The National Party Comes Out Ahead: In the recent parliamentary elections, on 23 September, New Zealand’s centre-right National Party led by Bill English (born 1961) gained 44.4% of the vote and 56 parliamentary seats. This represented a loss of 3 seats compared to the results in September 2014, but left the National Party as significantly the largest party in parliament.
Bill English, a former deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister had taken over from John Key (born 1961) as Prime Minister and National Party leader in December 2016. In this election the National was seeking to win a fourth successive term in office. The National Party’s election messages emphasised Bill English’s government experience and economic competence. At the same time they, successfully called into question the credibility of the Labour Party’s economic and taxation policy. The National Party lampooned the Labour slogan ‘Let’s Do It’ as ‘Let’s Tax It.’ In organisational terms the National Party fought a strong ground campaign, consolidating its support in rural and small town areas of the country. It also crucially, polled well in southern and western areas of Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city. Nikki Kaye (born 1980), Minister for Education and Minister for Youth, held onto the Auckland Central constituency for the National Party in spite of a strong challenge from the Labour Party. The election campaign was also notable for the advances made by the National Party in gaining support amongst ethnic minority voters , a significant change compared to previous elections
Labour’s ’Jacinda Effect’ – Good But Not Good Enough?: The Labour Party led by Jacinda
Ardern (born 1980) gained 36.9% of the vote and 46 seats, an increase of 14 compared to September 2014. Jacinda Ardern had taken over as Labour Party leader from Andrew Little (born 1965) on 1 August 2017. Following jacinda Ardern’s election support for the Labour Party surged from a low of 23% to as high as 43% by the end of August. This dramatic rise in poll support for the Labour Party was referred to by the national and international media as the ‘Jacinda effect’ or Jacinda mania.’ Jacinda Ardern fought the election on a ‘change agenda’ vowing that she would be ‘relentlessly positive.’ Jacinda Ardern’s campaign rallies were increasingly enthusiastic and well attended. It appeared that the trajectory of the campaign was propelling Ardern and the Labour Party towards electoral victory. In the event, however, the ‘Jacinda effect’ proved to be more apparent than real. The Labour Party did make gains, but these tended to be restricted to constituencies in urban areas such as central Christchurch, Wellington, and Dunedin. The Labour Party also won additional votes due to the movement of supporters away from the Green Party and the Maori Party. These advances, however, were not enough to allow it to come close to surpassing the votes gained by its National Party rivals. Jacinda Ardern was re-elected in the Mount Albert constituency (Auckland) which she had won in a by-election in February of this year.
The Greens in Meltdown: The Green Party, co-led by Metiria Turei (born 1970) and James Shaw (born 1973) began its campaign well, but ended it catastrophically. The Green Party is a significant factor in Norwegian politics. In the September 2014 elections the Greens gained 10.7% of the vote and 14 parliamentary seats. At the start of the Green Party election campaign, in mid-July, Metiria Turei announced that during the 1990s she had committed benefit fraud. These revelations, and discussions of issues related to them, perhaps surprisingly, prompted a positive response amongst a section of the electorate. An opinion poll undertaken towards the end of July showed the Green Party voting increasing to 15%, largely at the expense of the Labour Party. Subsequently, however, it also emerged that Metiria Turei had, during the same period, also committed electoral fraud. This new information was received more negatively both within the Green Party and amongst the electorate. Two senior members of the Green Party, David Clendon (born 1955) and Kennedy Graham (1946) resigned in protest amidst internal party recriminations. Days later, on 9 August, Metiria Turei also stepped down from her position as the party’s co-leader. The Green Party proved unable to recover from this, largely self-inflicted, blow to their campaign. By the closing stages of the campaign it was unclear whether the Green Party would be able to clear the 5% electoral threshold and get into parliament. In the end, on polling day, the Green Party gained 5.85% of the vote and 7 parliamentary seats. After the counting of Special Votes the final Green Party total stood at 6.31% of the vote and 8 MPs. One of the new Green Party MPs was Chloe Swarbrick (born 1994), the youngest member of the new parliament. Chloe Swarbrick has dismissed suggestion that she might take the position, vacated by Metiria Turei, of new female co-leader of the party saying that it was ‘too early in her career for such a move.’
The Marginalisation of the Smaller Parties: The Green Party was one of a number of smaller parties who lost ground in an election which was increasingly dominated the National and Labour Parties. The Maori party, led by Marama Fox and Te Ururoa Flavell lost both of its 2 parliamentary seats. The Maori Party’s representation had been declining over a number of years falling from its electoral highpoint of 5 seats in 2008 to 4 in 2011, and 2 in 2014. During the 2017 general election the Maori Party seats were targeted by the Labour Party, who sought to deny the National Party a potential coalition partner. In the aftermath of the election the Maori Party faced an existential crisis and uncertain political future. The United Future party also lost its representation in parliament after its party leader and 1 MP, Peter Dunne (born 1950) stepped down during the election campaign. Peter Dunne supported National Party minority governments after the elections in 2008, 2011, and 2014. Under its new leader Damian Light (born 1984) United Future gained 0.07% of the vote falling, well, below the electoral threshold. David Seymour (born 1983) the leader of the classical liberal ACT party retained his constituency seat despite the fact that the party’s election list gained only 0.51%. The National Party urged its voters to support David Seymour in his constituency. ACT has supported National Party minority governments since 2008
New Zealand First Holds the Balance of Power: New Zealand First led by Winston Peters,
(born 1945), gained 7.51% of the vote and 9 parliamentary seats. New Zealand First has been a persistent political factor since 1993 when Winston Peters broke away from the National Party. New Zealand First combines opposition to immigration and economic nationalism with rhetorical attacks on the media and political establishment. The New Zealand First campaign did not go entirely smoothly with Winston Peters becoming involved in a protracted scandal after it was revealed that his pension had been overpaid over a period of seven years. The New Zealand First vote declined by 1.15% and 3 seats were lost in 2017 compared to the previous campaign in 2014. In spite of this the overall configuration of parties will mean that New Zealand First will be in a position to act as kingmaker in post-election negotiations.
The Hard Business of Coalition Building: Following the publication of the final election results the composition of the new government remains uncertain. Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Party have emphasised that only a minority of the electorate voted for the National Party whilst the majority had voted for parties which were advocates of ‘change.’ Such a ‘change’ government could, it was suggested, be formed from a coalition of the Labour Party, the Green Party and New Zealand First. This coalition would have 63 seats in 120 seat parliament. Such a three party coalition would, however, be complex to form and difficult to maintain. The National Party, by contrast, with the largest number of seats, would by contrast face the, relatively, simple task of forming a two party coalition with New Zealand First which would give them a 65 seat majority in parliament. With the support of ACT, the National Party’s long-standing coalition partner, the coalition could increase in number to 66 MPs. This would, however, be complicated by the policy differences existing between the protectionist New Zealand First and the free-market ACT. Some members of the National Party have expressed disquiet at the looming prospect of a coalition between the National Party and New Zealand First. They point to significant policy differences between the two parties and have suggested instead a ‘blue-green’ coalition between the National and Green Parties. The Green Party’s identification of itself as a left-wing party, and its close relationship with the Labour Party, would, however, provide potential obstacles to such a coalition arrangement. In practice the most likely new government combination remains that of a coalition deal between the National Party and New Zealand First. That National Party will secure its fourth term in government, but political and personality differences within the coalition may inject and element of instability into the activities of the new government.
The New Zealand Election System: Parliamentary elections in New Zealand are conducted
using a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system. This combines voting for MPs from constituencies (electorates) and party lists. The 120 seat parliament has 49 list MPs and 71 constituency MPs. Voters have two votes which can be cast for a constituency MP and for the party list. Candidates can stand for constituencies and on the party list at the same time. The party list has a 5% electoral threshold. The MMP tends to favour smaller parties and make it harder for larger parties to form working parliamentary majorities. Overseas votes and other categories of voters unable to vote at polling stations are designated as Special Votes. Over 380,000 Special Votes were cast in the September 2017 elections. The final election results including Special Votes were announced on 7 October.