New Zealand party positioning

With an election on 26 November (and most of the country currently distracted by rugby), the pre-electoral legislative business is offering a good window into how the parties are positioning themselves for the campaign.

The current government is led by the National Party, which won a plurality of seats in the 2008 election. It is supported by three smaller parties, the farther-right Act, the one-seat United Future (sort of centrist, sort of social-conservative), and the ethnic Maori Party.

Act is all about pushing National farther right, and it is because of that Act goal that National took on Maori as partners, even though it could have had a majority without Maori. Needing to avoid straying too far from the national (small-n) median, the National Party would not want to be overly dependent upon the fringe right.

Two recent press releases from Act sum up its position well. In one, the party claims credit for protecting rights and freedoms–emphasizing its libertarian side:

ACT Parliamentary Leader John Boscawen today confirmed he had negotiated from the Government major changes in the Criminal Procedure (Reform and Modernisation) Bill that would mean the continued protection of rights and freedoms that New Zealanders have held dear for generations.

“I had fundamental objections to the Bill but after successful negotiations with Justice Minister Simon Power all my objections have now been addressed,” Mr Boscawen said.

It then goes on to list a series of specific concessions it claims to have won in exchange for its support.

In another, it differentiates itself from the National party over the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). A little background is in order. This program was originally enacted late in the previous parliament, in the run-up to the 2008 election, when Labour headed a minority government. That government was backed by United Future and the New Zealand First Party of Winston Peters. ((A hard party, and leader, to characterize. Sometimes, based on media stories, I actually wonder if his name was not officially The Mercurial Winston Peters. The party has a constituency that is anti-immigrant and pro “law and order”, and disproportionately elderly. It did not make it back into parliament in 2008 and probably will not this time, either.)) At the time United Future would not support the ETS, and so the government worked out some concessions demanded by the Greens, who were not formal partners to the government. The Greens issued their own press release then, touting how they had improved the bill (from the standpoint of their constituents).

Then when National won, it immediately stayed the implementation of the ETS. It later negotiated changes with the Maori (who won the right to earn credits from planting trees on tribal lands). Act would not vote in favor of any changes to the ETS. They believe climate change is a hoax, and want the law scrapped. This week they reminded their supporters of this position.

ACT New Zealand Parliamentary Leader John Boscawen today called on the Government to drop the pretence and scrap the Emissions Trading Scheme altogether after the ETS Review Panel report recommended delaying the introduction of the energy, transport, industrial and agricultural sectors into the scheme.

“Today’s report confirms what ACT has been saying all along; the ETS is a disaster and should be scrapped. […]

“The report today does a great job of highlighting the scheme’s flaws but does little to remedy them. Instead of delaying the inevitable the Government should have the courage of its convictions and do what ACT has called for all along – scrap the ETS,” Mr Boscawen said.

Meanwhile, the National Party and the Greens have been negotiating on areas of mutual interest. That they would ever work together may seem odd, as they represent opposite ends of the political space, leaving aside Act. However, multiparty politics, especially with minority government, opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities for policy progress in specific areas of overlap.

The two parties have announced a deal on a bill to regulate natural health products. The bill passed its first reading in parliament earlier today. It was a shared policy initiative agreed between these two parties under a Memorandum of Understanding. This is something far short of a formal government-support partnership, but a process that permits the Greens to pass policy of interest to their constituency even from the opposition. As for National, presumably they saw a benefit from advancing the safety and reliability of this sector of the market and could never get Act to go along. ((Notwithstanding that its party name originally meant the Alliance of Consumers and Taxpayers, and this is a consumer safety measure. Act has a low-tax, low-regulation ideology.)) Greens have long looked for chances to show that they are not an appendage of Labour, able to work only with that party. Here is one concrete example.

The Greens have a press release about the natural health bill featured very prominently on the party web site as of today. National also has a press release on it, but rather less prominently. The statements are subtly different, with Greens emphasizing the “stand alone regulator” to deal with natural health products coming “more and more… from countries with a poor safety record” and the benefits to “small business” (presumably natural supplement retailers are part of their constituency). National emphasizes “public assurances about the safety and efficacy of natural health products” and concluding by noting the “three-year transitional period to assist the industry in adjusting to the proposed requirements”.

As to the Greens’ dealing with National, the main opposition party, Labour, has attacked the smaller left party as being “more Blue than Green“, as reported in the NZ Herald, 14 Sept. (Blue is National’s color.) The specific issue referenced is Green support for the government’s environmental protection plan for potential offshore oil and gas fields. ((The Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Bill passed its second reading with support from Maori Party, Act, United Future, as well as the Greens. The Greens have not committed yet to supporting it all the way through the legislative process, depending on its final provisions.)) Labour, with polls showing it having no realistic chance of forming the next government, is clearly trying to out flank the Greens and hold off further losses to the them. Polls show the Green Party may score a record high in the upcoming election.

Finally, going back to an old story, as the government was formed following the close 2005 election, I posed the question, “Did the NZ government agreement promise pork?” I concluded no, because the agreement did not promise to the United Future that the “Transmission Gully” road would be built to relieve traffic around leader Peter Dunne’s district. It only promised a review of the project. Well, according to two items on the National website this week (1, 2), the project is still under review. So not much pork for Dunne to claim credit for in this election–only that, six years later, we still have the government looking in to it!

The New Zealand campaign and legislative sessions afford an excellent laboratory to watch multiparty politics, policy-making, and party positioning in action!

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