Epsom and MMP

If New Zealand voters vote to keep their current MMP system in the referendum on 26 November, there will be a review of whether MMP needs “improvement”. ((Some details and links on the referendum may be found by following the first link in this entry. The question of a review was discussed here previously.))

One of the aspects of the current system up for review would be the threshold for earning party-list seats. Currently it is set at 5% of the party-list vote or one district (electorate) seat won. The case of the Epsom district, in Auckland, shows the strange ways that the one-district clause of the threshold can work. The quotes that follow are from TVNZ.

A drive around the Epsom electorate is a study in campaign strategy. Here, the machinations of the country’s best political minds are painted in vivid colour.

The seat is being targeted by the right-wing Act party, which has won it before, including in 2008. Winning Epsom is the party’s only realistic hope of remaining in parliament, as it is polling well below 5% of the party-list vote. The incumbent in Epsom is Rodney Hide, who was party leader, until he was dethroned and replaced by a former leader of the governing National Party, Don Brash.

The Act candidate in Epsom in this election is John Banks, formerly mayor of Auckland. ((Yet another case of the “looking for locals” principle!)) Brash has the first position on the Act list, meaning he is likely to win a seat if Banks wins Epsom.

Although National is polling very well in this campaign, and may even win a majority on its own, its prospects for forming a stable center-right majority, should it fall below 50%, are greatly improved if there are some Act members sitting in parliament. Hence the campaign strategies, some of which otherwise would be rather strange.

National’s Paul Goldsmith devoutly – some might say cynically, cleverly or bizarrely – refused to seek the electorate vote [in a recent TV NZ appearance]. Can you remember the last time a political candidate appeared on national television asking people not to vote for him? National’s strategy is to gracefully allow Act, again, to win the most National-supporting seat in the country. The problem is that the party’s own people are rebelling, saying they want to vote their true beliefs, not strategically vote for a party that’s turned into a circus. The protest has been swelling all year, but National reasonably enough sees a coalition partner as more important than a few pissed off posh folk. And they’re gambling that the loyalists of the Northern Slopes will bend to the party’s will come election day.

The billboards in the constituency offer insights into party strategy.

National’s billboards don’t feature Paul Goldsmith. If there’s a picture of the National candidate up in Epsom, it’s well hidden. All the signs feature John Key and some slogans. Goldsmith, you see, doesn’t want to win. He’s saying, ‘don’t vote for me, vote for John Key’. So the Nats are pushing the party.

On the other hand, regarding the billboards for Banks, the Act candidate:

His name covers the signs, with the ACT logo in ant scrawl at the bottom. Given that Banks is standing not so much for Act as for a National party coalition partner, it’s sort of appropriate. But it’s clear they’re focusing not on policy or personality, but on profile. ‘Vote for the former Tory Auckland mayor that you’ve known for years’, is the simple subtext.

As for the other main parties:

Most of Labour’s signs use text with promises not to sell states assets and the like; not so much with the photos. And don’t mention the leader [Phil Goff, who is unpopular].

On Greens:

Their brand is collective. Given the success of their billboards in 2008, they’ve again gone for striking images of children and landscapes, implying that a vote for the Greens is a vote for both nature and your kids… The Green Party billboards ask you to vote for a “richer New Zealand”. Now, it’s pretty clear that the party is using the word “rich” in the broadest sense. But it’s also a word that speaks of troubled times and an ambition for prosperity. Put simply, it’s not a word voters would usually associate with the Greens – which is exactly why they’re using it. The Greens are trying to expand their vote in to the suburbs and across to the centre-right of the political spectrum. The subtext: ‘We might love nature, but we’re not just hippies. We want to make money too, just like you’.

So the billboards in Epsom give some key insights into the strategies of each of these four parties. Because it is a safe district for the right, it is obvious that Labour and Greens would campaign here only for the list vote. This is exactly the sort of district that would be ignored under FPTP, as National would be unchallenged. However, given MMP, Labour and Greens can still benefit from list votes cast by the district’s residents.

However, it is the threshold of one district win for earning party-list seats (as an alternative to clearing 5% of the party-list vote) that has made the district competitive within the right. And led to the odd spectacle of National’s candidate also placing de-facto emphasis on the party vote, given that his party may need Act to have won the district for the sake of coalition formation.

If MMP is retained–as currently looks likely–I wonder if the one-district threshold would be abolished (or increased perhaps to two seats) to remove spectacles like this. Or will the vested interests of a governing party in having its partner win via this route make that impossible?

16 thoughts on “Epsom and MMP

  1. MMP in Germany has the same feature, and Adenauer exploited it in much the same way to keep a few small right wing parties that the CDU needed as coalition partners around for awhile, until the CDU could swallow them.

  2. It’s a pity the signs will be taken down before MSS gets to Auckland. Epsom is the electorate next to mine (I’m on the ‘Southern Slopes’ of One Tree Hill), although I rarely drive through it.
    Local body politics could play a role. The new left-wing Mayor of the new-united Auckland City has just announced a rates (property tax) policy that results in increases in Epsom, while there are decreases in poorer (and left-voting) areas.
    I’m sure that the one-district threshold (as well as the 5% threshold) will be a major topic of discussion in the review. What changes are actually made are another matter.
    The current National Party leadership has taken a long-term approach to dealing with other parties (making deals with Maori and Greens, for instance), so even if they can govern alone, expect agreements with others.

  3. No election advertising is allowed on Election Day, so they will come down on Friday the 25th.
    I’ll consult a map, and take some comparison photos (my ‘normal’ electorate vs Epsom) in the weekend.

  4. Note that ACT are not standing candidates in a couple of marginal (National vs Labour) seats. What
    this report doesn’t mention is that Andrew Little is expected to be a contender for Labour leadership in the near future.

  5. The Royal Commission Report back in 1986 looked at this whole business, and recommended a 4% threshold with no loopholes. Simple and fair. No “satellite parties” which are really captives of their big friend (what leverage does ACT have when their very presence in Parliament is due to National’s blatant sponsorship?) In Germany the three-seat exemption may have made some sense when they wanted to keep parties alive that had enough democratic good faith to attract regional strength, while throwing out neo-nazis by means of a high threshold. New Zealand has no neo-nazis, nor even any provinces.

  6. The Royal Commission suggested a loophole for ‘Maori parties’, without attempting the significant issue of defining them. The existence of the Maori Seats effectively creates a ‘province’ (although they have generated overhangs to date rather than adding List members.)
    The world and country have moved on since 1986, Maori are arguably over-represented in Parliment.

  7. Indeed. Was NZ First a “Maori party” when Winston Peters was leading it? What about Labour when it held all the Maori electoral districts? Is it necessary and/or sufficient to have a party name in Maori? Germany has, or had, a similar waiver of the 5% threshold for parties representing linguistic or ethnic minorities – I believe the Danish-speakers in Schleswig-Holstein won a seat or two that way.

  8. Wasn’t the original purpose of the reserved seat to artifically reduce the potential representation of Maori (at least relative to their proportion of the population of NZ at the time?)

  9. Not the original purpose – when land ownership was a criterion for voting rights, very few Maori owned land as individuals, and the Maori Seats helped address this issue. It was of course expected that the ‘right’ sort of Maori would hold the seats, but it was better than simple tokenism. Given that they exist, the current arrangement is reasonable.

  10. I think the Maori register, which I understand is voluntary, is a reasonable and effective piece of affirmative action that could be used profitably in other context where you have two antagonistic communities sharing the same space.

    That said, I’m not crazy about the concept, but the effect on the NZ Parliament is too small for the non-Maoris to take the lead to abolish the seats. When the Maoris want to get rid of the seats, they should go away. Maori voters might have more influence as a voting block in “normal” electorates to be courted.

    I take this attitude to other historical electoral anomalies. In many instances their effect is small or they have been worked around and getting rid of them districts from more important issues (constitutional monarchies, the House of Lords, underpopulated Canadian ridings in the Atlantic provinces and the Artic). In other instances they do severe and systematic damage (alot of examples in the US I could mention).

  11. Membership of the Maori Roll has only been voluntary since 1976, and the number of seats has only floated in proportion to General Seats since 1993! The two Rolls are treated as one for List Seats.

  12. Reading up on this a bit, there’s a good research paper from the NZ House of Reps on the “Origins of the MAori Seats. They are an interesting phenomenon: for one, they didn’t have property qualifications attached at the outset, as Erroll points out, which actually made them somewhat more “democratic” than the general seats at the time.

    For another, reforms like the secret ballot and same election day for all elections were not implemented in Maori seats for many years after they were introduced. So until the 1930s voting in the Maori electorates was declarative (i.e., you told the polling officer who you wanted to vote for), and was sometimes held many weeks after the general election. Maori voters were not required to register by law as general voters either, and there was apparently no regular review of electoral boundaries as for general seats.

    Errol raisies the point about the Maori roll being racially determined until the 70s-only part-Maori could choose between the Maori and general roll. The number of Maori seats was fixed at four until the 1990s, I believe-a longstanding demand of Maori politicians since the first creation of the reserved seats had been to increase this number, both to make the reserved seats more proportional to the population but also to reduce the huge size of the districts.

    The final and apparently most sensitive point with respect to the Maori electorates is that they are still technically considered a temporary provision under New Zealand law-while the provisions for the general seats are “entrenched”, in that there needs to be a special procedure to amend the laws governing their existence.

  13. How about a 5 seat or 5% nationwide vote as two thresholds?

    That would mean that a party that wins 5 districts would be able to qualify, even if it didn’t make the 5% nationwide threshold (as a matter of fact, I’d see most small parties talking to ideologically-minded major parties to reach an agreement, having the smaller parties’ candidates run with the support of a major party in a safe district and the major parties’ candidates run with the support of a small party in a swing district)

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