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].
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?