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Karl du Fresne

Post-election hiatus illustrates the perversity of MMP

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The only thing that can be said with any certainty about the next New Zealand government is that it will look very different from the last one.

National party prime minister Bill English won an emphatic 13-seat majority over the opposition Labour party in an election result that defied the pattern of history. But the vagaries of New Zealand’s mixed-member proportional electoral system mean it could be weeks before the shape of the new government is finalised, and no one can be sure what form it will take. Paradoxically, it may not include the National party.

Not for the first time, New Zealand finds itself at the mercy of the relatively small New Zealand First party (yes, it’s as nationalistic as the name implies) and its fractious leader, Winston Peters. That’s because despite winning 46 percent of the vote on election day, National doesn’t have the numbers to govern on its own. Three of the minnow parties that supported the government in its previous term crashed and burned, forcing English to look elsewhere for a deal that will give him a parliamentary majority.

That unavoidably leads him to Peters’ door, since the support of New Zealand First’s nine MPs would enable English to form a government. But the two parties of the centre-left, Labour and the Greens, are also courting Peters because his support would give them a one-seat majority – perhaps more, once 446,000 special votes are counted.

That puts Peters in the box seat, which is exactly where he likes to be. He will, in effect, determine the shape of the next government. No one knows what price he will demand in return for this, or what concessions the bigger parties will be prepared to make in order to humour him. Strangely, neither does anyone question the morality of a political system that allows a party leader to wield influence grossly disproportionate to his party’s share of the vote (7.2 percent).  But Peters can be expected to make the most of the situation. At 72, it may be his last shot at power.

It’s a situation that illustrates the perversity of the MMP system. Adopted in 1996 and modelled on the electoral system created in post-war Germany to ensure that no extremist party could again win total power as the Nazis did, MMP was promoted to Kiwi voters as a means of reasserting control over rogue politicians. In fact it turned out to be every bit as flawed as the first-past-the-post system it replaced.

Under MMP, voters are shut out of the game the moment the votes are in. Unless one party has an absolute majority, which hasn’t happened in any of the eight elections since MMP was introduced, the politicians then disappear behind closed doors to do whatever furtive horse-trading is necessary to cut a deal.

At that point, all bets are off. Every policy dangled in front of voters during the election campaign is effectively up for negotiation. What were solemnly declared on the campaign trail to be bottom lines become wondrously elastic or evaporate altogether. Voters have no influence over this process and can only await the outcome.

It doesn’t help that there are no clear constitutional conventions governing coalition arrangements. There’s a compelling moral argument that minor parties should first offer their support to whichever party has won the greatest number of votes. In this instance, that would clearly be National. 

But politicians are free to interpret the rules in whichever way suits them. Labour and the Greens rationalise that because more people voted against National than voted for it, there’s a mandate for change – although it’s hard to imagine a potentially more fractured and dysfunctional coalition than one between Labour, the Greens and the socially conservative Peters party.

New Zealand has found itself in this predicament before, and it’s not a comfortable place to be. By instinct Peters is an attack politician, which helps explain why previous coalitions he has been part of – one with National, one with Labour – have ended acrimoniously.

He’s a true maverick: combative, polarising and capricious. He relies for support on a dwindling constituency of ageing voters who yearn for the reassuring certainties of the New Zealand they remember from the 1970s under authoritarian National prime minister Robert Muldoon, Peters’ role model. It was an era when New Zealand was comfortably monocultural and subject to suffocating state regulation.

So while English was nominally a clear winner on election night, he now has to curry favour with a politician whose support is smaller than National’s by a factor of six. He may even end up in opposition. It takes some of the shine off what was, in most respects, a signal victory.

English’s success was notable for two reasons. Conventional political wisdom decreed that the tide had gone out for National, since no New Zealand government had won a fourth term since 1969. A late resurgence by Labour, re-energised under its popular new leader Jacinda Ardern, reinforced a sense that New Zealand might be about to revert to the historical norm.

But English, the Catholic son of a South Island farming family, not only swam against the current of history. He also emerged from the shadow of former prime minister John Key, under whom he served as deputy and finance minister until Key’s surprise resignation last December.

In the Key government, English did the heavy lifting behind the scenes while the supposedly more charismatic Key took care of the public charm offensive. Although credited with guiding New Zealand safely through the global financial crisis, English wasn’t seen as either charismatic or populist. He partly reversed that perception during an election campaign in which he came across as genial and relaxed. But more important than that, he has erased the notion that National’s success in three elections was entirely due to Key’s personal popularity.

It would seem a cruelly ironic blow if, after accomplishing that, he ended up on the opposition benches putting questions to a 37-year-old Labour prime minister who has never held a cabinet post or even served in government. But under New Zealand’s topsy-turvy electoral system, and with a politician as contrary and unpredictable as Peters in the mix, it can’t be ruled out. 

First published in the The Spectator Australia.