How Kiwis Make Minority Government Work


New Zealand voters are expected to give Prime Minister John Key’s National Party a second term in government this Saturday, quite probably with a majority in their own right. While majority governments are the norm in Australia, this will be an unusual result under an electoral system that makes majority governments almost impossible.

Since 1996, the New Zealand Parliament has been elected by the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system. The country is divided into 63 "general" electorates and seven Maori electorates, each electing a single MP using first past the post voting. In addition, all voters cast a vote for their preferred party, and an additional 50 list seats "top up" each party’s seat numbers to give an overall proportional result. A party needs to win at least 5 per cent of the party vote or at least one electorate to be entitled to receive list seats.

MMP was introduced after a decade in which Labour and then the Nationals proceeded to rapidly change New Zealand’s economy according to a strict economic rationalist agenda that was opposed by most New Zealanders. They threw out Labour in 1990 in reaction to these policies, which were then continued by the new National government. New Zealanders responded by overwhelmingly voting for change in 1992.

Under MMP, every election has resulted in a hung parliament and a minority or coalition government. The conservative National Party maintained power after the 1996 election by forming alliances with smaller parties, and Labour did the same to form government after the 1999, 2002 and 2005 elections.

In 2008, John Key’s Nationals won 53 seats out of 122; the largest number won by a single party under MMP, but still needed to form alliances with smaller parties to form government. To achieve a majority, Key’s Nationals formed alliances with the right-wing ACT party, the centre-left Maori Party and centrist Peter Dunne, the sole MP for the United Future party. These party’s leaders took ministries and collectively formed a solid majority in the Parliament.

Since 2008, the National government has performed strongly, and within months the National Party was polling a majority of the vote in its own right. The opposition Labour Party has faced all of the issues that most first-term oppositions do, with an uninspiring leader failing to capture the nation’s imagination.

Things haven’t gone so well for the National’s coalition partners. The Maori Party and ACT both hold seats in Parliament due to their winning at least one electorate, as neither party managed to reach the 5 per cent threshold in 2008.

The right-wing ACT party’s leader Rodney Hide holds the Auckland seat of Epsom, largely thanks to their National Party allies running a low profile campaign in the seat. In 2008 Hide’s victory swept in an extra four ACT MPs on the party list, with a vote of 3.7 per cent. In contrast, New Zealand First, led by outgoing Foreign Minister Winston Peters, was knocked out of parliament with a vote of 4.1 per cent. In 2008, the Maori Party won five of the seven Maori seats, despite only polling enough party votes to win three seats.

The Maori Party’s alliance with the Nationals hasn’t always been smooth sailing. In early 2011, Maori Party MP Hone Harawira was expelled from the party, partly due to ongoing criticism of the party’s relationship with the conservative government. He later formed the left-wing Mana Party and was re-elected in his seat at a by-election in mid-2011, fighting off competition from Labour and his former Maori Party.

ACT has likewise been rocked by conflict this year. The party’s leader Rodney Hide was replaced in a party coup in 2011 by Don Brash, the former Governor of the Reserve Bank, who had led the National Party into the 2005 election and came close to winning power. The entire current ACT caucus has been dispatched, with a new group of candidates introduced to votes. Former Auckland mayor John Banks is attempting to retain Hide’s seat of Epsom, which will be essential if the party is to survive in Parliament.

Polls suggest that ACT will struggle to win Epsom and stay in parliament, and even if they do they will likely lose two to three of their current seats. John Key met with ACT Epsom candidate John Banks recently to send a signal to National voters that they should vote for ACT to give the Nationals a possible ally in the new parliament. The stunt didn’t go so well after a cameraman’s sound equipment was accidentally left recording Banks and Key’s conversation after media left the café. The tapes haven’t been released publicly, but there has been speculation that the two discussed replacing ACT’s new leader after the election, and made disparaging remarks about elderly voters who support New Zealand First.

The Maori Party has also dropped in the polls and may be in danger of losing some of their current seats to Labour. Hone Harawira’s Mana Party will rely on him winning a tough race in his electorate, and even if Harawira wins, the party may not win enough votes to bring in a second MP on the party list.

The only minor party doing well in this election is the Greens. The Greens polled 6.7 per cent in 2008, winning nine seats — equalling their best ever result. Most recent polls have the Greens at 12-13 per cent, which would give them 15-16 seats in Parliament, easily the largest minor party contingent in the Parliament, and the only minor party polling over 5 per cent.

The other point of interest in Saturday’s election comes from a referendum on the voting system. The new National government implemented a campaign promise to hold another referendum on New Zealanders’ preferred electoral system, modelled on the 1992 and 1993 referendums that resulted in the electoral system changing. Recent polls suggest New Zealanders will vote to keep their current system.

Despite fear-mongering about the dangers of instability caused by hung parliaments and minority governments, New Zealand politics has been remarkably stable through 15 years of proportional representation. Three years of National rule was followed by nine years of Labour and three more of National. While none of them won a majority of seats, each parliament has run full-term and governments haven’t had any trouble achieving the compromises needed to govern with stability.

After a decade of practice, New Zealand’s major parties show far more competence at negotiation and achieving consensus than was demonstrated by Australia’s major parties after last year’s federal election.

Even if National manages to win a majority on Saturday, New Zealand is unlikely to return the bad old days of single-party rule. John Key will need to keep the small parties onside — in three years time he will probably need them.

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