That’s right: New Zealand’s national elections! So in the interest of keeping you, my loyal reader(s), in touch with the exceptionally important minutiae of the political maneuverings of a teeny tiny parliamentary democracy in the South Pacific, I thought I’d push back the post I’d originally planned in order to fill you in on the fascinating world of New Zealand politics. YAY!!!
The intricacies are a little bit confusing, but the basic idea is that New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary democracy. Queen Elizabeth II is the Queen of New Zealand and the (politically neutral) head of state, who is represented by a Governor-General. The government is made up of one main legislative body (Parliament), which consists of a single house (the House of Representatives). Members of Parliament (MPs) are elected every three years using the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system, which means that every person has two votes (I know, crazy right?). Here’s how MMP works: There are 120 MPs and 70 electorates (voting precincts). Each electorate elects one MP, and the other 50 (“List MPs”) are elected from political party lists. Each voter gets two votes. The first vote – the party vote – is for the political party the voter most wants to be represented in Parliament (it decides the total number of seats each party gets in Parliament). The second vote – the electorate vote – is to choose the MP the voter wants to represent the electorate they live in. Under current MMP rules, a political party that wins at least one electorate vote OR 5% of the party vote gets a proportional share of the seats in Parliament. So if, for example, a party gets 30% of the party vote, it will get roughly 36 MPs in Parliament (30% of 120 seats). If that same party wins 20 electorate seats it will have 16 List MPs in addition to its 20 Electorate MPs. Make sense? Didn’t think so. The process is explained in far more detail here and here.
The current Prime Minister is John Key, of the National Party, and the opposition leader is Phil Goff, who heads the next-largest party in Parliament (the Labour Party). National is roughly equivalent to our Republican Party (socially and fiscally conservative) while Labour is roughly equivalent to the Democratic Party (more center-left and socially progressive). Labour was in power for nine of the past 12 years, while National has only gained control for the past three. New Zealand has a very active multi-party system, with at least 5 major parties represented in every election and an almost perpetual coalition government in place (meaning one party rarely wins enough votes to control Parliament on its own). Some of the other major parties are the Green Party (focused, surprisingly enough, on environmentalism), the ACT Party (a “free market classical liberal political party”), and the Maori Party (which is pretty self-explanatory).
One of the nice things about New Zealand politics is that candidates don’t really start campaigning seriously until about 6 months before the election. It’s quite a nice change from the US, where a President barely has time to do anything before he (or she) has to start campaigning again! The political campaigning in NZ started even later this year (much to Marg and Rob’s delight) because of the Rugby World Cup; you’d barely even know there was an election this week if it weren’t for the mini campaign billboards set up every few meters along the roads. The political debates are also far more heated than ones in the United States, such as this recent meeting between the party leaders:
New Zealand was also the first country in the world where all the highest offices were occupied by women at the same time (Queen Elizabeth II of New Zealand, Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright, Prime Minister Helen Clark, Speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives Margaret Wilson and Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias). I knew there was a reason I liked it here!
One of the key issues in the upcoming election is the question of whether or not to sell government assets. Like many countries around the world New Zealand has suffered economically in recent years, and the question remains how best to make up for their increasing budget deficits. John Key and the National Party have suggested the Government could free up as much as $10 billion from the partial sale of key assets, including a stake in Air New Zealand and up to 49% of their stakes in four major state-owned power companies. Labour, on the other hand, says this is a huge mistake and supports introducing a 15% capital gains tax that will apply to the sale of all investment houses, baches (beach houses), land, farms, shares and most businesses starting in 2013.
Kiwis will also be voting on a referendum on their current voting system, where they will be asked whether they think NZ should change from MMP, and if so which of four other voting systems they would prefer instead. If at least half of the voters opt to keep MMP there will be an independent review of the system in 2012, while if more than half of them opt to change the voting system Parliament will decide if there will be another referendum in 2014 to choose between MMP and the next-most-popular alternative. So pretty much they’ll be voting on a referendum for another referendum… maybe.
The biggest news story lately hasn’t been about key policy issues, however – instead it’s been the buzz surrounding the legality of a secretly-taped conversation between two major political candidates, Prime Minister John Key and Act Party candidate for Epsom, John Banks. The so-called “Teapot Tape Scandal” regards a recent meeting between the two in which they met for a conversation in a public cafe but requested that the media not be present. A reporter from the Herald on Sunday paper “accidentally” left a recording device running at the table where they were sitting however, and secretly recorded the entire conversation. This led to Key accusing the media of “News of the World”-type reporting tactics, a police seizure of the tape(s), and a High Court case to determine the legal status of the recording and whether or not the two could have had a reasonable expectation of privacy. Key has remained conspicuously silent about the tape’s contents (leading to speculation that he made disparaging or damaging remarks about certain key political or social figures), and the reporter has even threatened to take out a defamation suit again the Prime Minister! In addition to being some sensational media fodder, the case has also raised questions about privacy that could have far-reaching consequences for media and privacy laws in New Zealand and (possibly) beyond. A High Court judge should be delivering their verdict on the case in the next day or so.
All things considered, it’s been fun to listen to someone else’s political drama and ignore the slow motion car accident happening in the government back home. It’s going to be an exciting race over the next few days – I’ll keep you updated on the results!
UPDATE: With 48% of the national vote (!) National had a resounding victory on Saturday. The final result, with all booths counted, gave National 60 seats, Labour 34, The Green Party 13, NZ First 8, and Maori Party 3, while the Mana Party, UnitedFuture and ACT all won a seat each. (The Mana Party is the new rival Maori political party, and UnitedFuture won its way back into Parliament in a surprising victory after several years of defeat.) Because National didn’t get enough votes to control Parliament on its own however, it will have to form a coalition government. While the negotiations are still taking place, it seems that Labour will most likely form confidence and supply partnerships with ACT and UnitedFuture; John Key is also hoping to reach a deal with the Maori party, though their strong opposition to government asset sales is proving to be a delicate subject. 54.4% of voters voted to keep MMP, so their voting system will remain in place for at least the next three years.
Following his party’s resounding loss Phil Goff, Labour’s leader for the past 3 years, resigned his position (as did his deputy Annette King). That gave Labour two weeks to pick a new leader, which the caucus must vote on by December 13th. “The three Davids” – David Cunliffe, David Parker and David Shearer – all put their names in as potential replacements and started campaigning, though as of today (December 2nd) David Farrar had withdrawn and announced his support of David Shearer.
The biggest story after the election was not Goff’s resignation, however – instead it was the historic “low” voter turnout, with only 68.8% of eligible voters going to the polls. It was New Zealand’s lowest voter turnout in over a century! Voters across the country were outraged, and many blamed the media polls for convincing people that it wasn’t worth voting since National was a shoe-in. (People have since started discussing banning political polls because of their misleading effects on public opinion.) Others advanced the idea that voter apathy was to blame, and even suggested that the result could have been due to the truncated campaign season this year; a NZ Herald editorial summed it up pretty nicely.) Compared to our measly 54% average voter turnout (which can be as low as 30% in non-national election years, and is ranked one of the lowest in the world regardless), it feels good be in a place where failure to exert one’s constitutional rights sparks a national outrage! I only hope the US can take an example from the Kiwis in that regard.