Strangeness of a One-Party Majority in New Zealand

Posted by Sarah John on September 26, 2014

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At the end of what had been described as the “strangest” of New Zealand election campaigns, voters in the land of the long white cloud delivered an unequivocal election result on September 20th: a majority of seats to a single party. John Key’s National Party became the first party to have the option to govern in its own right since Kiwis replaced U.S.-style plurality voting rules with the Mixed-Member Proportional Representation (MMP) electoral system in a national referendum in 1993. 

While the election campaign was largely uninspiring, the results and aftermath of this election demonstrated many of the advantages that fair representation systems have over the single winner plurality voting systems that are used to elect most legislative bodies in the United States. These advantages include ensuring that every vote matters to political outcomes and that the voices of both political minorities and majorities are represented in public office. The experience of coalition governments, produced when voters are not united behind one party, tends to have a civilizing effect on the practice of politics. Finally, the vagaries of geography – where a party’s or candidate’s supporters happen to live – do not decide a political group’s entire fortune, unlike single winner, winner-take-all systems.

It's true that the 2014 New Zealand election campaign was marred by scandal and peppered with multi-millionaires splashing cash on new political parties. Allegations that the National Party engaged in underhand smear tactics (CNN suggested they were reminiscent of the TV show House of Cards) and monitored its citizens’ internet use (Edward Snowden even weighed in) threatened to derail the party’s campaign for a third term in office.  Two well-resourced blokes pumped millions of dollars into the campaign. First, internet mogul Kim Dotcom set up his own party, despite being wanted by the FBI; Dotcom, a German citizen who could not stand for election (but could donate millions of dollars to a political party), put $3.5 million New Zealand dollars (approx. US $2.85 million) into his Internet Party. Another millionaire, Colin Craig, contributed millions to his “pet project”: the Conservative Party, which Craig intended to be a centrist party and a potential coalition partner with the National Party. 

ballot paper epsom 730 NZ ballot paper2

After this odd election campaign ended, New Zealanders funneled into the polling both last Saturday, where they met a ballot quite different to those typical in the U.S. In New Zealand’s MMP system all voters have two votes: a candidate vote and a party vote.  Each of New Zealand’s 71 geographical districts (64 general electorates and 7 Māori seats) are filled by the candidate who received the most votes on a plurality basis. The 50 party list seats are filled by a closed party list and apportioned so that the overall party composition of New Zealand’s 121-seat House of Representatives is proportional to the party vote (although to be eligible for any seats, a party has to win either 5% of the party vote or one of its nominated candidates must win a single winner district).  When a party wins a greater proportion of constituencies than its party vote would otherwise entitle it, one or two “overhang seats” are added to the House to maintain proportionality. This fun, fruit-filled video explains the process.

MMP is a form of proportional representation, of which fair representation voting systems are an American variation. It combines elements of proportional, party-centered representation and geographic, candidate-centered representation. MMP provides the benefits of proportional representation – the representation of minorities, greater voter choice, moderate and coalition governance – while maintaining the direct link between citizens in a constituency and their single local representative. Every constituent has a dedicated elected representative who represents a district and whose office constituents can approach for assistance. 

FairVote promotes an American, candidate-based variant of MMP for state legislative elections that we call Districts Plus. In Districts Plus, single-member districts are preserved. "Accountability seats" are added to the legislature to guarantee that when one party's candidates gets the most votes across the state, that party will win the most seats in the legislature. As a result, every contest in every district is meaningful in every election and the legislature is filled more proportionally to the statewide vote.

The advantages of MMP were on show in New Zealand over the weekend. The results of the election will not be official until October 4, but preliminary results show that the National Party received 48% of the party vote, beating its nearest rival – the Labour Party – by 23 points. Turnout was low by Kiwi standards, yet a stellar 77% of registered voters cast a ballot, indicating the extent to which every vote matters in MMP.

Voters were clear about what they wanted: continued National Party rule. And that’s what voters got. As is shown in Table 1, the percentage of seats won by each party last Saturday was closely proportional to its party vote. The National Party’s party vote, supported by its performance in the constituencies, was enough to win a majority (61) of seats in the 121 member parliament. This demonstrates that proportional systems are not synonymous with multi-party government in which parties make tradeoffs to form coalition governments that reflect a majority of voters. When one party is truly popular, proportional representations systems can allow for one-party majorities– even if multiple parties contest, and win, seats in the legislature.

Even though National likely will end up with an absolute majority  in seats, prime minister Key has pledged to govern in coalition, most likely with the ACT, United Future and/or Māori parties, all of which were the National Party’s coalition partners from 2011-2014.  Time will tell whether Key delivers on his coalition government promise.  Nonetheless, his public appeal to the virtues of governing by coalition indicates that a more consensual political culture has developed during 20 years of MMP and, further, that MMP may be providing stability and functionality in government by providing continuity across legislative terms.

 

Table 1: Summary of Preliminary Result, New Zealand Election, 20 September 2014
 

% of Party Vote

Seats

Percentage of Seats

National

48.06

61

50.4

Labour

24.69

32

26.4

Green

10.02

13

10.7

NZ First

8.85

11

9.1

Māori

1.29

2

1.7

ACT

0.69

1

0.8

United Future

0.22

1

0.8

Others

6.19

0

0.0

total

100.00

121

100.0

 

Some parties contesting the New Zealand election had concentrated support in a few areas; other parties has dispersed support. In MMP, neither type of support is favored; in single-member plurality, the geographic spread of support is determinative of election results.

The Labour Party is a party whose support is increasingly concentrated in a few large urban areas. The party’s leader could not match Key’s charisma and the Labour Party’s party vote declined again in 2014:  from 34.0% in 2008 to 27.5% in 2011, it ducked down to 24.7% in 2014. David Cunliffe, the party’s leader, was in many ways like a 1990's model Volvo: widely recognized to be responsible and reliable, but ultimately not particularly appealing. Opinion polls consistently showed New Zealanders preferred Key to Cunliffe by at least 3:1.

Yet core voting demographics – the working-class in urban areas – remained loyal to the Labour Party. Labour gained district seats in 2014 (Table 2): winning three seats from the Maori Party and one seat from the otherwise ascendant National Party.  Only five of its total seats came from the Labour Party's list, indicating concentrated support in core demographics. MMP was able to balance Labour’s intense in some areas against is lesser appeal nationally to ensure fair representation — rather than under- or over-representation — of Labour voters.

The National Party on the other hand, had a more balanced set of seats (41 district and 20 list seats), indicating greater and more even support across the country, for which they were duly rewarded. Voters for minor parties like the left-leaning Green Party and the right-leaning NZ First, who tend to be found in moderate numbers and dispersed across the country, also receive representation entirely due to the party list seats. Although their support was never intense or concentrated enough to win a single-member district, the Green and NZ First parties picked up 13 and 11 party list seats respectively, roughly proportional to their nationwide support.

Overall, few voters’ votes were wasted and representation was not held hostage to the idiosyncrasies of geography and population as it would be in a system based only on single-member districts. These feature is a key selling point of MMP variants over the single-winner plurality systems so often used in the U.S.

 

Table 2: District and List Seats Won, New Zealand Election, 2011 and 2014

Party

Districts won

List Seats

2011

2014

change

2011

2014

change

National

42

41

-1

17

20

3

Labour

22

27

5

12

5

-7

Green

0

0

0

14

13

-1

NZ First

0

0

0

8

11

3

Māori

3

1

-2

0

1

1

ACT

1

1

0

0

0

0

United Future

1

1

0

0

0

0

Mana

1

0

-1

0

0

0

Others

0

0

0

0

0

0

total

70

71

 

51

50

 

 

Interestingly, New Zealand voters proved to be quite impervious to the new, lavishly financed Internet and Conservative party organizations, casting them off more emphatically than Gandalf exorcised Saruman from the ailing body of King Theoden. Neither party won a seat. The failure of the Internet and Conservative parties demonstrates that, while MMP and other proportional systems create opportunities for new political parties to challenge to status quo, parties cannot succeed in winning seats without significant public support.

With their strong support (and lack of serious competitors), the National Party has achieved a majority in a proportional system. They had come close in 2011, with 58 of 121 seats, but the relatively buoyant economy, a contented citizenry and a fair electoral system that rewards majority opinion where is exists assisted the National Party to a third term in office. Unlike in much of the West, New Zealand’s recession was slight, mitigated by a growing dairy industry (exporting dairy product to Asia, which has only recently taken to cow’s milk) and the construction boom in Christchurch, after it was levelled by endless earthquakes in 2010-2011. Local political scientist Dr. Bryce Edwards, summarized thusly: "all of the scandals, all of the colorful and bizarre campaign antics, were not what was important. The economy was the main election issue." Key himself hit on the same note when, in the afterglow of victory, he suggested that "[p]eople could see the country was headed in the right direction and they rewarded us." 

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