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Hey, There’s Another Vote Happening this Week

As far as democracy goes, the big item on the world’s agenda this week is the Scottish Independence Referendum. And while that is clearly a massive deal, there’s something happening closer to home that’s filling up most of New Zealand’s media right now.

On Saturday, New Zealand is holding a General Election, something we do every three years, give or take. When I mentioned this on The Official Ordinary Times Back-Channel, there was some interest in me explaining how our politics works. While the specifics of our election are unlikely to be interesting to anyone who isn’t a New Zealander, it might be interesting for you to see how politics works in another country, especially since things work very differently to how they work in the US.

But before I get into the nitty-gritty I just want to add some bonus disclaimers given the subject matter I am discussing. While I do work for a Government Department, I want to emphasise that all of my posts at Ordinary Times (especially this one) are my own personal views and do not reflect the official position of any part of the New Zealand Government. Secondly, I won’t be discussing my own voting preferences.

Now, with that out of the way, on with the show.

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 should be news to basically all of you.

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 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’s 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 fails to meet both 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 need only 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 and this 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 (for those not in the know, the Maori are 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. In order to elucidate the web of potential coalition deals that could form here, I’ll divide the parties into Left, Right, Centre and Outsider. As I’ve previously mentioned, I reject the concept of left and right as universal political concepts and indeed our left and right work quite differently to yours. For that reasons, I’m defining my groupings thusly:

  • 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).

With that in mind, here are the parties in contention:

The Right:

  • The National Party, led by John Key. 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 59 of the 121 seats in the last Parliament.
  • The Act Party, led by Jamie Whyte. They held one seat in the last Parliament but lost it near the end of the term when previous leader John Banks resigned following his conviction for violating campaign finance declaration laws in a local body election some years earlier.
  • The Conservative Party led by Colin Craig. This is a fairly new party, contesting an election for the first time in 2011. It had no seats in the last Parliament, and at this point its best chance of them getting some this time is crossing the 5% Party Vote threshold. The Conservative Party is probably the one that would be most recognisable to an American audience.
  • The Maori Party led by Te Ururoa Flavell. Up until last week, this would have been classified as a Centre party, but Labour Leader David Cunliffe recently ruled out going into coalition with them. The Maori Party split off from Labour before the 2008 election due to disagreements on how cultural claims to the Seabed and Foreshore were being handled. They had 3 seats in the last Parliament and all of them were electorate seats won in the Maori electorates. In fact they won more seats than their part vote would permit, leading to an overhang seat in Parliament (our normal compliment for Parliament is 120, not 121).
  • United Future, led by Peter Dunne is another party that up until recently I would have classified as Centre. In fact United Future may be the platonic ideal of centrist as they have been part of every government (National and Labour) since about 1996. They only had 1 seat in the last Parliament, that being Peter Dunne’s electorate.

The Left:

  • The Labour Party led by David Cunliffe. The other party that has a history before MMP, Labour had 34 seats in the last Parliament. Recently Cunliffe ruled out forming coalitions with any parties except the Greens and New Zealand First, which is why the Left is such a small category in this list.
  • The Green Party led by Metiria Turei and Russel Norman. 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.

The Centre:

  • New Zealand First led by Winston Peters. For the past two elections I would have counted New Zealand First as part of the Left since National had ruled out working with them but they are receptive to New Zealand First this time around. This potentially puts New Zealand First in the Kingmaker role they held during the late ’90s, in fact New Zealand First determined the outcome of the 1996 election. They held 7 seats in the last Parliament.

The Outsiders:

OK folks, here’s where it gets a bit weird.

  • Internet-Mana is actually a short-term alliance of two parties: The Internet Party, led by Laila Harre and the Mana Party, led by Hone Harawhira. These parties are campaigning as one, and have a Party List in common, but their alliance is scheduled to sunset six weeks after the election. Mana held 1 seat in the last Parliament and was formed when Harawhira split from the Maori Party over their coalition with National. The Internet Party is brand new, having been formed earlier this year. And while Harre has been a player in left-wing politics in New Zealand for decades, the Internet Party is being bankrolled by Kim Dotcom, a German national (though one with permanent residency here). Dotcom is wanted by the FBI for Racketeering, copyright violation and money laundering and he is currently undergoing extradition proceedings.
  • If that wasn’t enough, as I write this Dotcom is holding a press event in Auckland alleging that the GCSB (our version of the NSA) has been engaging in illegal mass surveillance. This event included Julian Assange and Edward Snowden participating by video and Glen Greenwald turning up in person. I cannot even describe how odd this whole thing is.

So those are all the major players in Saturday’s election. At this point is seems likely that National will win a 3rd term in government (iPredict, our prediction market has National at about 80% chance of winning as of right now), but at this point I wouldn’t be surprised if John Key gets abducted by aliens or something it’s been that strange this year.

If you’d like more details on the main policy platforms of each party you can check out the party sites I linked to above, or you can check out this infographic from the New Zealand Herald, or the series of very short interviews they did with the party leaders on issues large and small.

If you have any other questions, just leave them in the comments.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.

42 thoughts on “Hey, There’s Another Vote Happening this Week

  1. Interesting stuff James. I’d be alarmed that the left parties seem so insular but I have a feeling that New Zealand’s right parties would probably fit comfortably with the parties I like in my nations* and I’d find the New Zealand lefties a bit crackers.

    Definitly sounds like a worth while New Zealand initiative.

    *The Liberals and the Democratic Party


    • The relative insularity of the Left is a deliberate choice by Labour, I would imagine United Future, the Maori Party and Internet-Mana would be receptive to doing a deal with Labour. Also bear in mind that the Greens are larger than all the other minor parties put together.

      By contrast, National has been trying to cultivate allies among parties they don’t see eye-to-eye with, like the Maori Party.


  2. Let me get this straight. You have a German national, who is also a fugitive from American justice, whose name is “Kim Dotcom,” (what was his name before he changed it?) as the bankroll and chair of a party likely to elect at least one member to your Parliament. Well, why wouldn’t he arrange to have his own name be put on top of the party list, and therefore become a member of Parliament? Do MPs receive immunity from arrest (and therefore extradition)?


  3. This is great, James. I have a couple of other things that I’d love for you to elaborate on.

    First, you mention that parties announce ahead of time who they won’t coalition with. Is there any accountability here other than being a campaign promise? One of the concerns I have with multi-party systems is that it makes government coalitions unpredictable. If I’m a left-leaning Brit, I might prefer Labour over Tory but LibDem over Labour, except that in the end my vote for LibDem ended up giving power to the Tories. A lot of these concerns would be relieved if I knew who my vote was going to help get the PM spot, in the event that my party doesn’t win.

    Second, where are the demographic power-bases of the primary two parties. Sort of like how in the US I can say “The Republican coalition is built on rural whites, religious conservatives, and upper-middle class whites, and the Democratic coalition is minorities, women, urban voters…” etc. What would the NZ equivalent of this be?


    • 1) Pre-election coalition announcements aren’t binding.

      2) National gets non-Maori rural voters (and probably a lot of business owners), Labour gets the unions, New Zealand First’s support base is old people. Mana, the Maori Party and United Future all have support bases built around electorates. Act, the Conservatives and the Greens go for ideological support more than a demographic per se (although Act reliably wins the Epsom electorate due to a deal with National).


      • It looks like you’re not far off. From James’ link:

        Maori Party
        FOREIGN INVESTMENT: A ban on land sales to foreigners. If land is to be sold Maori should have a right of first refusal. IMMIGRATION: Must be compatible with “Maori aspirations for economic development and employment and training opportunities”. Education for citizenship must as a priority incorporate understandings around Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

        Te Tiriti o Waitangi (The Treaty of Waitangi) is, from what I can tell, a sort of founding document, establishing British governance and protection of the Maori, with land ownership and use rights for the Maori.

        On most issues that Maori party appears to be to the left of our Democrats: focus on alternative sources of energy (including solar panels on government buildings); a living wage; prison and CJ-system reform; focus on public transportation, walking, and cycling to reduce private car use; along with a bunch of stuff on Maori specific issues.

        It looks like, from what James said, the fallout between Labour (do you pronounce superfluous u’s counter-clockwise down there?) and the Maori party has to do with a single issue related to land.


    • 1) The Maori Party is one of two indigenous parties in Parliament, Mana being the other.
      2) I would have classified the Maori Party as Centrist up until about a week ago, the only reason I count them as Right is that Labour have ruled them out. I imagine they did so because Nationla having been running campaign ads suggesting a Labour government would be a chimera of diverse parties with no clear direction.
      3) The “restrict foreign ownership” policy that identified is more typical of the Left than the Right in New Zealand. Labour and The Greens have expressed similar thoughts, while National and Act are against the idea.


    • That shocked me as well. Coming from a Canadian perspective, it’s well-nigh incomprehensible. The First Nations and the Conservatives here do not get along, and typically the more left-wing a party is, the more interested they are in listening to and engaging with First Nations groups.


      • Ten years ago it would have been a very strange idea here as well, but thanks to the Seabed and Foreshore issue and a deliberate effort at rapprochement by National, that has started to change since 2008. Maori overall still lean left, but I think the Maori party sees National as a party they can cooperate with, even if they don’t agree on everything.


  4. Could you further explain these two bits?

    1. “A Maori Electorate and a General Electorate. Which roll you are on determines which set of electorate candidates you get to vote on.”

    How is that Maori electorate structured, and can Maori who register for it not vote for non-Maori candidates, and non-Maori can’t vote for Maori candidates, or….?

    2. “the Maori electorates…won more seats than their part vote would permit”

    How did that happen?


    • 1) The difference between the Maori roll and the general roll is which electorate you are put in. There are seven Maori electorates, whose boundaries are set by The Electoral Commission in the same way the general electorates are. Strictly anyone can be a candidate for the Maori electorates, but in practice the candidates tend to be Maori.

      2) The Maori Party won 3 electorates, but their share of the party vote would only entitle them to 2 seats. This is because a lot of voters in New Zealand vote strategically, voting for different parties with the party and electorate votes.


      • The Maori Party won 3 electorates

        So non-Maori parties won the majority (or plurality) in those Maori-voter only electorates? Is that a correct statement? And if so, what does that say about Maori support for the Maori party?

        I find this very interesting, but I don’t feel I have a grasp on it yet.


      • I’m guessing this means that many voters for Maori Party candidates still primarily identify with one major party or another. So they’ll vote for the Maori Party candidate in their home district, but vote for the major party of their choice.

        Sort of the equivalent of voting for the Green Party candidate for congress but voting for a democratic president.


      • There are 7 Maori electorate, 3 were won by the Maori Party. One was won by Mana (which is also a Maori party), and 3 were won by Labour (who used to win all the Maori seats until the Maori Party came along).

        The differences are partly due to the ways different iwi (the Maori tribes) feel about how they have been treated. For example, Tainui had already reached a settlement with the Crown over their Seabed and Foreshore when that whole mess happened, so they didn’t have the same sense of grievance that other iwi did.

        Also, bear in mind that Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples (the founding leaders of the Maori Party), as well as Hone Harawhira were all Labour MPs for those same electorates. The voters were voting for the same people the whole while, they were just representing different parties.

        The important thing to remember here is that all politics is local, and that’s just as true for Maori politics.


    • On (1), it sounds like there’s basically two electoral maps. For the US, imagine if you had the current map of states plus, say, ‘s map, and you could register to vote in one but not both, with Congressional seats being otherwise apportioned as they are now.


  5. How do you like the MMP system, James? There’s been significant debate in Canada (and especially in BC) about moving to a different electoral system, due to situations like a party winning a majority with less than 40% of the vote (the federal Conservatives) and parties winning a sizeable portion of the vote but few or no seats.


    • I’m in favour of proportional systems in general because I feel that the idea of basing representation on location to be an anachronism dating back to the days when land ownership determined voting. MMP doesn’t do away with that anachronism but it attenuates it.


      • Interesting. Could you elaborate on that?

        The argument I’ve always heard is that local representation ensures that localities/communities have a specific person to represent their concerns.


      • I think I disagree, but I can’t quite articulate why. (and historically, and even in the 19th/early 20th century, the really big land barons *didn’t* live on their holdings, which made their control of central governments all the more problematic for local tenants/squatters).

        I do find it an interesting counterargument to Scottish independence (which of course is all about favoring geographic proximity over the ideologies of the conventional British leftish and rightish parties).


      • Land-based voting was a logical extension of feudalism. In feudalism land-owners were either lords or the better class of commoner. When they started introducing democracy they were expanding the rights of yeomen and the richer townsfolk, not peasants.

        Before the Industrial Revolution land was the sole source of economic and political power (how powerful you were depended on how many soldiers you could feed off your lands), and the early forms of post-Classical democracy were just an extension of the existing power structures. Seen from that perspective locality-based voting made a lot of sense, it just doesn’t make any sense now.


      • Before the Industrial Revolution land was the sole source of economic and political power

        Wow, so when for example the Venetians (granted, with help from a bunch of landholders) disassembled the Byzantine empire (1204 particularly, but hardly only then) it was because the Doge/Serenissima controlled so much land? Who knew?

        Seriously, even within the confines of Anglo Saxon political history, your thesis is severely overstated, to the point of negative value added IMHO. Did for example the Cinque Ports derive their importance and liberties from the land they controlled?


      • The standard American/British/Canadian argument for land-based first past the post voting is that it gives people in a given locality somebody in the national/central government to advocate for local concerns and issues that might otherwise not be dealt with. I don’t really buy this argument much but it does have some merit.


      • thanks for the reply. My counterargument:

        1) As a practical matter, mature democracies these days are primarily organized politically along ideological lines (i.e. the classic left-right split) than regional or local interests. (indeed, that’s one of the big oversights of the US Constitution, in that it assumed regional interests would be the prime mover of political divisions, and not the ideologically based political parties that would arise a mere 8 years after the system launch.*). The notable exceptions are the regionally based political parties, who all have (if I am not mistaken) an ethnic component. (e.g. Parti Quebecois in Canada, SNP in the UK)

        2) I appreciated your point to Katherine below, but still the overwhelming economic and social forces that act on an individual (and in which in the individual acts) are based on where one lives. Ideologically, people want good schools, but more importantly, people want good schools *where they live*. People want low crime, but more importantly, people want low crime *where they live*. Etc. The most mundane aspects of public goods (and especially quasi-public goods like utilities) are inherently tied to (as the real estate agents say) location location location.

        Political boundaries are largely accidents of history; nonetheless, people have a maximum personal interest in the area closest to where they spend the majority of their time.

        *of course, US political parties had and still have a significant regional component. But that’s part of my point to – when the regional differences got too great, and the US system was strained beyond the breaking point, it was because those differences were ideological, not say, competition over resource allocation or other particular local interests.


    • Consider all the aspects of your identity: your age, religious views, your ethnicity, your education, your job, where you live etc. Some of those aspects are more important to you than others. How high up on your personal list is where you live? The problem with the electorate system is that it privileges geographically concentrated communities of interest over geographically dispersed ones.


  6. I’m dumbly into foreign elections, and http://welections.wordpress.com/ is one of my favorite sites to check every few weeks to see how the recent parliamentary elections went in Slovenia. I never quite got why Labor lost the election in ’08 after Clark was a popular politician for so long. Was her successor really that horrible a candidate, or was it bad timing with the GFC and all?

    And as North said, National sounds like a party, that as an American social democrat I’d hate if I was from New Zealand, but that I wish the modern GOP was a lot more like.


    • Clark was still PM in 2008, she announced her resignation during her concession speech after the 2008 election.

      As to why she lost, there’s a term used to describe long-standing governments here called “3rd-term-itis”. There is a general impression that governments in their 3rd term become arrogant, rigid and out-of-touch with the voters. There were some regulatory proposals during the 3rd Labour term that were looked at as overreaching by voters and this fed into the narrative of a party that had lost its way.

      One thing that may drive this phenomenon is that there are 20 Cabinet Ministers and the ruling party inevitably has less than 60 MPs. That means the best third of their talent is occupied with the business of governing, leaving them less time to think of new ideas or meet with people outside government (they still do engage with the general public, but they can’t do as much of it). Combine that with the cognitive effect power has on people, and a political party can get “tired” if it’s in power too long.


  7. I think MMP maybe used for the Welsh Assembly, or at least I seem to recall getting two ballot papers one with a list of candidates and one with party names only.


    • I like MMP in theory. In practice, it depends on the size of the legislature relative to the population. I think districts do matter, though it’s not a case of the smaller the better, as far as that goes. If you can have constituencies with, say, a million people, represented by five legislators, that can be superior to five districts of 200,000. On the other hand, if you’re talking about five million people over a broader area, I’d want that cut up.

      This is a problem in something the size and population of the United States – and that’s discounting the fact that some of our states are destined to only have one or two reps to begin with.

      In other words, to make that fit with something the size of the US, you’d need a larger legislative body than is feasible, or you’d need districts that are too large for my comfort.

      In a country the size of James’ New Zealand, though, or your own UK, I could see myself supporting it. Likewise, I could definitely support it in most individual US states, with perhaps more legislators for some like Texas or California.

      On the other hand, I’m skeptical of multiparty systems without reliable coalitions.


      • I’m moderately fond of Germany’s (post-1945 :) system, which is similar to New Zealand’s, though without the Maori special electorates (IIRC for a couple of elections after 1989, there was a special version of the 5% threshold that applied just to the voters in the former GDR Lander), and of course Germany is moderately federal, though far less so than the US (but rather more than New Zealand, for example). Not that it will happen, but I think that system would scale adequately to the size of the US. Following James’ point to Katherine, I’d probably want something like a 2:1 ratio of closed list seats to constituency seats, with per-Land (German state) lists and a nationwide list.

        Of course, being the nerd that I am, I would rather have STV or some other non-FPP for the constituency seats (and maybe the closed list seats too – I haven’t thought it through). I’m sure Mike S. could write the software in a few minutes.

        Now is probably not the time to point out the fissiparous insanity which is the Knesset’s system (yeah, I know, the first Knesset inherited the scheme from the Mandate Jewish Agency, then after that institutional bias, but still …).


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