Election Follow-Up: The Result that Wasn’t

New Zealand held its election on Saturday, and the results were … inconclusive.
  • National won 58 seats (down 1)
  • Labour won 45 seats (up 13)
  • New Zealand First won 9 seats (down 3)
  • The Greens won 7 seats (down 7)
  • Act won 1 seat (unchanged)
  • United Future won 0 seats (down 1)
  • The Maori party won 0 seats (down 2)
  • MANA Movement and TOP both failed to win any seats
This leaves us with 59 seats on the Right (National + Act), 52 on the Left (Labour + Greens) and 9 in the Centre (New Zealand First). 61 seats are required to form a government. While there are still 250,000 special votes (post votes cast by people overseas) or so to be counted, this won’t change the big picture. The Greens may gain a seat at National’s expense, but what it boils down to is that Winston Peters will determine who will be Prime Minister.
While it may be weeks before we actually find out who the government is going to be, I can at least go through some themes that came up from the election:
The Results Came in Fast
The polls closed at 7pm, which is when election coverage begins (legally they can’t start talking about the election before the polls close). I was clear by 8:30 what the result was going to be. This was due to the record number of early votes cast – 1.2 million votes were cast at polling stations in the two weeks before election day. These votes were counted over election day and their results were all reported by 8pm. In the past, the small rural polling stations tend to return results first, which meant the early returns all skewed toward National  Then it was a game of trying to work out how far things would swing back to the left over the night. But the early votes come from all across the country, and were representative of the final results. As the Electoral Commission continues to promote early voting, we can expect faster results in future.
We Have a Credible Opposition Party Again
Jacinta Ardern was the biggest winner on the night. While Labour is still behind National (even accounting for the Green’s support) they are back into a position to challenge National if they are in opposition. Similarly, National has not succumbed to the decay that normally occurs with parties that have served so many consecutive terms in government. This means that whoever becomes Prime Minister in the next few weeks, there will be a strong opposition party to hold them to account, a role Labour has had trouble performing for the last nine years.
Act is Out of Government
David Seymour holds the dubious distinction of being the only Member of Parliament who will definitely not be part of the government. National can’t use Act on their own and don’t need Act if they have New Zealand First. Added to the fact that Act and New Zealand First strongly dislike each other, and Bill English has decided that Act’s one seat would cause more complications that it would solve.
Our Parliament is Consolidating
Labour’s gains came at the expense of the minor parties. Labour has regained total control of the Maori electorates and I’m not sure if the Maori Party will continue as a party; even if they do I don’t see them getting any seats unless Labour does something significant to alienate Maori. Similarly, I think United Future is over as a party. That brings the number of parties in Parliament down to five, and Act is on life support (it received 0.5% of party votes and won the Epsom electorate because National endorsed them). And while New Zealand First is sustainable at the moment, I think there’s a good chance they will falter when New Zealand First ultimately retires. It’s a party that lives and dies on Peters’s charisma and theatricality. I don’t see it working without him. That would leave us with only three sustainable parties in Parliament, hardly the diverse range of perspectives MMP was supposed to deliver.
In the 1993 election (our last First Past the Post election) there were four parties in Parliament: National, Labour, New Zealand First and the Alliance (a merger of smaller left-wing parties. One of those parties was The Greens, who are now the only surviving part of The Alliance). In the eight MMP elections we have held since, only one new party has managed to enter Parliament via an election: Act. Every other new party has come from MPs from an existing party splitting off to form a new party. This leads me to believe that our electoral system makes it too hard to form a new party. The last review of MMP recommended that the 5% party vote threshold (the minimum share of votes required to get into Parliament without an electorate MP) to be reduced to 4% or even 3%. I think that would be an improvement – TOP got 2.2% of the party vote on Saturday, but people are reluctant to vote for a party that is unlikely to make it into Parliament. I think with a 3% threshold there’s a good chance that would have made it in.
We are in for a Bumpy Three Years
While Parliament is consolidating, I don’t expect that will come with stability in the near term. New Zealand First is a scandal-prone party, and it has destabilised both governments it has supported in the past. Peters has been fired from Cabinet (or had to stand down due to a criminal investigation in one case) all three times he has been a Cabinet Minister. On one occasion he responded to this firing by withdrawing New Zealand First from government only for half the party to defect and continue to support the government as independent MPs. A left-wing government would be less stable than a right-wing one in this case. The Greens and New Zealand First do not get on well at all, and the three parties combined only have exactly 61 seats. Any loss of a seat during the term would collapse the government unless Act decided to help (which is a possibility to ludicrous to entertain).
So whether Jacinda Ardern or Bill English is Prime Minister in November (the latest Parliament can meet to choose the Prime Minister), they will have to deal with an energetic opposition and an unsteady coalition.
Image: Ballot Box 1. Source: Electoral Commission.Licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-ND 3.0)

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James is a government policy analyst, and lives in Wellington, New Zealand. His interests including wargaming, computer gaming (especially RPGs and strategy games), Dungeons & Dragons and scepticism. No part of any of his posts or comments should be construed as the position of any part of the New Zealand government, or indeed any agency he may be associated with.

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6 thoughts on “Election Follow-Up: The Result that Wasn’t

  1. It’s sort of amazing to me how little influence the Maori party has (I seem to remember them having more a decade ago but maybe I’m imagining it). Did the Maori electorates go for one or the other party or did they split on the same lines as the country as a whole?

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    • Labour hold all seven Maori electorates now. At their height, the Maori Part held five of those seats, but were down to one in 2014 (their other seat was a list seat).

      Zooming out a bit, this seems to be a pattern with the Maori seats. Labour holding them is the ground state, but every so often they do something to alienate Maori voters, leading to a new party forming to contest the seats. Eventually Maori voters bury the hatchet and return to Labour. Labour also employed some strategic measures to undermine the Maori Party this election.

      However, news came out today that the Maori party intends to fight on. Te Ururoa Flavell has resigned leadership of the party, but Tariana Turia (one of the founders of the Maori Party) is coming out of retirement. So there’s still a chance the Maori Party regains seats in 2020, but it will be hard.

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  2. New Zealand First is a centrist party? I know nothing about them apart from the name, but based on that I would have taken them to be rightist. What is the story behind that?

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    • from the previous post:

      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.

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    • There are two reasons I call New Zealand First a centrist party:
      1) It makes sense with our coalitional politics. New Zealand First is willing to support either National and Labour governments (and has supported both in the past), so voting for them doesn’t clearly support the right or the left.
      2) New Zealand First really doesn’t first in our left-right spectrum very well. It heakerns back to what our right wing looked like before Rogernomics in the 1980s (and the fiscal crisis that precipitated Rogernomics). It’s conservative, but highly interested in economic intervention. For example, here’s an analysis of New Zealand First major policies. As you can see, they split between National and Labour.

      This is probably a good time to point out that “centrist” and “moderate” aren’t necessarily the same thing.

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