Possible change in six years or definite change in three
If its fortunes markedly improve, it could receive a third of the votes.
Two weeks to the election and polling has the Labour Party struggling to stay above 28%. With only entirely uncharismatic characters waiting in the wings to take over from the leadership failure that is Phil Goff, there is little prospect of the party being than other than a similar position in three years time, and probably in another six.
Nine years is not an overly long period for a party to be out of power. Since 1960, Labour’s average period in the wilderness is three and a third terms—10 years. In contrast, National’s average time out of office over the same period was only two terms. Labour’s fortunes could be quickly turned around. But the party stubborn refuses to heed the lesson it should have learned in 1974, when it attempted to impose the terminally un-telegenic Bill Rowling on a nation left bereft following the sudden death of its charismatic leader, Norman Kirk. Labour’s standout potential television asset is Stuart Nash, who features in the party’s polished but meaty television campaign. If elevated to leader-in-waiting, ahead of the ambitious but distinctly unappealing Andrew Little, Nash would readily steal the limelight from the affable but slightly awkward John Key. But Nash, the great-grandson by adoption of Sir Walter Nash, is so far down the party list that he is in danger of not being re-elected. Only by withholding support for Labour until it shows itself to be more interested in the future of the planet, than the future of its hierarchy, is it likely to reform itself—meantime Nash, who understands the unacceptability of fracking, will probably lose his seat, while Little, who doesn’t, will continue to call the shots.
Thirteen terms then—39 years—is an inordinately long time for a political movement to be in opposition. Because although the Green Party officially commenced only seven terms ago, its genesis was clearly Tony Brunt’s Values Party, which first fielded candidates in 1972. Polling at 12.6%, nearly half the support for the Labour Party, the Green Party could well overtake Labour by the earliest date the latter could realistically have expected to lead a government: 2017.
While the Fifth National Government will very possibly be in a position to govern alone after 26 November, Prime Minister John Key is unlikely to burn the bridges his party will need to lead a government after the following election. Although it will stick in the craw of the majority of its 2000-weak current membership, the Green Party by 2014 will be much larger and more cosmopolitan, and would be perfectly capable of providing the green for a blue–green government. This would not be a healthy development for Aotearoa. Nor would it be simpatico with emerging world trends, which lie far from the neoclassical capitalist tendencies of the National Party membership. Disillusionment with big business –dominated democracy is running high. It is instructive that Labour is enjoying greater support than Green among young people, but few will vote in any event. And National’s victory will be distinctly hollow, if Saturday week sees a record low turnout.
The urgent change required is for political parties to progress beyond their preoccupation with being, or leading, governments. The supporters of all parties have a right to influent policy. It is utterly intolerable that up to half the supporters of political parties be sidelined for up to 12 years at a time—the reign of the Second National Government—because of a mindset that dates from the 18th Century concept of the loyal opposition.
The purpose of the political party in a modern democracy should be to represent a coherent body of policies—green growth, for example. The spectacle of the Green Party attempting to be the last word in every policy area conceivable, then bleating about others ‘nicking’ its policies is unedifying. And it certainly is illogical, if in the next breath it is coy about dirtying its hands to help to form a government—in such a scenario, no green policies would be implemented until the hypothetical election day when everyone suddenly votes green. Aotearoa shouldn’t have to wait until it is in the likes of Greece’s fix before contemplating the need for grand coalitions. The idea that up to half the members a family, or managers of a business, ritually took their feet off the pedals while the balance put in the work would be preposterous. Or, to be more analogically apt, that they not only refrain from pedalling, but apply the brakes at the onset of every uphill slog…
Fine for the far-sighted to be first to touch the brakes to warn of an impending hazard—that could be respected by the other parties. And equally admirable to be first to pour on the pace when an opportunity opens up.
The rise in Green Party support is presumably due in part to many beginning to see it as a more effective policy influence on National than a vote for Labour. In the past Labour and National were content to leave green supporters sidelined with the Green Party. Historians will probably see the greatest political miscalculation of the last Labour prime minister, Helen Clarke, as her decision to sacrifice the Green Party in favour of opportunist duo Peters and Dunn. As unpalatable as the prospect may be to left-leaning observers, John Key is the more likely prime minister to be credited with embracing mixed member proportional, as opposed to exploiting it.
New Zealanders, however, have been slow to comprehend the new system. Voters tend to confuse support for a Green candidate, for example, with support for the Green Party. So a left-leaning citizen will give their electorate tick to the Green Party candidate, and their party tick to Labour—because their passionate preference is for a Labour-led government.
The net result, one vote for Labour, no votes for the Green Party.
The remedy is to tune-up mixed member proportional by allowing voters to rank their preferences. There are two other alternatives, but deeply unsatisfactory. A fortune could be spent prior to each election attempting to better educate the voters. But this is unlikely to have much impact, as studies elsewhere indicate. The more drastic option would have required the Green Party to refrain from standing electorate candidates, thus forcing supporters to tick the party column—the only tick that counts. But although there has been no point in voting for Green Party electorate candidates since National reclaimed Coromandel in 2002, after losing it briefly to ex co-leader Janette Fitzsimons, with the party poised to become the second largest, it can now fairly be expected to sacrifice its right to field electorate candidates.
One of the persistent complaints about mixed member proportional is the inability of voters to dump an unpopular electorate member without them popping up gopher-style as a list member. This would be less of an issue if voters were permitted to rank electorate candidates, because by so doing, a smaller proportion of list members would be needed—probably about half of the current 52.
The second part of the tune-up needed involves giving New Zealanders the option of voting for candidates from the party lists, rather than simply the party. The reason that this has proved unsatisfactory elsewhere is that insufficient effort was been put into making the lists user-friendly—voters presented with lists of a hundred or more candidates are prone to despair and rank them consecutively or randomly, and often inadvertently spoil their ballot. The pragmatic solution is to print the lists with the parties’ preferences as the default ranking, then allow voters to re-rank only those candidates they wish to, and let the programme recording the vote re-rank the default values accordingly. Better yet would be to trail Estonia into the 21st Century and implement online voting. With a well-designed interface, online voting could eliminate accidentally spoiled ballots entirely.
Species Homo sapiens sapiens is wired for fairness, hence the deep indignation at the machinations of political parties. But it is the deficiencies in the system that allow the unfair and dictatorial behaviour to flourish, which should be addressed. In the first instance, the often unseemly business of selecting candidates must be addressed by parties being legally obliged to hold transparent and democratic selection processes. Prime ministers and governors general must be directly elected. Decisions such as the ownership and control of key infrastructure must be decided by binding referenda. And the design of referenda must not be left to politicians, as Saturday week’s patently flawed referendum illustrates.
The choice is stark. Vote to change to another system, and the government may or may not hold another referendum in three years time, and mixed member proportional unchanged may or may not be in place in 2017. But vote:
I want to keep the MMP system
…and the Electoral Commission must, by law, review mixed member proportional and report back next November.
This makes the voters’ choice:
Possible change by 2017; or
definite change in 2014.
Update Presumably in an effort to coax the government to address the more egregious defects of New Zealand’s implementation of mixed member proportional, the Electoral Commission recommended only very timid changes, only to have even those flatly ignored.