New Zealand a week out

New Zealand goes to the polls in a week’s time, the day before Germany – a neat coincidence, since they have basically the same electoral system and some similar political dynamics.

Recently I suggested that Papua New Guinea could have been made an Australian state; New Zealand is an even more obvious contender, with the option being mentioned in one of the covering clauses to Australia’s constitution. It has about as many people as Queensland, and Auckland, its major city, is a bit bigger than Adelaide. In most respects, its politics follows the Australian model fairly closely.

The electoral system is the major exception: in 1993, reflecting public discontent with the “elective dictatorship” that government had become, a referendum introduced proportional representation for the country’s single house of parliament. Since then, no party has won an absolute majority, and all governments, whether formal coalitions or not, have relied on minor parties for control of parliament.

Despite the change, New Zealand remains fundamentally a two-party system. The National (centre-right) and Labour (centre-left) parties typically win about three-quarters of the vote between them, and no other party is ever a contender for more than a junior share of power. At the last election, in 2014, National came tantalisingly close to a majority in its own right, winning 47.0% of the vote and 60 of the 121 seats.

Since then, both parties have changed leaders. National prime minister John Key retired last year and was replaced by his deputy, Bill English, while Labour has changed twice: with new leader Andrew Little failing to gain traction, he stood down at the beginning of last month and was replaced by Jacinda Ardern.

The leadership change has given Labour a big boost in the opinion polls. Having languished around 30% or lower for most of the last three years, it is now polling about 40%, level with or slightly ahead of the government.

It’s hard to resist the comparison with the advent of Martin Schulz to the Social Democrat leadership in Germany earlier this year. The polls showed a sharp jump, and for a couple of months the Social Democrats were about level with the Christian Democrats. But it didn’t last; the extra support gradually fell away, and the SPD is now back to being about 15 points behind.

It may be that New Zealand Labour has been wise in making the change at the last minute, not allowing enough time for Ardern’s novelty value to wear off. Or it may be that the election will puncture her balloon. If she takes Labour to victory, she will replace Victoria’s Steve Bracks as the poster child for last-minute leadership change.

In addition to the majors, two parties cleared the 5% threshold at the last election: the Greens, with 10.7% and 14 seats, and New Zealand First, a rough counterpart of One Nation, with 8.7% and 11 seats. Another three parties, although all well below 5%, succeeded in winning an electorate seat – the Māori Party, the free-market ACT and the centrist United Future. All three agreed to support the National Party government on matters of confidence.

Unlike in Germany, even a single electorate seat entitles a party to participate in the allocation of proportional (or “list”) seats, and the Māori Party had enough votes to pick up a second seat this way. The Conservative Party, on the other hand, which with 4.0% had more votes than the other three combined, failed to win a single seat.

ACT and the Māoris may again be in the mix this time, although United Future has faded away with the retirement of its sole MP. But if Labour’s recovery is genuine, then who forms government is likely to depend on the votes of the Greens and NZ First. The Greens have evidently been hurt by the surge in support for Ardern, and are now polling dangerously close to the 5% mark, but assuming they get back there is no doubt that they will support Labour.

The wild card is NZ First, which has on different occasions backed both Labour and National in the past. In Germany, both major parties have been clear that they will not make deals with the far right party, Alternative for Germany. But there is no sign of such reticence in New Zealand, where both centre-left and centre-right are eager to court NZ First and its populist, xenophobic leader Winston Peters.

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