New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark yesterday
announced that a general election would be on 17 September. It will be an
uphill battle for her Labour government to win a third term; it has
been trailing badly for some time in the opinion polls (check the latest results
But the relationship between the polls and the results is rather
different in New Zealand from what we’re used to in Australia.

Not long ago, New Zealand had perhaps the most
undemocratic democracy in the world: parliament was elected from
single-member districts with first-past-the-post voting and almost no
checks and balances – no states, no upper house, no bill of rights. But
its political scene was transformed by the introduction in 1993 of a
new voting system, mixed-member proportional (MMP), based on that used
in Germany.
(Coincidentally, Germany this year is holding its election the day after New Zealand.)

MMP gives parties representation according to their share of the
vote. For comparison, if it were used in Australia, last year’s federal
election would have delivered a hung parliament, with the independents
holding the balance of power between the Coalition and a
Labor-plus-Greens combination. And since minor parties have a chance of
winning seats, more people support them – seven parties won seats in
the last NZ election.

So the result will depend crucially on how many
parties reach the 5% threshold for representation. At present the only
one assured of this is New Zealand First, a populist party not unlike
our One Nation, which on present polling would end up with the balance
of power. Last time that happened, in 1997, New Zealand First put the
Nationals back in office, and it would probably do so again.

Clark’s Labour Party needs two things to happen: it
needs to have some other possible partners to win seats (especially the
Greens, currently polling 4%), and it needs to improve its own primary
vote. Failing that, Nationals’ leader Don Brash will be New Zealand’s
new prime minister.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey