Vexing vexillological questions

New Zealand will go ahead with a referendum on its flag. In fact, two referenda, following a similar process to the electoral-system referenda that the country has held in 1992-93 and again in 2011: an initial selection from several choices, followed by a later binary choice between the status quo and the proposed change.* Both would be held in 2016. From ABC:

The first, at the end of next year, would ask the public to choose a preferred design from those selected by a panel of notable New Zealanders.

The second referendum would pit the winning new design against the current flag in 2016.

Stuff NZ has an image of one possible alternative, which retains the Southern Cross in addition to a fern. Another that is a silver fern on black has been widely discussed.**

The political parties will recommend members of “a cross-party panel”, and public consultations will follow, to select the options to be put to voters.

Questions for readers: Aside from the obvious (and, by all accounts, wildly successful) Canadian case, are there other democratic countries that have undertaken a major flag re-design?

There are, of course, numerous cases of authoritarian governments that have changed their country’s flag unilaterally. And, new democratic states have needed to adopt a flag (India, Israel, etc.). But ongoing democracies do not change their flags often. I can’t think of another case aside from Canada, but maybe someone else can.

An aside: is there any notable debate about the flag in Australia? Or other long-term democracies that anyone can report?

* But apparently without the first referendum having a simple “keep or change” option in addition to a set of “change” possibilities. In the 2011 electoral-system referendum, the “keep MMP” option passed, rendering the choice among alternatives moot. Thus the second-stage referendum was not held, unlike 1992-93.

** Which, to me, looks too much like the national rugby team’s banner. Or that of ISIS.

New Zealand 2014 election result

Preliminary results from the 20 September general election show the National Party has won 61 seats out of 121. Thus, by one seat, it has a majority in its own. Despite having a majority, it is likely to continue to govern with confidence-and-supply agreements with the same partners it has had for its previous two terms: ACT, United Future, and Maori Party. National will want to retain good working relationships with other parties, given that a majority is not likely to be a common occurrence under Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP); indeed, it is the first majority since the system was put in place in 1996. Moreover, with just one seat over the 50% mark, trying to govern alone could be precarious.*




final results

    show the National Party has just 60 out of 121 seats, or 49.59% of seats on 47.04% of the party-list vote. The Green Party picked up a seat in exchange. No electorates changed hands, although wherever I mention specific vote totals or differentials, they could be slightly different in the final count. I will leave the rest of this post unchanged.]

It must be noted that this majority is manufactured by the electoral system. That might seem like something that “should not” happen under MMP with nationwide proportionality. But two points. First, National is very close to 50%, currently on 48.06%. Partly the reason “fully” PR systems rarely manufacture majorities is that such high vote shares are fairly unusual. Second, New Zealand’s proportionality is limited by the 5% threshold, and with one party, the Conservatives, having obtained 4.12%, there are some wasted votes. Just excluding this party’s votes, National has 49.93% of the remainder. At this moment, I suspect Prime Minister John Key and his party are very pleased with themselves for not having adopted the Electoral Commission’s recommendation to reduce the threshold to 4%. With a lowered threshold, the Conservatives likely would have won five seats (perhaps more, as they might have picked up more support had it been apparent that a vote for them was not wasted), and National would have had 2-3 fewer.

One of the other notable features of the outcome is that the Maori Party won a list seat for the first time. It was a bad result for them overall, as they won only one electorate (district) seat. In the past, the party had won 4 (2005), 5 (2008), and 3 (2011) seats, all of them electorates. This time, they easily retained the one but were not close in any other. Their 1.29% of the list vote was just enough to qualify for a second seat under the alternative threshold (what New Zealanders call coat-tailing, although I would prefer a different term).

It was a quite bad result for Labour (24.7%, 32 seats) and a disappointing one for the Greens (10%, 13 seats, a loss of one from their current high at the 2011 election). It was a very good result for New Zealand First, with 8.9% and 11 MPs.

The Internet MANA alliance failed to win a seat, probably because the anticipated backlash did indeed occur. Voters in the one supposedly safe MANA electorate heavily voted strategically to keep the MANA leader out, thereby also obviating any chance that Kim Dotcom’s lavish spending would put some Internet Party MPs in office due to the alliance. (And to think, some folks still insist that MMP is too complex for voters to figure out; this case seems to suggest such a view is quite wrong!)

A glance at MANA leader Hone Harawira’s electorate of Te Tai Tokerau, one of the Maori special seats, makes the strategic voting quite apparent. The winner was Labour candidate Kelvin Davis, who received almost two thousand more votes than the Labour list received from the electorate’s voters. Normally, I might just attribute that to the Green list voters, who numbered 1,821. However, many Green voters might actually have wanted Harawira to make it in, because Internet MANA was another potential block of left-leaning votes in parliament. New Zealand First (2,805 list votes) and National (1,659)–neither of which contests Maori electorates–certainly will want to claim credit for defeating Harawira (and Dotcom). We will have a better idea when the Electoral Commission releases its split-voting analysis. (Also of note: The Green Party contested four of the seven Maori electorates; this was one of those in which they did not enter a candidate.)

In a comment at an earlier post, Manuel offers an interesting further observation on Internet MANA:

Incidentally, of 30,363 votes polled by Internet and Mana electorate candidates – as it has been pointed out here before, the two parties ran separately in the electorates (although never against each other) – 26,521 were for eighteen Mana candidates, and the remaining 3,842 votes for the fifteen Internet Party candidates, including 1,057 for party leader Laila Harré in Hellensville (where her poor fourth-place finish with 3.6% of the vote was by far the party’s best showing).

Harawira seems to have made a pretty serious miscalculation in forging his alliance with Dotcom.

I will now offer a few semi-random observations on specific electorates and smaller parties. Continue reading

Small party electoral strategy

The strategy of parties, especially smaller ones, in multiparty systems is a particular interest of mine (a statement that will surprise no one). Here are a few interesting examples from the current New Zealand campaign.

One area of interest is about… interests. What interest groups do small parties cultivate for support?

Greens want to spend millions backing NZ game developers” was a headline on TV NZ on 12 September. Green Party Co-leader Dr Russel Norman says, “Game developers are currently locked out of the government support and grants that other creatives receive. Our plan remedies this anomaly”. Computer game developers are not an interest group I normally think about, but the Green Party has acknowledged them.

Photo credit: Errol Cavit, in Maungakiekie electorate. Used by permission. I am not there this year, so I rely on Errol for my election-sign photos. But you can still see my collection from 2011!

OK, so what about the racehorse industry? Check. Winston Peters recently reminded voters of “a 10-point plan from New Zealand First to save the racing industry”. In fact, earlier in the campaign, he gave a speech to the New Zealand Trainers’ Association. In the speech he claimed credit for past good deeds when he was Racing Minister in a Labour-led government:

In 2006, New Zealand First recognised the export potential of the New Zealand breeding industry and the need for improved international marketing, and achieved a much improved taxation regime through a reduction in totalisator duty and an accelerated write-down regime for bloodstock.

Peters added an allegation that “Over the past six years National has done nothing for the racing industry.”

Returning to the Greens, of course, the party is mostly an urban-based party. However, one of the characteristics of nationwide proportional representation is that votes anywhere help increase your aggregate seat total. And so the Greens’ co-leader Norman and their transport spokesperson, Julie Anne Genter, campaigned in the rural far north on their plans to make rebuilding storm-battered roads a priority. “Ms Genter said central government’s roading priorities meant there was not enough investment outside big cities.”

Additionally, Greens did a photo-op* at a dairy farm to announce their “Smart farming for clean rivers’ policy”. I suspect that one, unlike the one regarding roads in Northland, was mainly aimed at urban consumers. But the party does seek (and, apparently, receive) votes from the small-farm sector, especially organic and “sustainable” farms. Not to be outdone in this policy niche, a big party, National, has emphasized that its primary industries policy takes into account that:

Environmental sustainability is increasingly important to consumers around the world and this is a priority for National. We are cleaning up waterways and carefully manage fishing stocks, including the creation of two recreational fishing parks in the Hauraki Gulf and Marlborough Sounds.

National’s primary industries spokesman Nathan Guy also noted that “We will continue to support carefully-targeted irrigation projects that will deliver economic and environmental benefits for New Zealand.”

I must admit that I am happy New Zealand’s legislative term is just three years, and that it has a thriving multiparty system. These characteristics of NZ politics keep things interesting!

* The linked item has the photo and caption, but the story is about “Greens need to compromise to get ahead”. This is something that some of their subsequent statements indicate they are well aware of.

New Zealand general election 2014

This Saturday is the general election in New Zealand. There seems to be little doubt that National Party Prime Minister John Key will remain in office. However, there is considerable question about what the shape of the post-electoral deals will look like. A New Zealand Herald article goes over the possibilities (some of which may be remote).

The current government was formed from agreements signed by Key following the 2011 election with the Act, United Future, and Maori parties. The latter party is likely to be much diminished, and there has been considerable speculation that Key may need to turn to the New Zealand First Party to make a deal.

Photo credit: Errol Cavit, in Maungakiekie electorate. Used by permission. I am not there this year, so I rely on Errol for my election-sign photos. But you can still see my collection from 2011!

In fact, NZF leader Winston Peters has suggested in recent days that “the media seem to have overlooked one option entirely, a Labour-New Zealand First combination on coalition or confidence and supply.” Anyone who has followed New Zealand politics since about 1996 knows that Peters likes to make himself indispensable, but not pre-committed, to either side. So here he goes again. In the same statement, Peters said voters should be “disabused of the notion” that NZF would allow the Green Party to “promote extremist policies” in a Labour-led government. This statement, too, has echoes of the past. In 2005 his bargaining position was strong enough to prevent Green entry into the cabinet, despite Greens and Labour having campaigned as each other’s preferred partners.*

Among the things to watch in this election (in addition to Internet Mana, discussed here previously) is whether the Conservative Party makes it in. Key had earlier announced that the National Party would not give a free ride to the Conservative leader, Colin Craig, in his electorate as it is doing in Epsom (for Act) and Ohariu (for United Future). Craig will have to make it on his own, by having his party clear 5%.** In late July a New Zealand Herald editorial suggested:

This will be a good election for small parties. Whenever one of the main parties is polling as low as Labour has been this time, some of its supporters give their votes to other parties in the hope of having more influence on the government. Winston Peters will be trying to harvest those dislocated Labour votes and he has complained that the Conservatives are copying his positions on many issues.

It also notes that Key may have calculated, “probably correctly”, that to make a pre-election commitment to help Craig and his (socially) Conservative Party would cost National more votes from the public than his seats would be worth. But if he makes it in anyway, there’s another force on the right to bargain with. This analysis may prove correct, and as the earlier-linked item on government possibilities noted, Craig would not demand a lot for support.

There is much more to be said about the likely performance of various parties in this election, and what the post-election bargaining might look like. So I will step aside for now and let readers say it…

* The linked news item does contain an error in its recounting of the 2005 precedent, however. It says, “In 2005, Helen Clark led a minority government with the support of NZ First, United Future, and the Greens on confidence and supply.” Actually, Greens did not sign a confidence and supply agreement following the 2005 election, settling for a much weaker “cooperation agreement”.

** In New Zealand’s MMP system, a party needs 5% of the party-list vote or one district (electorate) win. If it attains an electorate, it qualifies for more seats from its list if its list vote would be sufficient for 2 or more seats (thereby waiving the 5% threshold).

Piggyback MPs, part 2

With apologies to New Zealanders’ somewhat complicated memory of Robert Muldoon, I am sticking to my “piggyback MPs” as a preferred term for members elected under MMP via an alternative threshold to the one based on party-list votes.

Here I want to address briefly the question of whether allowing an alternative threshold, by which a party qualifies for list seats through the winning of one (or more) district seats, is itself a problem in electoral-system design. I have been wanting to address this issue for some time, and some of my thoughts are anticipated by a comment left by Rob at the previous thread.

Up front, let me state that I see no problem with the principle of an alternative threshold. If mixed-member proportional systems are to have a chance of delivering on the “best of both worlds” promise, then one really should allow both worlds to coexist simultaneously. One of those worlds is one in which local concentrations of support for particular parties or candidates are able to attain representation. The other world is one in which only nationwide levels of support for particular parties are worthy of representation. Any one of us might prefer one conception of representation over the other, but MMP is explicitly designed to promote both.

Now, one might respond that one need not have the alternative threshold in oder to obtain both of these worlds. Parties could still exist to target one or a few district seats, and earn their representation that way, without being entitled to any list seats.* I concede that this is a perfectly valid argument, and it seems to be the position taken by the New Zealand Electoral Commission in its MMP Review. That is fine; they have thought much more about these issues, and the needs of New Zealand society, than I ever can do.

However, I think it is a perfectly valid “best of both worlds” provision to say that we want to give incentives to smaller parties to attract support outside their district-based strongholds, while still being able to win representation based on their regional concentration. A very small party may have supporters around the country, but be concentrated in one area. Voters outside the areas of strength have little reason to vote for the list of such a party if it won’t win seats; by the same token, voters in a single district where the party has local strength may have little reason to vote for the party if it lacks any chance to win further seats via list votes obtained elsewhere. (If one seat is expected to affect the balance of power, the second consideration vanishes, of course.)

It seems to me that the decision whether to abolish the alternative threshold should be made not on the basis of disliking particular parties that take advantage of it. (Search on “Key cup of tea” if you are unfamiliar with the debate.) Rather, it should be taken after considering what minimal size of party is considered optimal in a given country’s proportional system. (One can never squeeze out all one-seat parties, as they are at least a latent possibility in any system that has single-seat districts, including mixed-member PR, but one can eliminated the opportunity for such parties to exist to seek additional seats via the list.)

What is the optimal minimum size for parties that win more than just a given district (or two or more), but also win list seats? Continue reading

Piggyback MPs

[Update: I am adding this to the Germany block, due to a discussion that has arisen in the comments.]

Under New Zealand’s variant of Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP), there are two alternative thresholds for receiving party-list seats. Either a party must obtain over 5% of the party-list vote, or else it must win a single district (electorate) and sufficient party-list votes to elect two or more MPs in total (even if its list vote is under 5%).

The latter path towards winning proportional representation seats is referred to in New Zealand as “coat-tailing”. I suppose New Zealanders can call it whatever they want, as long as it is clear to them, given that it’s their electoral system and a problem pretty much unique to them. But I don’t like the term. I understand coat tails as support on one vote (e.g. for congress) that is enhanced by having a popular candidate for another (e.g. president). But that is not what we see in New Zealand. We are talking about an alternative threshold for representation in a single institution, not voting across institutions. Moreover, a case of high coattails normally would mean reduced ticket-splitting. By contrast, in New Zealand, what seems to trouble many commentators (including the Electoral Commission in its MMP Review) is precisely incentives to ticket-split, not by abandoning a small party on the electorate vote (which might be the “normal” type of split-ticket voting under MMP), but in favor of a small party in the electorate vote. For example: National-favoring voters in Epsom voting for the local Act candidate, who had a chance at winning the electorate (and did indeed win it), but giving their list vote to National. The objection is that these voters seem to have more weight by virtue of living in a district that is so safe for one party that a small partner party can win it. But that’s not coattails, as usually understood.

In any case, this was not meant to be just a screed over terminology (though who doesn’t love such screeds?). I wanted to note that a new party in New Zealand, the Internet Party, can win seats only through this provision, whatever we might call it. The IP (good acronym for them!) has formed an alliance with the Mana Party, whose leader, Hone Harawira, has a safe Maori electorate (Te Tai Tokerau).* If Internet Mana were to win enough list votes for two seats, but elect only the one Mana candidate, then the IP would get a candidate via the list (its leader holds the number one slot on the joint list), even without coming near 5% of the list vote. In fact, about 1.3% of the vote would be sufficient.**

Yet the IP actually is against the so-called coat-tailing!

There seems to be a flaw in the process, and it is not necessarily the provision for the alternative threshold. It is in how alliances are allowed to take advantage:

In the Internet Party’s case it could potentially create a public backlash as its alliance with Mana expires just six weeks after the election.

Yes, that would seem backlash-worthy.

As for what to call this type of entry into parliament, I offer a suggestion in the title of this post.

* In this electorate, Labour has done something clever: nominate its local candidate, Kelvin Davis, to a rather low list position. “His ranking of 18 would blunt a Mana tactic of asking people to vote for Mr Harawira because Mr Davis had a safe list spot and would be an MP anyway.

** A potential fly in the ointment is that Mana might elect two electorate MPs, in which case IP is out of luck, unless the list vote goes considerably higher. In fact, if you are a Maori voter in the one non-safe but within-reach electorate for Mana, and you do not happen to like the alliance with IP, your strategy is clear: vote for the Mana candidate, and you get to help block the IP.