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Maxim Real Issues No. 175

No. 175, 22 SEPTEMBER 2005

When the tail wags the dog

Law already operates to shut down "hate speech"

Speculation underway on the special votes

When the tail wags the dog

Germany also went to the polls on the weekend. The results generated some striking similarities with New Zealand. This is not surprising as New Zealand's Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system is modelled on the MMP system used in Germany.

Although MMP allows a greater number of parties to be represented in Parliament, the problem often arises that there is not a clear winner and parties must negotiate to form a government. Since the minor parties reflect a number of sectional interests, this makes the task a lot trickier.

Both the New Zealand and German campaigns were fiercely fought between the major parties on the left and the right. In Germany, these were the incumbent Social Democrats (SPD), led by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU). Although the CDU led in the polls, hard campaigning by Schröder saw the final difference between the two major parties at only one percent on election night (CDU 35 percent, SPD 34 percent), the same as the difference between Labour and National. The result is just as inconclusive as New Zealand's, since both Merkel and Schröder have claimed they can form the next government.

Although the CDU has the largest number of seats in the German Parliament, it will be difficult for Merkel to stitch together a coalition because none of the minor parties (the Greens, the Left party or the Liberals) want to work with each other in a coalition government, much like the situation in New Zealand. The election results in both countries showed decreasing support for a red-green government.

As in New Zealand, German politicians are trying to negotiate an agreement. However, their options appear even more limited than those available to Helen Clark or Don Brash. New Zealand's situation is not as dire, but both elections show that the political dynamic created by MMP must be consensual before it can be strong or stable, as Helen Clark and Gerhard Schröder claim. The government 'the people' finally end up with may not bear close relation to the votes cast, as small parties can end up having an influence disproportionate to their size.

To read an article on MMP by Maxim researcher Steve Thomas, featured in the winter issue of Evidence, please visit; http://www.maxim.org.nz/evidence/evidence05_winter_thomas.html

Law already operates to shut down "hate speech"

A man who sent offensive letters containing slices of pork to Muslims has been jailed for six months for criminal harassment under the Harassment Act 1997. The man had randomly selected Muslim names out of a phone book because he was angry at the September 11 terrorist attack and the Bali bombing.

This latest sentence shows that the law already operates to prohibit certain speech that could be deemed hateful or insulting and that further laws restricting "hate speech" may be unwarranted.

The Harassment Act is one of six pieces of legislation that prohibit speech that has the potential to cause offence, harm or ridicule. Words that are likely to "excite hostility or bring into contempt" any group on the grounds of colour, race or origin are prohibited under the Human Rights Act, and words that are intended to "threaten, alarm or insult" are prohibited under the Summary Offences Act.

The Government Administration Committee has, over the past year, conducted an inquiry into whether New Zealand should have laws banning so called "hate speech", but has not yet reported back to Parliament. This latest court sentence makes it clear that further restriction on freedom of expression to control so called "hate speech" is not warranted, and would be an unjustified limitation on our freedom of expression affirmed by the New Zealand Bill of Rights 1990.

To read Maxim Institute's submission on the Inquiry into "hate speech" from May 2005, please click here: http://www.maxim.org.nz/ri/HateSpeechSubmission.pdf

Speculation underway on the special votes

With the Election result in the balance, much is going to depend on the 218,000 special votes still being counted. In the past, these have tended to favour Labour and the Greens. However, past years may not necessarily be a good guide for estimating their impact this time round.

In previous years, up to 25 percent of special votes have been disallowed. The discard rate was at its lowest in 2002, when 93 percent of party votes were valid. If we take 90 percent as being a likely percentage this time, that leaves the parties fighting over approximately 196,000 valid votes.

On the Election night count, the overall vote for centre-left parties, including the Maori Party, dropped from 51 percent to 49 percent. The centre-right (defined broadly to include New Zealand First and United Future) climbed from 47 percent to 50 percent. Labour, with 41 percent of the party vote on Saturday night, currently has 50 seats. National is currently 1 percent behind, with 49 seats.

Based on the approximation above, to remain at 5 percent, the Greens would need 8,350 of the special votes, or 4 percent; less than that, and they would fall below the threshold of 5 percent of the party vote and lose all their seats in Parliament. This would have implications for coalitions, and possibly determine who forms the next government.

In the previous two elections, the Greens have done well in the specials, possibly because they were held during the university holidays. If students were registered in the electorate where they were studying, many would have cast a special vote. This year there are not likely to be as many students who registered special votes, but the Greens are still unlikely to fall below the threshold. This scenario illustrates how under MMP, smaller parties may be very influential in determining the final outcome of an election.


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