By Malcolm Mackerras

On Saturday March 28 a select group of Australians and New Zealanders will go to the polls. The result of their votes will be of national significance for both countries. 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.

Since New Zealand is two hours ahead of Australia we shall know about their votes before we get significant counts in New South Wales. Consequently I consider their case first. Unfortunately, however, few readers of this website would know of New Zealand’s details so I must discuss them first.

Across the Tasman
I am struck by how often I hear it said that in recent years New Zealand’s economic performance has been superior to that of Australia, with this explanation: they are lucky over there because they do not have to put up with a Senate. I do not agree with the second part of that statement. In my opinion the reason for their superior economic performance is their luck in having an impressive Prime Minister (John Key) and an even more impressive Finance Minister (Bill English). Both men have far outperformed all their Australian equivalents since their first landslide election victory in November 2008.

So far as electoral systems are concerned, I have always denied that there is any causal link between the electoral system of a country and its economic performance. The difference between Australia and New Zealand is that Australia has, since 1949, had a proportional system for its Senate and a non-proportional system for its House of Representatives. Since 1996 New Zealand’s unicameral House of Representatives has been elected by a system of proportional representation copied from Germany. It is known as Mixed Member Proportional, or MMP.

For Australians trying to imagine New Zealand politics think of this. Suppose all our 150 representatives and all our 76 senators constituted a unicameral House of Representatives of 226 members. Suppose also that the electoral system for that House of Representatives was so stacked against the two biggest parties that neither of them could ever form more than a minority government.

In Australia leaders typically go into the House of Representatives. However, I can think of two exceptions, John Gorton and Barnaby Joyce. They went into the Senate first. They won their lower house seats later, and only after they were required to resign their Senate seats on a gamble to get into the House of Representatives. Contrast that with the situation of Winston Peters in New Zealand who does not actually need to win the Northland by-election to stay an MP. If he wins, however, he would resign his existing seat and his party would, in effect, appoint a successor – rather like the Labor Party here appointed a successor to Bob Carr when he resigned his Senate seat.

Peters is the leader of the fourth biggest party, New Zealand First. It has 11 of the 121 members. All those 11 got their seats on the party list. But Peters may have found luck, both for himself and his party. The National Party member for Northland recently resigned his seat in disgrace and there will be a by-election on March 28. There are a dozen candidates but only two who matter, Mark Osborne of the National Party, and Peters. Under the first-past-the-post system the remaining votes will be, in effect, dumped into the rubbish bin.

Northland is composed of all the farms and rural towns north of Auckland but excludes the city of Whangarei. It includes the Bay of Islands and Waitangi where the famous treaty was signed in 1840. It is one of the poorest electorates in New Zealand but is very conservative, as rural electorates so often are. It is a gift for a man like Peters who is a (very rough) equivalent of Australia’s Pauline Hanson. He succeeds where she fails due to New Zealand having an electoral system very generous to the likes of Peters and Hanson.

In Key’s third landslide election victory on September 20 last year, the result was 60 seats for the National Party, 32 for Labour, 14 for the Greens, 11 for NZF, two for the Maori Party, one for ACTNZ and one for United future. An Australian observer would not normally think the loss of one seat by National to NZF would be important, but it is. Key would remain Prime Minister but he would no longer have the numbers to pass contentious legislation.

New South Wales
In the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales the notional state of parties presently is as follows. By “notional” I mean after adjusting actual results for boundary changes: 50 Liberals, 18 Nationals, 21 Labor, two Greens and two independents. So the Coalition majority is 43. My prediction for March 28 is 51 Coalition (35 Liberals and 16 Nationals), 37 Labor, two Greens and three independents. That would mean an absolute majority of nine seats for Baird. I would describe that as “a decent win”.

However, Baird has another problem, the Legislative Council, which is elected by a proportional representation (PR) system. For a psephologist like me, the NSW system is as different from that of NZ as could be imagined. Most lay people, however, would say: “It is the same. PR systems are hostile to reform.” In March 2011 the Coalition won 11 of the 21 seats then contested. However, the O’Farrell-Baird government lacked a majority because the Coalition had performed so badly in March 2007. To sell the poles and wires the Coalition needs to win nine of the 21 seats on March 28. To do that it must get 39% of the vote.

A great Prime Minister like Key would say “no problem”. My guess is that the Coalition will get 40% so I would then say that Baird DID, indeed, get a decent victory. However, after Queenslanders chose Annastacia Palaszczuk as their new premier (an outcome not predicted by any independent observer in print) I lack confidence in my own predictions. I also lack confidence in the predictions of every other pundit.
(Malcolm Mackerras is a visiting fellow at the Australian Catholic University’s Canberra campus)