24 January 2012

Where do the Greens fit in?

I’ve been asked this question by a reader. The Greens got my prize for the best campaign last year, and (more importantly) they got their best-ever result, with 14 MPs. But let’s look at where their strongest support is coming from: it’s most strongly (but not exclusively) middle-class urban electorates. The Greens’ shift to the centre under the new leadership obviously paid off last election. But their success was also partly due to Labour’s poor showing. The fact that many Green-party voters split their electorate vote with the local Labour candidate shows a degree of divided left loyalties, and that could swing Labour’s way on party votes in 2014 if Labour gives the right signals.

Russell Norman’s appeal to small business owners last year show how the Greens are now doing well with the urban knowledge workers and a certain type of petit-bourgeois self-employed or entrepreneurial class – those with slightly alternative ideas about capitalism, I guess. But they are not so favoured in the very wealthy or the very poor suburbs.

So, again, the sad story is that the three most successful parties will all be circling like sharks around a shrinking school of fish. The Greens did really poorly in the three low-income South Auckland electorates and they fared not very well in most Maori electorates. They don’t do well on traditional blue electorates, but they do do well on Labour’s traditional territory. Wellington Central stands out as the Greens’ best result (they got more party votes there than Labour); but Auckland Central performed well for them too, for instance.

Labour and the Greens appear to be stealing votes off one another, while the centre-right romps home to victory (for the time being). In as much as anything is really predictable in politics, this last excellent result for the Greens could be a high-tide mark. As Labour regains support, it will be partly at the Greens’ expense (though NZ First is bound to suffer too). I would be surprised if the Greens equal or better their 2011 party vote in 2014.

So, on hard-nosed electoral grounds, there is no point in the Greens sticking up for the poor and marginalized any longer, because the poor and marginalized are simply not responding to them – or simply not voting at all.

The party with the most to gain next time around, if their leader can get the tone right, is the Mana Party. There is a huge untapped pool of disfranchised voters in South Auckland and elsewhere, including the Maori rolls, that could help them take off next time. In my last post I was a bit dismissive of their 1% showing, but let’s wait and see if the three years ahead give them time to build up a better support base.

22 January 2012

Heads, National wins – tails, Labour loses

One big feature of the last election was the low voter turn-out. From an estimated eligible population of 3,276,000, the number enrolled was 3,070,847. That’s a 93.74% enrolment rate. But 2,257,336 votes were counted, or only 68.9% of the estimated eligible population. There were one million or more eligible citizens who did not vote. Enough silence to transform the political landscape (or not)!

Traditionally it’s thought that a low turn-out is bad news for Labour, and the last election reinforces that. Looking at the results for each general electorate, there is a negative correlation between the number of party votes for Labour by electorate and the total number of votes. This is particularly noticeable in South Auckland electorates (those who saved Labour’s arse in 2005!). In Maori electorates, the turnouts were consistently very low. Only 56.7% of people on the Maori rolls actually voted. People who otherwise might have voted Labour were the ones most likely not to vote at all.

Here’s another telling statistic: 762,897 people voted for a Labour candidate in their electorates; but only 614,964 gave Labour their party vote. Labour could have won close to 34% of the party vote if loyalties to local Labour candidates had been equal to loyalty to the party as a whole. So, even those who did get out and vote, and who were supportive of local Labour MPs, were often splitting their votes. Remember the debate about Labour’s election billboards?

It’s an easy bet that those one million non-voters are younger, poorer and more probably unemployed than the average New Zealander. Any Labour leader who can connect with those people could be on to a winner. But how likely is that? Consider the risks of trying to woo them, only to find that they still won’t vote, because they just can’t relate to the white faces on the TV screen. We are talking about cleaners, kitchen hands, check-out counter operators, and illiterate unemployed youth. Many of them who have jobs are working on election day and/or may not have thought about voting at all.

What’s the alternative, then? In marketing terms, National and Labour are competing for a shrinking demographic of voters: that is, the middle-class voters, and not the poorer non-voters about whom Labour has forgotten. Championing the rights of those at the losing end of the spectrum is no longer a viable electoral proposition for this Labour Party. The Mana Party tried to fill that gap, but it got them hardly any votes at all (one per cent!)

This is the sad fact of New Zealand society today, as we have become more diverse and more unequal. Those who most need to be heard are abandoned politically and economically by the major 'left' party – and they in turn are abandoning the ballot-box. They simply go un-represented politically, and their voices are silenced.

Like any major party, Labour has to straddle a wide social contradiction – in their case, between the need to capture the middle-class centre, and the lower-paid workers and the unemployed. If the priority is to gain office, Labour will be tempted to cater more to the former (who vote) and less to the latter (who don’t). But then Labour loses a very large potential support base (one that National has had no chance of winning) and has to compete with National on their common turf. Labour’s unearned reputation for being ‘socialist’ and ‘soft on welfare’, however, means it may only win that contest on those occasions when the middle class gets so fed up with National they decide it’s time for a change. That leaves Labour, like before, as the party of the exception, rather than the norm.

The worst possibility is that a demagogic far-right party hoovers up those unclaimed low-income voters… If that happens, I know whom to blame.

17 January 2012

Maori seats: Why do they exist?

Provision for originally four Māori seats was first made back in 1867. Until that time, eligibility for the male-only vote was then based exclusively upon property ownership, effectively disfranchising Māori men, as Māori land was mainly communally owned. It was pointed out in the House during the debate that Māori owned three quarters of the North Island at the time and paid a considerable sum in tax to the Crown, and yet lacked representation from among their own people. On the other hand, there was also opposition from parliamentarians due to their reservations about special measures for Māori. The initial legislation that created the four seats only extended for 5 years, however, as it was considered a temporary measure until such time as Māori lands were converted to individual titles (in itself a controversial policy) (Sorrenson 1986).

In 1876, the legislative provision for Māori seats was extended indefinitely, as MPs were afraid that amalgamation of the rolls would have an adverse effect on their electoral results. Māori voters could have swung marginal electorates. The Māori seats also survived the change to universal franchise and the removal of the property qualification in the 1890s. Later on, from the 1930s until the 1990s, they were an important part of the Labour Party’s electoral support thanks to a deal between Labour and the Ratana Church (Sorrenson 1986). As the bulk of Māori still lived rurally, the conservative National Party, on the other hand, may not have wanted to amalgamate the electoral rolls, as Māori were staunch Labour-voters in those days. Amalgamation would have cost them marginal seats.

The National Party’s submission to the Royal Commission on the Electoral System (1986) recommended abolition of the Māori seats. This was reiterated by the former leader of that party, Don Brash, in 2005. Under MMP (proportional representation, since 1996), the impact on National of amalgamation of the rolls would not now be as drastic as it would have been under the old FPP system – which relied entirely on local electoral pluralities.

The original allocation of four seats represented far less than the proportion of Māori in the population at large, and Māori would have had 14 or 15 seats on a population basis in 1867. But they remained at 4 until 1996. Under MMP their number has grown to 7. But (according to Janine Hayward) it is estimated that the present parliament has all together 20 Māori MPs.

The original allocation of four Māori representatives was under-representative numerically, and hence arguably tokenistic, if not discriminatory. Māori may have considered that they would be worse off politically with no Māori seats at all; even though one can also argue that the Māori seats effectively diluted and silenced real Māori political influence. Labour’s post-War electoral hold on them could actually have encouraged Labour to take Māori voters for granted; and anyway Labour spent most of the time from 1946 to 1996 in opposition, leaving Māori MPs with even less long-term influence on the executive.

Meanwhile, National’s weak polling in those electorates would have meant that party had even less political incentive to take heed of Māori.

We should not forget Māori efforts, especially in the nineteenth century, to create a parallel and autonomous indigenous parliament, due to long-standing grievances about colonisation and the effects of the British legal system. And so, while Māori resist the abolition of the Māori seats, we should not assume that they are entirely satisfied with their separate electoral system either. The 1986 Royal Commission reached the judgement that ‘the system of separate Māori representation has proved to be largely ineffective’ (p. 98). But, while the Commission believed that Māori representation would be better provided for under MMP, even with a common roll, it recommended retaining the Māori seats at least until after the adoption of MMP.

The present-day Māori Party (first elected to parliament in 2005) provides a strong Māori voice in parliament, and relies entirely on Māori seats (though they went from 5 seats to 3 in the 2011 election), and the recently-formed Mana Party holds one Māori seat. For such reasons alone, Māori would oppose the abolition of these seats for the time being. Māori seats may look like an unsatisfactory compromise for Māori – as well as looking like ‘special treatment’ from the point of view of many non-Māori – but New Zealand is far from giving up this unique constitutional provision at present, in spite of controversies about it. The National Party is hardly going to raise the issue of abolition again right now, as they are relying on support from the Māori Party to give them supply and confidence votes in the House.


Royal Commission on the Electoral System (1986) Report of The Royal Commission on the Electoral System 1986: Towards a Better Democracy.

Sorrenson, M.P.K. (1986) A history of Māori representation in Parliament. Appendix B. Report of The Royal Commission on the Electoral System 1986: Towards a Better Democracy.

15 January 2012

Controversies ahead for 2012

In 2008, the post-election support agreement between the Māori Party and the National Party included an agreement ‘to establish a group to consider constitutional issues, including Māori representation’, to be led by the Deputy Prime Minister (Bill English) and the Minister of Māori Affairs (Pita Sharples, co-leader of the Māori Party). The terms of reference include, among other things, Māori representation in Parliament and local government, the constitutional role of the Treaty of Waitangi, and the possibility of a written constitution. The membership of a constitutional review advisory group has already been named, and the process should kick off during 2012, to report to Cabinet initially in 2013.

The structure of the review group and the reporting process suggest that it will all be carefully managed politically by the government of the day. Perhaps a more independent public body would have been preferable (but, speaking as a member of the public and an interested academic, I would say that, wouldn't I!). At this stage, however, this is only a process of informing, discussing and seeking people’s views. The questions of becoming a republic and changing the head of state, moreover, are not explicitly a part of the terms of reference, but there is no bar to their being discussed, and they are bound to be brought up anyway. We do have an enthusiastic republican movement in New Zealand, but, in my opinion, the controversial matters of Māori representation (and the separate electoral rolls) and the constitutional status of the Treaty do need to be resolved first, before we get into the full debate about republicanism, and so this step-by-step approach seems quite wise.

It is inconceivable, for instance, that we could adopt a written constitution without wide public debate and a referendum. But given some of the issues included in this present constitutional review, the debate could easily get heated. I'd watch this space, if I were you, as it could prove to be an interesting 'sleeper' issue for the coming year or more. And this process will have to go on alongside the Electoral Commission's review of the MMP system, now that voters have decided to retain it. Interesting times.

In future posts, if there's interest, I may cover more background on the Maori seats and the constitutional status of the Treaty.