By Malcolm Mackerras
Published on this website on Monday 16 March 2015 was an article by me titled: “The political future for NSW and NZ”. In that article I made this dogmatic statement: “If Winston Peters wins in New Zealand and if Mike Baird fails to get a decent win in Australia’s most populous state, we can read this as the verdict of the people: the cause of further economic reform is dead on both sides of the Tasman.” I can now record that Baird did get a decent win and Peters won the then Northland by-election. However, there has been a recent general election across the Tasman at which Peters was the real winner. I now pronounce again: the cause of further economic reform is dead on both sides of the Tasman.
There was a National Party government in New Zealand which ruled from November 2008 to October 2017 and which won general elections in November 2008, November 2011 and September 2014. It established an excellent record of economic management and reform, first under John Key (2008-2016) and then under Bill English (2016-17). English was the Finance Minister (what we would call Treasurer) for the whole period Key was Prime Minister.
The National Party was defeated at the general election held on Saturday 23 September 2017 – though it took a month for the defeat to become the settled news of the election. Labour’s Jacinda Ardern was sworn in as Prime Minister on Friday 20 October in a Coalition government of Labour, Greens and the New Zealand First Party led by Winston Peters. This result illustrates a proposition I often advance: the “will of the people” is always expressed through an electoral system. If New Zealand’s House of Representatives had been elected under the system we use to elect our House of Representatives, the National Party would clearly have retained power. Tom Stoppard had an actress saying in his 1972 play “Jumpers” this famous line: “It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting”. The purpose of this article is to illustrate why that is so.
Electoral systems for lower houses of parliament around the world are conventionally divided into two classes, single member constituency systems (United Kingdom, India, Japan, Canada and Australia) and proportional representation systems which have now become the most common. For my part, there is a further division of PR systems – good and bad. In my book both the Australian Senate and the New Zealand House of Representatives systems are bad, but the Australian Senate system would be technically easy to reform into a good system along the lines I have proposed. I regret to say, however, that the New Zealanders are stuck with their system permanently.
The idea of the New Zealand system is to distribute seats strictly proportionately between parties according to a “party vote”. Consequently, in the old House of Representatives the National Party had 59 seats, Labour 32, Greens 14, New Zealand First 12, the Maori Party two and one each for two right wing “micro parties”. That made for a total of 121 members. Since the two members from right wing “micro parties” and the two from the Maori Party were willing to grant supply to the National Party government in the outgoing parliament, the effective majority was five seats, 63 to 58.
The result of this recent election is 56 for National (a net loss of only three seats, let it be noted), 46 for Labour (a gain of 14), 9 for New Zealand First (a loss of three), 8 for the Greens (a loss of six) and one for the right wing party known as “Act” which is a pro market party always supporting National. So now there is a majority of six for the left, 63 to 57, where previously there was a majority of five for the right.
It is worth noting that Labour made good gains but the other parties in the new government both lost ground. Having lost ground, however, their influence has increased because they are critical to Labour being now in power. From all the above it would not be clear to readers why I say that National would have won under the Australian system so I must now explain my detailed reasoning.
They call this a “two vote system” but I call it a “two ticks, one vote system” because only the party vote really counts. It is technically called Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) because there are two classes of member. There are 71 electoral districts (constituencies) the boundaries of which are exactly the same in 2017 as they were in 2014. These are “topped up” by party list seats to produce overall proportionality – according to the party vote. These men and women are nothing but party machine appointees. There were 50 such seats in 2014 and 49 in 2017, thus reducing the overall size of the House from 121 to 120. MMP is a truly awful system – though only a smidgin worse than our Senate system!
In the old House the 71 members directly elected by the people comprised 40 for National, 27 for Labour, one each for NZ First (Northland), Act (Epsom), the Maori Party (Waiariki) and United Future (Ohariu). The situation now is 41 for National, 29 for Labour and one seat for Act, Epsom. The Maori Party and United Future have been wiped out and NZF has been wiped off the map, except for its nine party machine appointees, technically known as “party list seats”.
The situation of Peters is interesting – but tells us all we need to know about the system. He was, in the New Zealand way of saying, “voted out on Saturday, back in on Monday”. He was a directly elected member leading a party of 12. He is now a party machine appointee leading a party of a miserable nine members – but he is Deputy Prime Minister, the equivalent of our Barnaby Joyce who will soon resume his status as a directly elected member of our House of Representatives.
My statement above about the directly elected members tells us surely that National would have easily won an election under the Australian system. I am aware that there is a difference between our preferential vote and their first past the post. Nevertheless, I have analysed all the results and make the assertion I do. I am not aware of any analysts who disagrees with my analysis. All I am able to say is that, regrettably, most analysts think New Zealand’s system is a better reflection of the “will of the people” that the Australian. I beg to differ from the majority.
(Malcolm Mackerras is Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University.