So … what’s next?

Election night was, well, a bit anticlimactic, in big-picture terms. The utter loss of the Māori Party was a shock, and a few seats changed hands, and Labour thoroughly shook off its dismal 2014 and 2011 results, yes; but what fundamentally changed? After everything that happened, after three major parties changing or losing leaders in the twelve months before election day (plus Peter Dunne), after Jacindamania and the desperate search for a youthquake narrative …

National are still on 45%. Winston is the kingmaker. As all bar one or two rogue polls stated he would be. The status quo is pretty damn quo.

Personally, I wouldn’t bet money one way or the other on where Winston will go. In strict policy terms, NZF is much more aligned to Labour and the Greens than National, and polls showed NZF voters wanted them to go with Labour. But National are supremely pragmatic when it comes to retaining power, and unburdened by any broader principles which might get in the way of making a deal.

A side note: The repeated line of questioning about whether there’s a rule, convention, or expectation around the largest party forming the government demonstrate how we’ve really failed to grasp the core function of MMP: delivering a balanced one which is the most appealing to the broadest number of people, not an all-powerful one based on arbitrary geographical lines. Whether we end up with a National/New Zealand First government, or a Labour/Greens/NZ First one, or Labour-plus-one-with-the-other-on-the-cross benches, our country will, at least theoretically, be governed and laws determined by politicians representing a majority of voters.

Of course the theory all gets very messy once you’re dealing with real human beings, and especially when the one holding most of the cards is Winston Peters, but that’s politics for you.

Anyway: it feels like there’s little to do but wait.

Except.

Now more than ever, we need to remember that parliamentary power is far, far from the only power there is. Whoever forms the next government, they answer to the people.

It was people who forced the government to pass proper health and safety laws, abolish zero hour contracts, shut down the sealing of Pike River mine, deliver equal pay for aged care workers. It was people who made mental health and our horrific suicide rates a key election issue.

People coming together with a common cause – in unions, in neighbourhoods, in the streets, in the courts, and yes in goddamn Facebook groups too – wield, or should wield, the real power.

Be suspicious as hell of anyone who tries to tell you otherwise.

No matter whether our next Prime Minister is called Bill or Jacinda, it is on us to hold them to account. Hell, especially if it’s Jacinda, because the centre-left did not serve the country well by spending all nine of the Clark years going “shush, don’t make a fuss now we’re in government!!!”

Whatever campaign is close to your heart, it doesn’t stop now. We can’t hit pause for three years before talking about these things again. So many people spent the campaign lamenting the lack of education, engagement, how ill-served voters were by the parties or the media or the education system (because introducing compulsory civics would magically fix everything, obvs). So keep it up. Push the issues that matter to you. Rock up to your new MP, if you’ve got one, and demand they represent you. It’s their job.

At some point in 2018, after the next census, there’ll be a Māori Electoral Option, so if you qualify to be on the Māori roll and want to switch one way or the other, you have to do it then.

In 2019, there’ll be local body elections, which are even worse in terms of engagement, turnout and public interest, even though local councils have immensely important responsibilities. Run for office! Get your neighbours rarked up about a local issue! For god’s sake, vote!

In 2020 we get to go through this malarkey all over again. But we can achieve a hell of a lot in the meantime.

Here’s an old favourite to wake you up.

What kind of government would National lead?

The choice for NZ voters is becoming clearer in the last days of the 2014 election. The irony is that after John Key’s persistent scaremongering about the “five-headed monster” of the centre-left, the two most likely options we have are a three-headed coalition of natural allies versus a five-or-six headed hydra of extremists and sworn enemies.

David Cunliffe has signalled today that he only sees three parties around the Cabinet table in his government: Labour, the Greens, and NZ First. All three parties have a good number of policies set out, with obvious overlaps – there are clear differences of opinion, but coming to a mature compromise is a key part of how MMP is meant to work.

Meanwhile, John Key has been forced into opening the door to Colin Craig’s Conservative Party thanks to the abysmal polling of his preferred ally, ACT.

Colin Craig is talking a softer game as he sees his poll results edge closer and closer to the magical 5% threshold. But neither he nor Jamie Whyte are men built to compromise their passionately-held extremist beliefs. So what will each of them demand?

Is Colin going to get binding referenda? Or the abolition of parole? Or a curfew for the “most promiscuous” young women in the world?

Is Jamie going to get his wish of scrapping the RMA and OIO so overseas investors can buy up our land and poison our rivers, or abolishing all school zones except the one around Auckland Boys’ Grammar (and all building regulations except the ones that keep Epsom leafy)?

And how can any of this possibly be workable with middle-of-the-road Peter Dunne (if he wins Ōhāriu, and that’s not guaranteed), with “not crazy”-conservative Winston Peters (who can’t stand Whyte or Craig) and with the Māori Party (who may have a thing or two to say about ACT and Craig’s anti-Treaty ways)?

If NZ First and the Conservatives both get over 5%, it’s going to be impossible for National to get its long-dreamed-of governing-alone 50%. They’d have to pull together four or five coalition partners who hate each other, and their closest ideological friends are frankly bizarre.

As that becomes clearer it’s got to be a huge turn-off for the moderate voters who have bulked out National’s support for the past six years – and a Labour-Green-Winston coalition is looking rock-solid-stable in comparison.

The right’s lack of diversity

In my previous post where I talked about the diversity of policy on the left as a strength I said:

A lot of people are still stuck in a First Past the Post mode of thinking, where we have two major parties, they rule the roost, and the “minor” parties are mere annoyances who will fall in line with National or Labour as appropriate.

My point was that this isn’t the case now that we’ve got proportional representation. At least, it’s not the case for the left – but it is still kind of true on the right. There’s one big party who have the lion’s share of the vote, and a smattering of odd little parties at the kids’ table fighting for scraps and key electorates.

It’s one of the reasons National continues to poll so highly. If you’re a rightwing voter, you don’t have any other viable options. ACT under Jamie Whyte had a brief flutter at being a straight-up (if wordy and academic) “classical liberal” kind of party, but promptly descended into a race-baiting law-and-order farce again.

United Future’s day as the moderate, centrist, “common sense” party is well past its use-by, and not even the revival of the worm is going to deliver them more than one seat (and even that could be in question if a thoroughly unscientific Campbell Live poll is anything to go by).

The Conservatives are making the election campaign interesting (threatening to sue The Nation for not including Colin Craig in a debate levels of interesting), but they’re not a right-wing party so much as a collection of reactionary extremists who think not being able to whip your children is the worst crime against civil liberties of the past century.

And the Māori Party are very determined that they’re not a rightwing party, they’re just focused on getting a seat at the table.

There’s undoubtedly a lot of “centrist” or moderate voters who are supporting National too, largely on the back of John Key’s inexplicable, yet undeniably present, appeal. We can debate exactly how much of their support is truly rightwing compared to “middle New Zealand” in comments. The point is that if you are a fiscal conservative, who else are you going to vote for?

You’d think it would be inevitable that another rightwing party would be formed in this situation. There have to be rightwingers who take a different view to the National Party’s standard lines, who don’t like how (comparatively) moderate they’ve been in government. You can see from Jami-Lee Ross’ quickly-sunk strikebusting bill that there are enough people within National who want them to take a harder line.

I think they want power more. So they’re sticking with what has been a winning formula for the past two terms: an outwardly-united behemoth with a friendly leader. But there’s the trap.

ACT are becoming more and more of a sideshow with every passing day. Dunne’s grip on Ōhāriu is slipping. The Conservatives could end up wasting 3 or 4% of the party vote. And National could very well end up being the biggest party in Parliament with no viable partners, abandoned by Key the minute it’s clear they won’t be in government and with nothing to do for three years but tear themselves apart in the inevitable Joyce/Collins cage match for the leadership.

Should be fun to watch!

The bottomless Labour-Green divide

Mea culpa. It’s a bit of a Buzzfeed-style clickbait headline, but it’s also a political meme which I really wish we could put out to pasture.

It seems like every time Labour (or the Greens) announce a policy the first question (after “what does John Key think about this?”) is “But the Greens (or Labour) have a different policy to the one you just announced! How can you possibly work together in government?

Anything even vaguely associated with Internet-MANA gets it even worse.

It’s not a question you often see posed to National, and it’s tempting to make this a moan about media bias. But the simple facts are National isn’t in the same position as Labour or the Greens. The most extremist party on their side – Colin Craig’s Conservative Party – are very unlikely to get into Parliament unless there’s some fundamental[ist] shift in the polls which means National throws them a Hail Mary seat.

The two parties guaranteed to support National – ACT and United Future – have good steady records of rolling over and voting for whatever National tells them too.

And Winston, well. He doesn’t agree with anyone on anything if he can help it, but also has form for signing up to whichever side gives him a prestigious title and a single big policy which he can point to as a major concession (the Gold card being the canonical example.)

So let’s put aside the idea of media bias and consider ourselves lucky that on the left we have three genuine options to vote for, four if you want to ignore the Māori Party’s stated priority of doing what it takes to get “a seat at the table” and think they’ll get more than one seat.

The problem for the left is that, especially with the aforementioned total-lack-of-real-disagreement on the right, disagreement is being treated as antagonism*, and reconciling those disagreements is being treated as a problem for MMP.

Having parties with different views forming a government is not a weakness of MMP. It is the strength of MMP.

The whole point of proportional representation is that each party has exactly as much power as the voters of New Zealand have given it. Instead of a winner-takes-all system where a party can do whatever it likes on the back of only 35% support, enough parties have to find common ground that you could reasonably assume the outcome is the best possible representation of the will of the people.

So it makes no sense at all for this constant pearl-clutching over the Greens and Labour having different policies. If they had identical policies they wouldn’t exist as two separate political parties. It makes no sense at all to keep demanding bottom lines and non-negotiables because we simply don’t know how the chips are going to fall. Where will Labour’s party vote end up? Will the Greens build on 12% or stay steady? How will Winston or IMP do?

It’s easy to be cynical and wonder if the constant highlighting of Labour/Green/IMP differences is part of a narrative to pre-judge any leftwing coalition as unstable and risky. But I think a lot of people are still stuck in a First Past the Post mode of thinking, where we have two major parties, they rule the roost, and the “minor” parties are mere annoyances who will fall in line with National or Labour as appropriate.

But the left’s diversity is a strength. We have more ideas to consider, more viewpoints in the mix, and our votes don’t just get a leftwing government elected, they determine what that leftwing government looks like – a strong Labour with several support options; a strong Green presence at the table; an IMP spoiler; even, if you want to take a risk on Winston’s whims and the randoms he’ll bring in with him, a New Zealand First to pull to the centre.

Labour and the Greens having different policies before an election is a good thing. After the election, when we’ve had our say, they can work out where there’s room to move and what mix of policies they can/want to implement.

It’s not like they’re going to sit back and say “Nup, not going to negotiate with you, going to give the Tories confidence and supply instead.”

… I mean, I can only hope!

 

*There is also actual antagonism between Labour and Green and IMP folk, no denying.

The coat-tail rule and democracy

Allow me to fly in the face of an accepted truth in NZ politics by saying this: there is absolutely nothing undemocratic about the MMP “coat-tail” rules.

This has quickly become the meme du jour around the Internet/Mana alliance (and I keep using the A-word very deliberately, because there’s an important precedent which people keep ignoring!) as propounded by Patrick Gower:

… Laila Harré is wrecking MMP.

Hone Harawira is wrecking MMP.

And Kim Dotcom is wrecking MMP.

They are using Harawira’s seat and MMP’s “coat-tail” rule to get a back-door entry into Parliament.

It is a rort.

It is a grubby deal, made all the worse by the fact Harawira holds the Te Tai Tokerau seat – a Maori seat.

As both mickysavage at The Standard and Danyl at Dim-Post have noted, there’s a funny little irony here: National had the opportunity to reform MMP, but they didn’t – because, we can probably assume, they thought they’d be hurting their own chances by doing so. (And they thought ACT would be able to lift its polling numbers.) Now, their failure to act is biting them on the arse.

But there’s another point – a point I can make by strategically editing an anonymous Stuff editorialist writing on the coat-tail rule:

A weakness of the mixed-member proportional system [is that it] … allows a party … to gain seats according to the proportion of the party vote.

Hang on a tick. It’s a weakness of MMP that parties gain seats proportional to their share of the party vote? Isn’t that how MMP is meant to work?

I agree, there is unfairness in MMP, but it’s not the “coat-tailing” – it’s the plight of parties which don’t win electorate seats.

Take New Zealand First. In 1999, they received 4.26% of the vote – not enough to cross the threshold, but because Winston held Tauranga, they gained 5 seats. But in 2008, they received 4.07% of the vote and didn’t hold Tauranga – so they were out.

The real irony? Due to the increase in overall voters, New Zealand First actually received nearly 7,500 more votes in 2008 than 1999. Nearly 100,000 Kiwis’ votes were rendered void in 2008, because there was no seat to coat-tail on to.

87,000 votes got you 5 seats in 1999. 95,000 votes got you no seats in 2008. Is that fair?

Say what you like about Winston Peters and New Zealand First – but I think that kind of situation “wrecks MMP” far more than a couple of parties coming to a mutual agreement about working together to ensure their constituents have the best possible chance of being represented – fairly and proportionally – in Parliament.