It’s been a difficult week to get anyone to focus on non-American election news, but New Zealanders vote tomorrow in a general election that could bring an end to nine years of Labour government.

At the last election, in September 2005, the National Party staged one of the great political recoveries, gaining 18% from its low of 2002 to finish on 39.1%. But that wasn’t enough to win government, and Labour’s Helen Clark remained in power with the support of several minor parties. Labour has mostly been behind in the polls since then, and the latest polls show National with a clear lead.

But Labour has made up ground over recent months, and Clark is not giving up. Yesterday she was trying to climb onto the Obama bandwagon, saying it would be “a travesty if that great democracy the United States, having moved left as a reaction against what’s happened in the international markets … if that were not matched by New Zealand staying with progressive politics”.

But in times of crisis, voters will often opt for change without paying much heed to its ideological direction. A nine-year-old government starts from a disadvantage, and National leader John Key seems to have done a good job of capitalising on discontent without sounding too radical.

However, it’s unlikely that National will have the numbers for a majority in its own right; more likely Key will need allies — the free market ACT, the Christian party United Future, and possibly the Maori Party, which wins seats out of proportion to its voter support due to a system of separate constituencies (this morning’s Australian covers this well).

Last week in Crikey, Malcolm Mackerras criticised the New Zealand electoral system, saying that the way the Maori seats operate “now constitutes [its] worst feature”. He has a valid point; small parties, and the Maori Party in particular, do get something of an unfair advantage.

However, that unfairness could be remedied without changing the basics of the MMP system: by eliminating the reserved Maori seats (or making them nationwide, as Mackerras suggests), and copying the German system where a minor party has to win a number of constituency seats (three, from memory) instead of just one to qualify for list seats. (I would also reduce the threshold for list seats from 5% to 3%.)

Like Mackerras, I think preferential voting is a good thing, but I don’t think its absence in New Zealand is a huge problem: when voters are given the option it tends to make very little difference. The best Australian systems of proportional representation, such as the ACT legislative assembly and the NSW and South Australian Legislative Councils, generally produce outcomes that are much the same as a NZ-style list system would produce.

Whatever the system’s defects, New Zealanders at least will get the parliament that they vote for — which doesn’t, of course, mean that they’ll like it. But that’s politics for you.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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