New Zealand 2011
General elections were held in New Zealand on November 26, 2011. The unicameral Parliament of New Zealand has 120 members, sometimes more due to overhang seats. Since 1994, New Zealand has used mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) in which 70 members are elected in single-member constituencies (the electorate seats) through FPTP and at least 50 members are elected through party-list proportional representation in a national constituency with a 5% threshold (parties winning one electorate seat can be exempted from the threshold). Of the 70 electorate seats, 63 members are elected in general constituencies were all voters are assigned to by default, while 7 members are elected in Māori electorates (created in 1868) where the only eligible voters are those citizens of Māori ethnicity who ask to be placed on the Māori electoral list. Not all Māori voters vote in these Māori electorates: a small minority of them preferred to be enrolled on the general electoral list and vote in the 63 general constituencies. The Māori electorates have long been a source of political controversy and the current government wishes to abolish them by 2014. Elections are held every three-years in New Zealand.
New Zealand has been governed since 2008 by John Key of the centre-right National Party, who defeated incumbent Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark who was first elected in 1999. The National Party was formed in 1936 by the two old rival parties of the centre and the right: the United Party (the old Liberals) and the Reform Party – to counteract the rise of the Labour Party which won power for the first time in 1935 following the defeat of the United-Reform coalition government. The Nationals first won power in 1949 and governed until 1957, returned to power in 1960 and ruled until 1972, returned to power in 1975 and ruled until 1984, won back power in 1990 and lost power to Labour in 1999. Traditionally, like all centre-right parties, National has usually favoured liberal economic policies and pro-business policies. But the experience of the Robert Muldoon government (1975-1984) sets it apart a bit: Muldoon, a populist autocrat, favoured heavily interventionist economic policies such as price freezes to control inflation or the “Think Big” energy initiatives. In contrast, the Labour government originally led by David Lange was by most regards far to the right on economic issues. Lange’s finance minister between 1984 and 1988 was the emblematic Roger Douglas, architect of neoliberal “Rogernomics” which included monetarist inflation control, cutting the tariff and farming subsidies, privatizations and tax cuts. This was a departure both from traditional social democratic policies but also Labour’s own traditional policies. Indeed, past Labour governments prior to 1984 had followed far more progressive and interventionist policies. Michael Joseph Savage, the first Labour Prime Minister, became something of a left-wing icon for his creation of the country’s welfare state. The second Labour government between 1957 and 1960 was defeated following a “Black Budget” in 1958 which had significantly raised taxes. Douglas was eventually forced out in late 1988, and Lange himself resigned in 1989 but it was not enough to save Labour from a landslide defeat in 1990 at the hands of Jim Bolger’s Nationals. Rogernomics had divided National, which had a history of economic interventionism and statist conservatism going back to Muldoon’s days. However, Bolger’s finance minister, Ruth Richardson, was a fan of Rogernomics and in fact believed they had not gone far enough: she implemented even more radical Ruthanasia – major spending cuts in social welfare and unemployment benefits. These policies almost cost it victory in 1993, in which third parties did well. Bolger was pushed out by Jenny Shipley in 1997 but she lost the 1999 election to Helen Clark, who abandoned the Rogernomics era in favour of Blairite Third Way policies. Presiding over economic growth and a progressive decline in unemployment, she held office until 2008.
New Zealand adopted MMP in 1993, the result of a series of disproportional elections under FPTP in which parties such as Social Credit won nearly 20% of the vote but only one or two seats. MMP encouraged the growth of third parties, but New Zealand has retained a stable two-party system despite the adoption of MMP. It might be a result of the continued impact of the two-party system bred by FPTP or of the failure of third parties to appeal to a wide base, often because of their more ‘radical’ nature in the political spectrum. The most important of these third parties has been the populist New Zealand First (NZF), led by former National MP Winston Peters. NZF is a bit hard to pin down politically, but it is similar to other right-populist parties by its social conservatism, its anti-corporate rhetoric coupled with a low taxes and reduced spending agenda. Peters’ NZF, which won 13.4% in 1996 and held the balance of power formed a coalition with the Nationals which lasted until 1998. Between 2005 and 2008, NZF had a confidence-and-supply deal with Clark and Peters served as foreign minister. In the 2008 election, NZF was shut out as it fell to an all-time low of 4.1%.
Recently the Greens have grown in strength, polling 7% in 2002 and 6.7% in 2008. The Greens, who are pretty left-wing (they were a part of the left-wing Alliance in the 1993 and 1996 elections, winning 18% in 1993 and 10% in 1996), have a close working relationship with Labour but they have never signed formal coalition or confidence and supply deals with them, in part due to the hostility towards the Greens on the behalf of NZF and United Future. Other parties with a presence or foothold in recent years include United Future, ACT and the Progressives. United Future was founded as a merger of a secular centrist party and a right-wing Christian democratic party in 2000, and won 6.7%. United Future has been something of a weird beast, with a more moderate centre-right wing including Peter Dunne, the party’s leader and sole MP, with a more right-wing socially conservative ‘Christian right’ faction which has recently been eliminated. Today, United Future appears to be an empty shell and nothing more than a personal vehicle for Dunne, an extra-cabinet minister who has served under the last two governments. ACT is a free-market right-wing liberal party founded in 1994, advocating a flat tax, welfare reform, controlling government spending and debt, tough-on-crime policies and other right-wing positions on defense and the environment. It won between 6 and 7% of the vote between 1996 and 2002, but only 1.5% in 2005. It managed to win 5 seats in 2008, entering government. ACT’s leader until this election was Don Brash, the former leader of the National Party who had narrowly lost the 2005 election. Brash, on the National Party’s right, was progressively forced out after the election and resigned in 2006, at which point John Key, more centrist, won the National Party’s leadership. Until he retired this year, the other main actor was Jim Anderton’s Progressive Party. Anderton had split from the Labour Party in 1989 over Rogernomics and then played a key role as leader of the Alliance in the 1990s, a party which formed a coalition with Labour after 1999. But Anderton split from the Alliance, part of which thought he was moving too close to Labour. He held his electorate of Wigram in 2002, 2005 and 2008 but especially after 2008 the party became an empty shell. Anderton’s retirement this year killed the party. In the Māori electorates, the Māori Party, a splitoff from Labour founded in 2004. It won 5 Māori seats in 2008 and it has members outside cabinet since then.
John Key has been a fairly popular Prime Minister, and at any rate, New Zealand rarely turfs out first-term governments unless they’ve done something quite disagreeable or have been terrible. The country has been affected by the recession, and its unemployment rate is now 6%, but GDP growth is strong at 2% and projected to reach 3.8% in 2012. The government cut taxes, but increased the GST and minimum wage. Above all, Key is seen as a pleasant “Kiwi bloke” as opposed to Labour leader Phil Goff, seen as incompetent and desperate. The government was handed a nice boost by the All Blacks’ win in the Rugby World Cup earlier this year. Alongside the election, National also followed through with its election promise to hold a referendum on keeping or changing MMP. FPTP, STV, SM and preferential voting were the four proposed options in case voters voted to change MMP. Like most similar referendums, few voters seemed to care very much about the topic.
Turnout seems to be quite a bit lower than in 2008. Here are the results:
National 47.99% (+3.06%) winning 60 seats (+2) [41 E, 19 L]
Labour 27.13% (-6.86%) winning 34 seats (-9) [22 E, 12 L]
Greens 10.62% (+3.9%) winning 13 seats (+4) [13 L]
NZF 6.81% (+2.74%) winning 8 seats (+8) [8 L]
Māori 1.35% (-1.04%) winning 3 seats (-2) [3 E]
ACT 1.07% (-2.58%) winning 1 seat (-4) [1 E]
Mana 1% (+1%) winning 1 seat (+1) [1 E]
United Future 0.61% (-0.26%) winning 1 seat (+1) [1 E]
Conservative 2.76% (+2.76%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Without any suspense, John Key’s popular incumbent National Party was reelected to a second term but, it was the surprise of the night perhaps, failed to win a majority and remains in a hung parliament albeit it’s almost a majority. The Nationals breaking the magic 50% line, as a lot of polls had predicted (less so in the final days), would have been pretty historic given that it’s not been broken by any party since National’s landslide in 1951. Labour, meanwhile, suffered a pretty significant defeat. Labour had never really stood a chance against a popular one-term government, and by all means its gadfly leader Phil Goff (from the party’s right-wing) was nothing more than a stopgap leader who would lose in 2011 while Labour’s more popular leadership contenders would wait until the 2014 election, which was the earliest National could be defeated. Goff led a pretty desperate campaign on stuff like the “cost of living” or removing from the GST from groceries. In contrast to Key, a popular and generally competent leader who is personally popular with voters and who has been able to wash off potential scandals, Goff and Labour never really stood a chance. 27% is a poor showing, but by no means a landslide defeat really. In terms of electorates, it seems as if Labour had it its core seats by 2008: it only lost Waimakariri while gaining West Coast-Tasman and the Māori seat of Te Tai Tonga.
In a pretty rare but how so amusing result, the vote in Christchurch Central ended up as a perfect tie between Labour MP Brendon Burns and National candidate Nicky Wagner at 10,493 votes apiece. The result will be determined by special votes. If National wins the seat, it would lose its last list seat without affecting the overall result. Similarly, if Labour wins the seat it would lose its last list seat without again affecting the final result. You thus have a situation where the last elected individual on each party’s list is wishing that their party doesn’t win Christchurch Central – if they did, they’d lose their seat.
The Greens had a good night, winning their best result ever. They likely took a lot of soft-left votes from Labour, especially in the final days of the campaign when they experienced their surge. I wonder how much the Tauranga oil spill on October 5 might have affected Green support: their real upsurge in support came after the spill.
The major surprise of the night was Winston Peters, NZF’s leader who had been thrown out of Parliament in 2008. He was not expected to reenter Parliament this year, and even in the final days as NZF picked up steam few people predicted it would win seats. With 6.8% and 8 seats, its success was the main surprise of the election. Its success, spectacular in some regards, is attributed to the Tea Tape scandals which taped a compromising conversation between Key and ACT candidate John Banks. NZF had taken the forefront in leaking the tapes, and Peters, whose party receives many votes from the elderly, claimed that Key insulted the elderly in the tapes.
ACT, which has suffered from poor performance in cabinet and leadership disputes which claimed Rodney Hide’s leadership, suffered its worst electoral result since its foundation. The party is basically in terminal state right now. Its chances hinged on its pivotal electorate seat of Epsom, a very affluent suburb of Auckland which it has held since 2005. Rodney Hide, who had been ACT’s Epsom MP since 2005, was deselected in favour of John Banks, the former mayor of Auckland defeated last year. In some regards, the Nationals might have seen it in their interests to use ACT’s terminal condition to unplug it and rid itself from a controversial ally. But in other regards, Nationals need ACT as one of their only sure bases of coalition support. The Nationals stood a candidate in Epsom, Paul Goldsmith, but in an amusing situation Goldsmith – who led most polls for the seat – campaigned telling voters not to vote for him and instead give their electorate vote to ACT (Banks) and its list vote to the Nationals. ACT’s John Banks finally won Epsom with 45% against 37% for Goldsmith, while the list vote in the electorate split 65% in National’s favour (ACT taking a pathetic 2.6%). The Nationals winning Epsom would have been rather amusing and an embarrassing situation for themselves, but it can breath a sigh of relief as it has saved ACT for a bit longer keeping it plugged in and providing Key with a coalition partner. United Future, which is now more than ever a personality cult for Peter Dunne and which will die off like the Progressives once Dunne retires, is also seen as a likely coalition partner. The Māori Party, which lost two seats this year (one to Labour, another one – Te Tai Tokerau was held by dissident MP Hone Harawira of the Mana Party), could also continue backing the government. I wonder to what extent the Māori Party’s poor showing this year can be attributed to it propping up a National government given that Māori voters are pretty starkly anti-National in their voting and have been so for years. On a final note, a new right-wing party, the Conservatives, did fairly well for a newbie party with 2.7%. Its leader Colin Craig, helped by his personal wealth, won 21% standing in the National stronghold of Rodney north of Auckland. It will be interesting to see how the Conservatives carry on after a fairly strong showing in their first outing.
In the referendum on the voting system, MMP prevailed with 53.74% opposing the change and 42.62% supporting a change. 3.64% of ballots were marked ‘informal’ or invalid. In the follow-up question (ultimately useless because MMP won) on which alternative system to adopt, FPTP logically came out on top with 31.89%, followed by 14.53% for SM, 11.24% for STV and 8.19% for PV. But 34.15% of ballots were ‘informal’ or invalid. The map of the result shows strong support for MMP in core urban areas, especially lower-income or trendy neighborhoods (much less support, in fact, in the wealthier suburbs). Opposition to MMP was heavier in rural areas, though some rural areas – I don’t know why – tended to support MMP as well. Māori voters were strongly behind MMP with over 70% support for the country’s current electoral system. The referendum in Northland ended as another perfect tie!