ALTHOUGH New Zealand’s National Party very narrowly missed its target of winning an absolute majority of seats in Saturday’s election, the party is set to continue governing with the support of its alliance partners, ACT and United Future, each of which won a single electorate seat. The Maori Party, also a partner of National, lost support because of its role in the government, and will decide in the next week whether to continue in alliance.
Having maintained high popularity ratings through his first term, Prime Minister John Key was naturally the spearhead of National’s campaign. But Key, who only entered parliament in 2002, showed his inexperience with his handling of the “Teagate” incident, which became the single major issue of the campaign. National had been regularly polling in the mid 50s since the 2008 election, and seemed headed for a clear majority; Teagate cost it seats, leaving it with sixty out of 121 MPs and preventing it from being the first party to win a majority of seats since the introduction of the mixed member proportional, or MMP, voting system in 1996.
The controversy was a result of the vagaries of that complex voting system. Under MMP, all voters get two votes: one for the electorate seat, under the first-past-the-post system, and the other for the party, which determines the overall make-up of parliament on a proportional basis. To gain seats in parliament, a party needs either to exceed the 5 per cent threshold for party votes or to win at least one electorate seat.
Key was keen for his alliance partner ACT to win seats as a safety net in case National failed to win a majority itself. In the 2008 campaign, Key had staged a photo opportunity with the ACT leader at the time, Rodney Hide, who was campaigning for his Auckland seat of Epsom. This sent a clear message to National supporters in that electorate to vote for Hide rather than their National candidate. Although a clear majority of Epsom electors gave National their party vote, Hide easily won the electorate seat.
Forward to 2011, and one of the main issues in the campaign was whether Key would have a cup of tea with the new ACT candidate for Epsom (and former National minister) John Banks. Sure enough, two weeks before the election, the two sat down at a coffee shop in Epsom before a huge media contingent. Hoping that actions speak louder than words, the prime minister had once again sent National supporters in Epsom a very clear message. The efforts by National to get Banks elected were further highlighted when the National candidate was caught removing his own campaign posters and telling voters to make up their own minds who they voted for.
But Key’s cup of tea with Banks turned sour. A cameraman’s microphone was left on the table (intentionally or accidentally, depending on whom you believe), recording the “private” conversation between the two. Journalists who have transcripts of the conversation suggest that Key was bad-mouthing ACT leader Don Brash (a former National opposition leader – it can all get very incestuous in NZ politics). Key refused to give permission to have the recording released publicly. What was meant to be a positive media event for the National Party turned into a negative for Key, who was portrayed as hiding his deceit behind his assertion that the comments were private.
Counting will be finalised in the next two weeks, but on current figures National will win sixty seats with 48 per cent of the vote, up three per cent from 2008. Labour was always well behind in the polls. Led by Phil Goff, it adopted an aggressive set of policies, opposing National’s proposed asset sales, advocating raising the pension age from sixty-five to sixty-seven, and calling for the removal of GST from fruit and vegetables. The pension proposal may have cost it votes among older groups, but the policy was generally seen as one of economic prudence. Labour’s vote plunged from 34 per cent in 2008 to 27 per cent, with the Greens, NZ First and National the beneficiaries. This leaves the party with only thirty-four MPs, just over half as many as National has.
One of the big election winners is the Green Party, which has doubled its vote since the 2005 election (from 5.3 per cent, to 6.7 per cent in 2008, and 10.6 per cent this year). With its number of MPs rising from nine to thirteen or fourteen, it has become the third-largest party in parliament. The party’s joint leaders, Russel Norman and Metiria Turei, have achieved some policy wins since 2008, including home insulation rebates and the development of a national bike track, by negotiating with the government. Mainstream support has increased as a result, especially compared to the mid 2000s when the Greens were sometimes portrayed as a radical fringe party.
Possibly the biggest surprise of the election was the re-emergence of Winston Peters’s NZ First party. The party had lost all seven of its MPs at the 2008 election, when it polled only 4.1 per cent, short of the five per cent threshold required under MMP. A year ago, NZ First was languishing around two per cent in the opinion polls, and appeared not to have improved just three weeks before the election. But Peters seized on Teagate, claiming that John Key had made disparaging remarks about NZ First supporters “dying out.” Support for the party spiked.
Peters has been a dominant figure in New Zealand politics over the past three decades. First entering parliament as a National MP in 1978, he quit the party in the 1990s to form NZ First. He has been a minister in National and Labour governments, and was foreign affairs minister (but not a member of cabinet) in Helen Clark’s Labour government from 2005 to 2008. NZ First will have eight MPs in the new parliament and, given Peters’s ability to attract media coverage, the party will figure prominently. Once a new Labour leader is elected, there is likely to be a contest between Labour and Peters to be the “voice” of the opposition.
The Maori Party lost one of its four seats, and its connection with the government was blamed for the fall in its vote from 2.4 per cent to 1.4 per cent. This opened up the opportunity for former Maori MP Hone Harawira’s Mana party to garner support from traditional left-of-centre Maori supporters. Harawira, however, was the only Mana candidate elected. The future for the Maori Party is bleak, as its association with National, and especially its support for an increase in GST, is disconnecting it from its main support base. With its two leaders, Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples, both in their seventies by the time of the 2014 election, the party also needs to renew its leadership.
Although winning the next election looks like a big task for Labour, under MMP it would not take a big swing for the party to form government with the help of the Greens and NZ First. These three parties have fifty-five seats in the new parliament, which means that a swing of less than five per cent would be enough to defeat the National-led alliance. Bigger swings have happened before: after the National Party was routed in 2002, winning only 21 per cent of the vote, it nearly doubled its vote in 2005 to come close to snatching government from Helen Clark. Labour’s task is not as daunting, and the resignation of Phil Goff should allow a new leader to revitalise the party, both internally and in the eyes of the public.
IN CONJUNCTION with the poll, New Zealanders voted in a referendum on whether to retain or change the MMP voting system. Although only about 15 per cent of votes have been counted, it appears that MMP – currently with 53 per cent support – will be retained. The highest support for MMP, at over 75 per cent, is in the Maori electorates. Prime Minister Key supported a change to the system, but the issue was never a high-profile or contentious topic during the campaign. The government will now initiate an inquiry into possible changes to the operation of MMP, including changing the percentage threshold for seats in parliament.
A second referendum question asked voters to nominate what system – first-past-the-post, preferential vote, single transferable vote, or supplementary member – they would prefer if MMP were abolished. The most popular of these four was first-past-the-post with 32 per cent, but it is interesting to see that the greatest response to this second question was actually informal, at 34 per cent. The informal rate was consistently higher in Maori seats, which may indicate that voters who supported MMP may not have realised that they could still answer the second question. •
Norm Kelly, an associate of the Centre for Democratic Institutions at the Australian National University, lives in Wellington.