15 July 2014

Should all parties tell us who they would work with in government?

In New Zealand we watch elections as if they were horse races. Some of us even place bets. The big question, however, is not ‘Who will win?’ but ‘Who will form the government after the election?’
The party or coalition of parties that proves that it commands the confidence of the House of Representatives gets to form the next government. Any government must have the numbers in the House to defeat a vote of no confidence in it. It is conceivable that the party that got the most votes could end up in opposition. It all depends on the numbers that can be mustered.
So, before each election there is intense interest in which parties may be willing to work together to form a government, once the voters have cast their ballots.
This game of positioning began relatively early this time around, with Winston Peters announcing in October last year that he would not be doing any pre-electoral deals with any parties. As a small centrist party, it makes sense that he should keep his bargaining options open to negotiate on policy grounds with either of the major parties.
In January, National’s leader, Mr Key, announced that he would prefer to continue working with the incumbent support partners (ACT, United Future and Maori Party) and that the Conservatives too were a possibility.
Before the 2008 election, Mr Key emphatically ruled out working with NZ First. But this time around he’s not ruling them out. The reason for this change of attitude is obvious: National may simply have to work with NZ First after the coming election, like it or not, depending on the outcome of the election.
Labour, by contrast, has taken a ‘wait and see’ attitude. They rebuffed a proposal to run on the basis of a joint Labour–Green government-in-waiting, even though they know that a coalition with the Greens is the most credible option if they are to get into office. It was smart of the Greens to force Labour to show its hand on this. But Labour have been equally strategic in deciding that they can’t afford to bleed any more votes to the Greens by giving assurances that a coalition with them is a done deal.
There are other potential combinations to think about, of course. But a general point of contention seems to be whether a political party ought, or ought not, to lay its cards on the table before the election to show us, the electors, who they would be willing to work with in government.
Does it help the voters to know clearly in advance what kind of coalition they may be implicitly voting for when they vote for one party? Or, should the voter simply tick the box for his or her preferred party, and then let political leaders negotiate a deal once the results are known?
There is no right answer to this. The choices around the parties’ pre-electoral positioning are made on purely political grounds.
Approaching an election, statements by the political parties are naturally made with an eye on maximizing their votes. Each party has to make its own calculations about how plainly to spell out what it sees as its potential post-electoral options for forming or supporting a government. This is done without yet knowing the election results. But such pre-electoral statements can affect the election results, as some voters will react strategically to them.
National has the advantages of incumbency in office and riding high in the polls. It can afford the luxury of stating up front its preferred support partners.
Labour is in a more tightly competitive position for the centre and left-wing voters. It has a relatively large competitor for votes (the Greens) that it may also wish to collaborate with in office. Labour’s pre-electoral reluctance to campaign with the Greens is influenced by the likelihood that, if Mr Cunliffe were to find himself in a position to form the next government, this may also require NZ First’s involvement.
Pre-electoral statements about which parties one would be willing to work with in government come with risks. A party could lose votes to a close competitor once voters take comfort from knowing that the two parties are prepared to collaborate after the election. Or, a party may lose votes because some potential supporters don’t like the coalition partners that it aims to work with. I daresay that the Internet Party lost some supporters due to its pre-electoral deal with Mana, but it may have gained others too.
Each party has to use its own political judgment about making, or not making, such pre-electoral statements or agreements. The voters can make their judgment known on election day, partly based on this information. After the election, the formation of the next government can begin.

11 July 2014

Is National boring its way back into office?

Two electoral issues around which there appears to be little disagreement are: first, that voter turnouts have declined in recent elections (from a high of 93.7 per cent of those enrolled in 1984 down to 74.2 per cent in 2011); and secondly, that this is a regrettable statistic and something should be done to get more people, especially the young, out to vote.
Some political pundits think that online voting will increase voter participation. But it’s a mistake, I believe, to place the blame on the means of voting. In our general elections, polling booths are easy to find, voting papers are easy to understand, and you don’t have to wait in a long queue. Electoral Commission surveys show high levels of voter satisfaction with the process itself.
So, voting is easy. The hard thing is to understand why we should bother, and for whom to vote.
Those who don’t vote tend to say that it makes little difference who is in power, or that they just don’t understand politics and public policy. What they see in the media looks superficial and is dominated by older people with big egos. It’s no wonder that young people have difficulty understanding the system of government and the importance of the actual policies that political parties wish to adopt.
This year’s election is to be held early – in September, not in November as is the norm. So the weather on election day is more likely to be cool and wet. And poor weather often reduces voter turnout. Just ask any Labour Party official about that. Higher turnouts occur when there is a real contest between parties and the electorate is strongly divided. The 93.7 per cent turnout in 1984 (in spite of bad weather on the day) was because most voters had simply had a gutsful of Robert Muldoon. And Labour was swept into power.
High turnouts normally favour the left-wing parties. So the National Party won’t mind at all if many young people stay away from the polling booths on 20 September. On the other hand, as National’s opinion-poll results have been averaging about 50 per cent lately, some of their potential supporters may decide that Mr Key doesn’t need their help.
So, how much does National have to worry about complacency among their supporters? National’s share of the party vote increased from 44.9 per cent in 2008 to 47.3 per cent in 2011. That looks impressive, but it was in the context of a fall in turnout. The actual number of voters who gave National a tick only increased by half of one per cent. In contrast, the numbers that voted either Labour or Green declined by 9.7 per cent. Anything that sparks a remobilisation of left-leaning voters could therefore lead to a very close race indeed.
In 2014, the Labour and Internet Mana parties have both talked up the idea of re-engaging the young and the disenfranchised (non-)voters, in order to expand the pool of left-wing votes. Labour’s former MP Shane Jones used to talk about 800,000 voters missing from the last election. So local party organisations on all sides will work hard to get their supporters out to the polling booths on the day.
National appears to be trying to reduce left-leaning voter turnout by making the election as boring and uncontroversial as possible. They offer no potentially controversial policies like asset-sales this time around. Mr Key says that National will go to the electorate to seek approval for his government’s past achievements. Full stop. No mention of GCSB legislation or asset-sales. No bold promises either.
A complacent electorate that is simply bored with or confused about politics and sees no urgent contest of ideas, policies or personalities will vote in relatively low numbers. For National to regain office they need to avoid controversies that might stir up support for the left, and to battle electoral complacency among those who are content with the status quo.
Of course, events between now and the election could upset that plan. Something galvanizing could come up before 20 September. But not if Mr Key can help it.