequently, so the only explanation that makes sense is that he simply got tired of doing the job. English lacks Key’s charisma and this is one of the factors that contributes to this being a closer race this time around.
- The Act Party, led by David Seymour. They held one seat in the last Parliament, in large part due to a deal where National endorses Seymour’s candidacy for the Epsom Electorate. Seymour became leader basically by default – as the only Act MP he look over leadership from Jamie Whyte shortly after the last election. There’s a chance they could expand their share by a seat or two, but thanks to the deal with National it is almost certain they will retain Seymour’s electorate seat.
- The Maori Party led by Te Ururoa Flavell and Marama Fox who held two seats in the last Parliament. This is perhaps the strangest one for an American audience to understand. In policy terms they are a left-wing party but for the last three elections they have formed a coalition with National. Labour has previously refused to form coalition with them. I’m not entirely sure whether that’s currently true, but the general impression seems to be that the Maori Party is in National’s corner. This is ultimately an alliance of convenience – National can’t afford to take the Maori Party for granted, so they have an easier time getting policy concessions out of National than they would out of Labour. The Maori party campaigns exclusively for electorate seats (predominantly for the Maori electorates), so I’m not sure how well they’re doing.
- United Future, led by Damian Light. They held on to one seat last election due to a similar deal with National as Act’s. Their previous leader, Peter Dunne, retired from politics a month ago, driven in part by signs that he would not be able to hold his electorate seat against a Labour challenger. In all likelihood this means that United Future is dead as a party – their party vote is negligible (they often poll at 0.1%, which is almost impressive in a poll of 1000 people), and Dunne retained his seat due to personal popularity and a National Party endorsement. Without that, I see no realistic prospect of them continuing to exist, much less remaining in Parliament.
- The Labour Party led by Jacinta Ardern. The other party that has a history before MMP, Labour had 24 seats in the last Parliament. Ardern took over leadership a little over a month ago when the previous leader, Andrew Little, resigned after a disastrous poll. (It would have seen Labour fall to its lowest level of support ever; there was even a risk that Little himself wouldn’t have made it back into Parliament.) Ardern is a far more charismatic leader, and Labour has gained a lot of support since she assumed leadership.
- The Green Party led by James Shaw. 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; however, one of their leaders, Metiria Turei, resigned a bit over a month ago after it emerged that she had committed welfare fraud in her youth. She tried to hold on for a while, but ultimately had to resign. The Green has fallen off in the polls since then (Labour’s resurgence also contributed to this decline), so barring a last-minute reversal I expect them to lose seats in the election.
- New Zealand First led by Winston Peters. They held 10 seats in the last Parliament. New Zealand First’s policy stance might be best described as Trumpian, except that Peters is an extremely experienced and capable politician (he’s been in Parliament longer than I’ve been alive, almost continuously), so it might be better to think of Peters as a politically-competent Trump (or alternatively think of Trump as a poor man’s Winston Peters). New Zealand First may not get 10 seats this time (though it’s hard to say as they tend to outperform their polling a little), but given how close the left and right are in size right now there’s a good chance Peters will hold the “Kingmaker” role in this election, with his seats able to determine which party wins the election. Convention suggests that Peters should negotiate with whichever party is largest first, but how that will shake out in practice is anyone’s guess.
- The Opportunities Party is a new party led by Gareth Morgan. Morgan is a well-known economist, philanthropist and eccentric in New Zealand and his party is utterly policy-focused. TOP’s manifesto is an unusual blend of left and right ideas and Morgan has pledged support to whichever party offers the most policy concessions. In truth, this is likely a moot point. TOP is polling well below the required 5% threshold, and it is unlikely they will win an electorate. Morgan is confident he will break 5% comfortably, but despite his claims to evidence-based policy, I can’t see any evidence to support that claim.
- MANA Movement led by Hone Harawhira. This party went under the name of “The Mana Party” last election, as part of the ill-advised “Internet-Mana alliance”, which involved an alliance between Harawhira, a resident German millionaire, and Glenn Greenwald (no, really). This alliance was sufficiently unpopular that it lost Mana its only seat – Harawhira’s own. This time around he’s focusing on winning back the Te Tai Tokerau seat from Labour deputy-leader Kelvin Davis. I haven’t seen any polling from the electorate, so I’m not sure how well that’s going for him. But in any case, its unlikely that MANA will have more than one seat, if they have that.
While I don’t think this election is as strange as 2014’s, it is still odd for a couple of opposing reasons:
1. It is nearly unheard of for a party to hold four consecutive terms in government. By rights, National should have little prospect of victory, but while the polling is very erratic the consensus is that they still have an even chance of victory.
2. Which leads me to the other weird thing: a year ago it looked near-certain that National would breeze through the election and get its 4th term. There has been a massive turnover in party leadership since Key quit – including him there have been four Parliamentary party leaders quit, three of them in a bit over a month. The only parties in Parliament that have unchanged leadership since the last election are New Zealand First and the Maori Party.
This is also a very personality-driven election. Labour’s support climbed hugely when Ardren took over as leader, even though there was no significant change in policy direction. National’s struggles are also likely related to the fact that English is less charismatic than Key. While policy is being debated (water pollution, taxation and Auckland’s Vancouver-like housing affordability issues being the main topics of interest), a lot of focus is on Ardern’s charisma, whether English is too reserved and wonkish to attract voter interest (he was National leader 15 years ago and it didn’t go well), and, of course, Winston Peters’ signature brand of election-year theatrics.
On Saturday evening, NZST, we’ll get a chance to see what kind of government this strange stew may produce.
Image: Ballot Box 1. Source: Electoral Commission.Licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-ND 3.0)