Elections in New Zealand

We received the following report on the recent elections in New Zealand. We are reproducing it here because of the interesting information and analysis of these developments which, as far as we know, have not been covered seriously from a Marxist point of view elsewhere. The final count of the New Zealand election results, incorporating the Special votes, did not come out till 9th December, just after the article was posted on the web, so there is also an update attached as a postscript.

We have just received the following report on the recent elections in New Zealand. We are reproducing it here because of the interesting information and analysis of these developments which, as far as we know, have not been covered seriously from a Marxist point of view elsewhere.

The election held on 27th November 1999 for New Zealand’s single-chamber parliament saw a big swing to the left and a clear majority of seats for a new coalition government to be formed by the two workers’ parties, Labour and the Alliance. The outgoing Prime Minister, National Party leader Jenny Shipley, was New Zealand’s first woman Prime Minister. But she obtained that position by replacing the incumbent Prime Minister Jim Bolger after an internal struggle within the National Party. Labour’s Helen Clark will be the first woman Prime Minister to be elected to the position. I mention this for the record. But I cannot resist pointing out that Britain got its first woman Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, twenty years ago, and a fat lot of good that did for British working women.

This will be the second election to be held under the Mixed Member Proportional electoral system (MMP). Each voter gets two votes, The Electorate Vote for a candidate in a single-member electorate, and the Party Vote for a political party’s national List. With a couple of complicating qualifications, which I will discuss below, the overall number of seats each party gets is basically proportional to its share of the Party Vote nationally. The number of electorate seats each party wins is topped up with members from its List to equal its calculated overall entitlement.

Counting the Special Votes (equivalent of postal and proxy votes in UK) will not be completed for about ten days. But the picture is clear.

Percentage of Party Votes compared with the last Parliamentary election (1996)

 


1999

1996

swing

Labour

38.9

28.3

10.6

Alliance

7.9

10.1

-2.2

Green

4.9

n/a

n/a

All left parties

51.7

38.4

13.3

 


 


 


 


National

30.7

33.0

-2.3

ACT

7.0

6.1

0.9

Christian Heritage

n/a

4.4

n/a

Christian Coalition

2.4

n/a

n/a

Future NZ

1.1

n/a

n/a

All right parties

41.2

43.5

-2.3

 


 


 


 


NZ First

4.2

17.0

-12.8

United

0.5

0.5

0.0

All centre parties

4.7

17.5

-12.8

Seats

 


electorates

list

total

total 1996

Labour

42

10

52

37

Alliance

1

10

11

13

National

22

19

41

44

ACT

0

9

9

8

NZ First

1

5

6

17

United

1

0

1

1

TOTAL

67

53

120

120

 

Turn-out figures are not available yet, but are expected to have been high, as they were last time.

The big winner was Labour, the main workers’ party, which increased its share of the Party Vote from 28.3% in 1996 to 38.9%, a 10.6% swing or, looked at another way, a gain of 37.5% in comparison with their share in 1996. An superficial look at the figures suggests something of a reversal in fortunes for the Alliance, the newer, smaller and more left-wing of the two worker’s parties. They got 7.9% of the Party Vote compared with 10.1% last time. However, in 1997 the Greens, who were always a big component of the Alliance, split from the Alliance, taking their two Alliance List MPs with them. The Greens fought this election as a separate party. So, for the purpose of trend analysis, it is instructive to compare the 1996 vote for the Alliance, 10.1%, with the equivalent of the combined vote for the Alliance and the Greens this time round, 12.8%. That represents a 26.7% gain compared with their 1996 result, comparable to Labour’s 37.5%.

The chances of the Greens qualifying for seats has been one of the two cliff-hangers of the election. Under the rules of MMP, in order to discourage the proliferation of small parties, a party is only entitled to its proportional quota of seats if it gets either 5% of the Party Vote or one Electorate seat. The Greens got 4.9% of the Party Vote. And their co-leader, Jeanette Fitzsimons, came just 114 votes short of winning Coromandel, the only electorate where the Greens were in with a chance. Coromandel occasioned a type of tactical voting inherent in these rules of MMP. Fitzsimons got 12,309 Electorate Votes compared with 3,571 for the Labour candidate. But only 2,251 Coromandel voters gave the Greens their Party Vote, whilst 11,428 gave their Part Votes to Labour. Clearly, most Labour supporters in Coromandel gave Fitzsimons their Electorate Votes to maximise the chances of the Greens qualifying for seats and thus boosting the overall gains of the Left in Parliament. Similarly, when it became clear that the situation in Coromandel gave the Greens a real chance of getting into Parliament, their support nationally, as shown by opinion polls, shot up over the space of a couple of weeks from 1 or 2 percent to 5 or 6 percent.

It cannot be ruled out that the Greens could cross one or other of these two thresholds when the Special Votes have been added up, which is expected to have happened by about 7th December. If the Greens do qualify, they would have 6 seats in the 120-seat House of Representatives (The New Zealand Parliament’s only chamber - "the House with no Peers"). Some but not all of those seats would be at the expense of Labour. Labour and the Alliance would not, after all, have an overall majority in the House. But, if the Greens are counted as a Left party, the overall majority of the Left in the House would be strengthened. The Greens have pledged to support a Labour-led government if they get their seats. Whether this would be as full coalition partners or as informal supporters of a minority Labour-Alliance coalition government would be subject to negotiation.

Like its sister Green parties around the world, the New Zealand Green party is endemically middle class in composition and outlook. On paper, their electoral programme is well to the left of Labour. But this jars with the fact that tend to be somewhat besotted with the ideals of petty-bourgeois individualism. They hope for a world of small businesses and small communes. The concept that the peoples of the world might actually work together to make the world a better place seems to be lost on them. Here is one example. They recently had a big campaign to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution by encouraging people to more often leave their cars behind and instead walk, bike or take their chances of the woefully inadequate public transport system. This is probably counter-productive: it gives people the impression that the solution to transport problems is the atomised actions of individuals when what is really needed is massive investment in an integrated public transport system as part of a socialist plan of production. If challenged along these lines, Greens respond that of course they are in favour of improvements in the public transport system, "but we have to do something now", because socialism is just a pipe-dream to them. They are a bundle of contradictions, indicative of the ferment in process in a section of the middle layers of society in this era of prolonged capitalist crisis. If they get into Parliament, one of their most promising MPs will be Sue Bradford, a staunch champion of the unemployed and veteran organiser of protest rallies. Bradford also polled well in the electorate she contested.

The election saw the share of the Part Vote of Prime Minister Jenny Shipley’s National, the main bourgeois party, fall from 33% in 1996 to 30.7%. After 9 years in office, National fought a rather negative campaign, concentrating on the alleged vices of Labour and the Alliance. "Under a Labour-Alliance government, taxes will go up and there will be more strikes" was one of their main poster slogans. Many workers are, of course, keen to see some of the cuts in public spending reversed, if necessary through increased taxation, particularly of the rich. And New Zealand’s recent low strike rate is contradicted by the relentless squeeze on pay and conditions that have been suffered by many workers. So, like me, a lot of people must have looked at that National poster and thought "Oh really? Good!".

In the last couple of weeks of the election, when it suddenly appeared that there was a good chance that the Greens might hold the balance of power, National also launched a hilariously desperate attack on the Greens, concentrating on their policy of legalising marijuana and on those two notorious law breakers who were expected to become Green MPs: Sue Bradford, who has been arrested a few times in confrontations with police on demos; and that demonic corrupter of youth, the self-confessed marijuana-smoking dreadlocked Rastafarian Nandor Tanczos. Most people in New Zealand under 50,especially potential Green voters, have smoked pot. So this attack by National against the Greens was probably actually counter-productive rather than merely lame. With all this attention, Nandor Tanczos was interviewed by all the media. He did not appear to be stoned on duty but rather to be a lucid and reasonable bloke.

The newer, smaller and more right-wing bourgeois party is Richard Prebble’s Act Party. (They no longer use the naff name Association of Citizens and Taxpayers, for which their party name was originally an acronym.) One tactic Act used to gain votes was to beat the anti-Maori drum. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 by representatives of the British crown and by many Maori chiefs throughout the country. It was supposed to guarantee two contradictory things: traditional rights of chieftainship for the Maori chiefs and overall "governorship" of the country for the British crown. It was never ratified by the British Parliament and was regarded by successive colonial governments and their successor New Zealand governments as a legal nullity, "a praiseworthy device to amuse savages". But the Waitangi Tribunal was formed in 1976 to arbitrate Maori claims against the crown on the basis of the Treaty and for the restoration of land unfairly taken from Maori, particularly the confiscations following the New Zealand Wars of the 19th century. In their campaign for this election, Act have been demanding the disbanding of the Waitangi Tribunal by 2002, with the settlement of all claims by then and an absolute cap of NZ$0.5 billion further compensation. Of course Act are not racists, they would argue. In fact Prebble’s wife is a Pacific Islander. But, they argue, it will be in Maoris’ own interests to get away from "this dependency culture".

Act did manage to boost their share of the Party Vote at the expense of National to 7.0% compared with 6.1% in 1996 and will have 9 seats compared with 8 in 1996. So Prebble is claiming that "Act is one of the winners of this election". But this is well short of the fifteen or seventeen seats Act were boasting they were going to get: it seems to be pretty slim pickings considering that Prebble’s big business backers have spent an estimated NZ$2 million (about US$1.9 million or £0.7 million), quite a lot of money in New Zealand, on funding Act’s campaigns since the last election.

Prebble had his equivalent of Coromandel in the 1996 election, when he won the Wellington Central electorate after the then National Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, in the last few days of the campaign advised National supporters to give a tactical Electorate Vote to Prebble instead of to the National candidate. This time, the Alliance and Greens withdrew their candidates several weeks before the election and advised their supporters to give a tactical Electoral Vote to Labour’s Marian Hobbs. This was the only seat where Labour and the Alliance made an agreement not to stand competing candidates. As a Wellington Central elector myself, having given my Electorate Vote to Hobbs and my Party Vote to the Alliance, it was gratifying to me personally that Wellington Central this time did in fact boot Prebble out, with 14,416 votes for Hobbs and 13,315 for Prebble. (In 1996 I gave both my Party Vote and my Electorate vote to the Alliance, having correctly predicted - not too difficult on the basis of polls - that a) the combined Electorate Votes of Labour and the Alliance would not add up to Prebble’s, and that b) Act were going to get more than the 5% of the National Party Vote that would guarantee them seats even if Prebble did not win his electoral seat.)

Prebble must now be recalling his similar fate in the 1993 election. At that time, as a then member of the Labour cabinet, he was a key player, under the direction of Finance Minister Roger Douglas, in the introduction of monetarist policies by the Labour government from 1987 to 1990. In 1993, the Auckland Central electorate rejected Prebble in favour of the Alliance’s deputy leader, Sandra Lee. Of course 1993 was the last election to be held under the First-Past-the Post electoral system (FPP) that is still used in Britain. So on that occasion Prebble was out of Parliament for the next three years. This time neither Prebble nor Hobbs were in danger of being consigned to the dustbin of history just yet, as both of them were guaranteed to get back into Parliament due to their high placements on their respective Party Lists. Nonetheless, Prebble is one of those politicians who is addicted to winning, and it was a pleasure to see his obvious discomfort once it dawned on him that he was going to lose Wellington Central.

One minor satisfaction of this election is that the Christian fundamentalist reactionaries have again failed to use MMP to gain a foothold in Parliament. In 1996, their two squabbling parties formed an unprincipled Christian Coalition, (with two leaders no less!), in the hope of getting a combined Party Vote of at least the 5% they would need to get into Parliament. On that occasion they only managed 4.4%. This time the two feuding factions fought the election as two separate parties, managing just 3.5% between them. Though the fundamentalists have something of a base in the "bible belt" of the West Auckland suburbs, New Zealand is a very liberal (with a small "L") and secular country. Even the two bourgeois parties have liberal views on non-economic matters. Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, the daughter of a Methodist minister, made a point of putting in an appearance at the annual "Hero Parade" of gays and lesbians in Auckland earlier this year. Christian fundamentalists on Auckland City Council had tried to have the Parade banned.

The big losers of the 1999 election were New Zealand First, a centre party founded by Winston Peters, a National cabinet Minister in the 1990 government. Peter was expelled from the National party in 1992 for his leading role in exposing the "Wine-box Affair" a huge tax evasion scam involving some of New Zealand’s leading capitalist corporations, in particular the (privatised) Bank of New Zealand and the Fay-Richwhite merchant bank. He formed his New Zealand First in 1993 in anticipation of the expected eventual introduction of MMP. In the 1993 election, the last to be held under FPP, Peters held his Tauranga seat, previously a National stronghold, with a huge majority. Himself a Maori, Peters purported to champion the interests of Maori and also of pensioners (‘senior citizens’). Tau Henare also won the Northern Maori electorate for New Zealand First on the basis of dissatisfaction amongst Maori with Labour’s rightward shift. (Maori electorates are created for each election in proportion to the number of people of Maori descent who chose to go on the Maori Electoral Register rather than on the General Electoral Register. In the 120-seat Parliaments of the 1996 and 1999 elections, there have been six Maori seats.) In the 1996 election, Peters and Henare held their seats while New Zealand First won all the other five Maori seats. Till New Zealand First came along, all the Maori seats had been Labour strongholds for decades. New Zealand First got 17.0% of the Party Vote nationally and ended up with a total of 17 seats in the 1996 Parliament, holding the balance of power.

That is when Peters made his big mistake. Most New Zealand First voters expected Peters to go into coalition with Labour and the Alliance. This must clearly have seemed the best chance New Zealand First had of furthering the interests of Maori and pensioners. Peters insisted on holding coalition negotiations with both Labour and National. It later became widely known, though he denied it, that Peters had never had any intention of going into coalition with the workers’ parties. He had merely negotiated with them in order to get the best deal from National. Having been expelled from National, he wanted to rub their noses in it, becoming deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer, in charge of the budget. Matters were made worse in 1997 when the new National Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley, summarily dismissed Peters from office, risking the difficulties of a minority government for the rest of the Parliament’s term of office. Five New Zealand First MPs, including most of the holders of the Maori seats, then left New Zealand First and helped prop up National in government in exchange for cabinet posts and patronage. It became apparent that the political vacuum left by Maori voters’ disenchantment with Labour had been filled by a clique of opportunists and shady dealers. The most notorious of these, Tukurangi Morgan, was found to have used his position as director of a Maori radio station to siphon much of the government funding for the radio station into his own pocket, resulting in the bankruptcy and closure of the station. Perhaps one should not be to harsh on Tuku. After all, he had seen the power and perks the European bourgeoisie in New Zealand appropriate as their seeming god-given right. He just wanted his share of the gravy-train. But he got over-zealous and was caught.

The revenge of the voters in the 1999 election was exacted most especially on the double traitors who left New Zealand First. With their obsession with perks and patronage, they could not even get it together to form a single new party. The two new parties they formed barely got 0.2% of the Party Vote between them. New Zealand First itself fared just a little better. They only got 4.2% of the Party Vote, not enough to guarantee seats in Parliament. Winston Peters scraped home in Tauranga by just 323 votes against a big swing back to National in the electorate. Even that could possibly be reversed by inclusion of the Special Votes. Provided Peters has indeed held Tauranga, New Zealand will be entitled to four additional seats from the Party List and Peter can thank his lucky stars, having had to fight what has been by his own admission "the election campaign from hell". Labour regained all six Maori seats with huge majorities. Due to the vicissitudes of the MMP rules that I have explained, it seems that New Zealand First, with 4.2% of the Party Vote, will get 5 seats, while the Greens, who got 4.9%, may end up with no seats. No doubt this issue will be discussed when MMP comes up for its scheduled review in 2002.

Know-all bourgeois pundits have congratulated the Labour party on not promising too much, for presenting "a conservative program for a conservative people" as one of them put it. Indeed, these days the workers’ parties are at pains to call themselves "the centre-left", just as the bourgeois parties claim to be "the centre-right". Nobody wants to be seen as an "extremist". So are we to expect New Zealand’s Prime Minister-designate, Labour leader Helen Clark, to be the Tony Blair of New Zealand, a Tory wolf in Labour sheep’s clothing? Clearly, both leaders are committed to working within the straight-jacket of the capitalist system. They are both going to be severely tested if, as seems likely, the biggest world slump since 1933 occurs within their terms of office. But there are some important differences. Unlike Blair, Clark is no bourgeois interloper into the Labour party. She has been a Labour MP for 18 years and on the front bench for most of that time. In her acceptance speech she made after Jenny Shipley had conceded defeat, she said she would deliver on the revitalisation of the health and education section that working people needed. When interviewed afterwards, she said she still stood by what she said years ago, that Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble had ruined the Labour Party with their monetarist policies. She also said that Labour’s nine years in opposition had been a salutary experience, helping the party to get back to its roots.

Another factor is the question of to what extent the Alliance (and possibly the Greens if they get their quota of seats) will be able to push the coalition to the left. Labour and the Alliance made a pact in August 1998 that they would not attack each other in election campaign. This was to present an image to voters that they could make plausible united coalition partners. Nonetheless, the two parties campaigned on separate programs at the election. Both parties agreed that the relative weight their respective programs in the eventual coalition government’s program would be negotiable and dependent on the relative popular votes for the two parties. The Alliance had a far more radical program than Labour. Abolition of student loans:

Labour only wanted to the cap interest rate charged and exempt students from paying interest while they are studying or earning under NZ$30,000 a year. Free visits to doctors and free prescriptions. Abolition of the anti-trade union Employment Contracts Act brought in by National in 1991: Labour apparently only want to make one minor amendment to the Act. A minimum of four weeks paid annual leave: most employers still only give three weeks or a little more and Labour’s program had nothing to say on the subject. As I write, on the day after the election, Labour leader Helen Clark and Alliance leader Jim Anderton will have started their coalition talks in Auckland (Clark’s home turf). Just on a comparison of the two programs, it might seem hard to see how any worker could not vote Alliance. But most workers swung back to or stuck with Labour, their traditional organisation. This is a general tendency of workers throughout the world where there are well established workers parties with a history of mass support. So it is likely to be Labour who will be calling most of the shots in the coalition negotiations. Also, many workers may simply not have believed that the Alliance’s reforms were achievable. And, depending on economic developments, they may well prove not to be, on the basis of capitalism.

Neither Labour nor the Alliance is yet prepared to explain that it is a socialist plan of production under democratic workers’ control and management that can really satisfy workers’ reasonable aspirations. Both parties, but more so the Alliance, are under the illusion that New Zealand’s salvation lies in a partial return to the Keynesian policies that were discredited when they failed to stop the world recessions in the ‘7Os and ‘80s. Labour and the Alliance contrast their modest policies of state intervention to "prime the pump" of capitalist investment with National’s classic hands-off/laissez-faire approach.

Apparently the new model for New Zealand to emulate is the Republic of Ireland. Ireland had an economy that was very similar to that of New Zealand. They were two of the only four advanced capitalist countries where the basis of the economy was still mainly agricultural. (The other two were Denmark and Australia.) These days, reliance on agriculture is seen as an untenable basis for maintaining a high standard of living. The Irish government has provided infrastructural investment in the so-called "knowledge economy", information technology in particular. As result, it is argued, the Irish work-force has up-skilled and Ireland is a major beneficiary of the current USA-centred economic boom.

Clark and Anderton hope to emulate Ireland’s success in New Zealand. The terrible weakness of this whole scenario, which no politician in New Zealand (or Ireland so far as I know) is prepared to countenance, stems from the dependence of the Irish boom on the continuation of the American boom. Both are greatly dependant on the continued prosperity of the information technology industry, one that is currently subject to enormous over-production or over-capacity world-wide. So Ireland will be particularly hard-hit when the slump comes. And the plans of the New Zealand government-designate to hop on to the IT band-wagon may turn out to be too little too late. Workers tend to follow the line of least resistance on what will hopefully turn out to be their journey to the discovery of socialism. Right now it seems likely that the coming slump will teach workers and their parties in New Zealand and elsewhere a grim lesson about the limitations of Keynesian policies.

And we need to challenge the assertion that New Zealanders have such inherently conservative (with a small "C") attitudes that they will only open to the most modest changes in the political arena. As elsewhere, New Zealanders have been undergoing a sea-change towards disenchantment with capitalism, even though few as yet see any viable alternative. The New Zealand Study of Values, which was published a year ago under the direction of Professor Alan Webster, a social psychologist, surveyed New Zealand social attitudes and values and correlated them with economic class and political preference. On the basis of their findings, Webster predicted this election victory for the Left a year ago, on the basis of fundamental shifts in values rather than on the short-term tactics of politicians. One statistic from the survey jumped out at me in the summary article I read about it. Seventy percent of everybody surveyed thought that the country was "run by big interests". In a less precise and simplified form, this comes close to the Marxist theory of the state. Hopefully this is an early sign of a potential enthusiasm for revolutionary ideas in New Zealand.

Incumbent Prime Minister Jenny Shipley will stay on as head of a care-taker government at least till the Special Votes confirm the composition of the House next week and until the left parties agree terms for the coalition. Helen Clark is confident that we will have a new government by Christmas at the latest.

Rupert O'Shea
Wellington, New Zealand
28th November 1999.


Postscript on the New Zealand elections

The final count of the New Zealand election results, incorporating the Special votes, did not come out till 9th December, just after you posted my article on the web. Including the Special Votes actually did make quite a big difference to the composition of Parliament. Oneof the reasons for having a Special Vote is if you enrol to vote within a month of the election. The Greens did very well in the Special Votes, which they attributed to young people enrolling at the last minute once it looked like the Greens had a chance of getting into Parliament. They ended up qualifying for list seats under both criteria: they got more than 5% of the Party Vote and they won one electorate seat. The count on election night had them just missing out under both criteria. Winston Peters' New Zealand First Party failed to achieve the 5% threshold, but Peters won his Tauranga electorate by just 62 votes. So because New Zealand First won one electorate seat, they also get 4 list seats for their 4.3% of the Party Vote.

Party Vote (final)

 


1999

1996

swing

gain

Labour

38.7

28.2

10.5

37.3

Alliance

7.7

10.1

-2.4

-23.8

Green

5.2

n/a

n/a

 


All left parties

51.6

38.3

13.3

34.8

 


 


 


 


 


National

30.5

33.8

-3.3

-9.9

ACT

7.0

6.1

0.9

14.8

Christian Coalition

n/a

4.3

n/a

 


Christian Heritage

2.4

n/a

n/a

 


Future NZ

1.1

n/a

n/a

 


All right parties

41.0

44.3

-3.3

-7.4

 


 


 


 


 


NZ First

4.3

13.4

-9.1

-67.8

United

0.5

0.9

-0.4

-43.2

All centre parties

4.8

14.2

-9.4

-66.3

Seats

 


electorates

list

total

total 1996

Labour

41

8

49

37

Alliance

1

9

10

13

Green

1

6

7

n/a

National

22

17

39

44

ACT

0

9

9

8

NZ First

1

4

5

17

United

1

0

1

1

TOTAL

67

53

120

120

You may notice that my figures for comparison from the 1996 election are slightly different from what I previously quoted. That is because I realised I was using election night results for 1996. I have since tracked down final results (including special votes) for 1996 and have used those in the revised result tables.

With the Greens in parliament, the Labour-Alliance coalition do not, after all, have a majority of seats, as they appeared to have on election night, i.e. before the special votes were counted. On the other hand, if the Greens, Labour and the Alliance all are counted as left-wing parties, the share of seats for the Left is more than it appeared to be on election night.

Knowing that the Greens had promised to support the government on confidence and supply votes were they to get into parliament, Labour and the Alliance did not wait for the final results before making a coalition agreement. In 1996, Winston Peters took six weeks of negotiations with both Labour and National before agreeing to a coalition with National. This time Labour and the Alliance made their coalition deal in just five days. Rather than hammer out the whole program for the three-year parliamentary term, as was attempted in the 1996 coalition agreement, Labour and the Alliance have just agreed a protocol which will allow them to differ. So we may see Labour getting some legislation through without the support of the Alliance but with the support of other parties. The Labour-Alliance coalition will operate initially as a minority government. It is possible that the Greens might join the coalition at a later stage.