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Keith Rankin: Permutations and Combinations

Permutations and Combinations

Keith Rankin, 25 July 2002

What are some of the plausible (though not necessarily probable) configurations of parties in the new Parliament and their implications for Government? How safe are the senior politicians of National and Labour? And how can voters most effectively use their vote to elect a centre-left government?

Can the right win? Yes it can. (We should note that, if we had had MMP in 1978 and 1993, seemingly impregnable governments would have been slaughtered, just 3 years after 'landslide' wins. No party has a mortgage on power.) Bill English is right to note that, in a snap recent Herald DigiPoll, the 5 main parties with right-of-centre social or economic policies were marginally ahead of the 4 main parties to the left of centre.

If that result is replicated in the new Parliament, there will not be a National-led government in August 2002. But Bill English may well be Prime Minister by August 2003.

It is unlikely that New Zealand First or United Future would vote against a Labour-led government in a confidence motion when Parliament meets this August. But they would have real clout, because those two parties would not be committing hara kiri if, over some issue, they deny confidence to a Clark government. They have options. Further, Bill English has been careful not to abuse parties that he may need to form a government with, if asked by the Governor General. Contrast the unwarranted abuse that Labour chucked at Winston Peters in December 1996 and every opportunity since then.

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I think we should be asking the Governor General what she would do if a Labour-led government disintegrates before 2005. Sylvia Cartwright may not be as politically neutral as her predecessor.

We have no particular reason to fear a National/Act/Peters/Dunne government in 2003. It would be much like the coalition government that we had in late 1995 and most of 1996. The biggest danger to the public health would be the bloodletting within Labour. In such an event, this week's 'clean-out' of the NZ Rugby Union would be like nothing.

It is more likely, however, that the left and leftish parties will get marginally more votes than the combined right and rightish. But, if Lynne Pillay pips Laila Harre in Waitakere, the Alliance's contribution won't count, possibly giving the right more seats than the left.

The best option for Labour - given that an overall majority was never a realistic possibility - is a minority coalition with Jim Anderton's loyal Democrats in which support from the Greens will be sufficient to hold confidence. Clark will be able to look for (and find) support from the rightish parties on any issue in which the Greens prove intransigent.

That still seems the most probable election outcome. But it may be a fine thing. 60% chance maximum, I would say. Both Labour and the Greens will poll lower than they otherwise would have had Nicky Hager's book not happened during the campaign.

I would prefer the Greens to be in Cabinet than merely supporting Labour on 'confidence and supply'. Such a Cabinet would precipitate the overdue rewriting of the Cabinet Manual.

If we get a Labour-Green government, the GE issue will disappear. Labour will just, without fuss, extend the moratorium until 2005. There was never really a likelihood that the non-extension of the moratorium on GE release would be declared by Labour to be a vote of confidence.

Hardly anyone has been talking about the possibility of 'overhang' MPs this time. Which possibly means that this is the election that will give us more than 121 MPs. One possibility is Laila Harre winning Waitakere despite the Alliance getting less than 0.4% of the party vote. She would then become an overhang MP as her party would not qualify for any of the 120 proportional seats.

The more general overhang scenario relates to Labour and National. The "exaggerated swing" logic of first-past-the-post still largely applies to the 67 electorate seats. At a glance, I picked 46 electorate seats for Labour, 18 for National and 3 others (Anderton, Dunne, Peters).

Under first-past-the-post (FPP), the only thing that mattered was the margin between National and Labour. At present, that margin is wider than I have ever know it to be. Labour is now polling about what it usually polls. National is way down. This means Labour should have a huge advantage in electorates won.

If we only had electorate voting, the electorate vote would be the party vote (as it always was before 1996). On that basis, and even on the snap Herald DigiPoll results, Labour would get about 60 electorate seats. Indeed I believe that Labour will outscore National in the party vote in about 60 of the 67 electorates.

It will only be a high personal vote for many National MPs that will give National as many as 18 electorate MPs. (Infighting in the left will also cede Coromandel to National.)

Let's do the maths for Labour. 46 out of 120 is 38.3%. So if Labour gets 38% of the vote and 46 electorates, then Labour will get no list MPs. Bye-bye Michael Cullen. If Labour gets less than 38% of the vote and 46 MPs, then it will gain overhang seats. Cullen might not even be there to be deputy leader of the Opposition in 2003, let alone Deputy Prime Minister.

An alternative scenario gives overhang seats to National. In this scenario a high personal vote for National MPs and National candidates might give National say 28 electorate seats. That's 23.3% of the mandated 120 seats. National would then get no list MPs. Bye-bye Don Brash. That would be a third humiliation for him; the others were in 1980 and 1981.

If both National and Labour fall in the polls yet still remain the biggest two parties, then all the list places may go to 'minor' parties and both National and Labour might get overhang electorate MPs. It's not likely. But it's more likely than most of us realise.

I hope (and think) that both Cullen and Brash will make it. Parliament needs them. While both have motes in their eyes, I don't believe that the absence of either will improve the level of economic debate in this country.

A vote for any of National, Act, New Zealand First or United Future will probably be of equal effect in electing a rightish government. A vote for National or Act will of course bring forward the date in which the right is asked by the Governor General to form a government.

How then can we vote most effectively to keep the right out of power? This is how it goes:

  • All left and leftish voters in Waitakere should vote for Laila Harre. Likewise for Anderton (not Anderson!) in Wigram.
  • Left voters should vote Green.
  • Tactical voters should vote for the Anderton Democrats; sorry, for Jim Anderton's Progressive Coalition. With 1.2% of the vote for the PC, Matt Robson makes it back into Parliament and possibly into Cabinet. If the Greens do not get into Cabinet, then I want Matt Robson to be in Cabinet keeping an eye on Labour excesses. (If the PC get 2% of the party vote, then Grant Gillon will also get back. So a party vote for the Progressive Coalition will be an effective vote for a stable left Government).

Whatever happens, the fractious mix that we get will be a microcosm of the fractious mix that we are. We cannot blame the politicians for our divisions. In a democracy, it is us, the people, who must take responsibility for political outcomes. Politicians, like us, are good people, whatever their political hue.

The worst political outcomes arise from cynicism and apathy. We should do what we can to help the next government to be a good government, whoever gets to sit around the Cabinet table.

© 2002 Keith Rankin

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