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Rankin Column: Whither the Greens?

Keith Rankin's Thursday Column
Election Reflection
2 December 1999

Rankin Column: Whither the Greens?

Following the election results on the Internet, I willed the Green vote over the 5% mark. It was like watching the "runs per over required" statistic in a one-day cricket match. To no avail. As Labour's percentage kept rising and New Zealand First's kept falling, the Green's hovered at around 4.86%, settling eventually at 4.88%.

I believe that the Greens more anarchic approach to politics serves as a useful counterweight to the controlling instincts that have long been a part of the political culture of Labour politics.

A half decent party vote (ie over 4,500) for the Greens in Coromandel would have got them over the 5% threshold. It seems that there was an unofficial pact in Coromandel: the centre-left electorate vote was to go to Green's co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons, and the centre-left party vote would go to Labour.

Green voters delivered on that bargain, but Labour voters did not. Labour won the party vote there, while the Green Party got just 2,251 party votes in Coromandel.

Act's decision to not run a candidate made it one candidate on the right against three on the left in a first-past-the-post election. If Act had stood a candidate, then Fitzsimons would have won the seat. The Alliance responded to a similar situation in Wellington central, enabling Labour to defeat Act's Richard Prebble there. If the Alliance had done the same in Coromandel, the Greens would have got through.

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Jeanette's Fitzsimons' losing electorate vote was a healthy 39.3%, about the same as Labour's winning share of the nationwide party vote. Fitzsimons' result can be compared with those of Judith Tizard in Auckland Central (39.2%, "majority" 4,538) and Winston Peters in Tauranga (only 30.9%).

It seems so unfair that Winston Peter's, with 30.9% of the electorate vote, could bring 6 MPs into Parliament with 4.3% of the nationwide party vote, whereas Jeanette Fitzsimons, with 39.3% of her electorate vote, was unable to bring any of the more popular Greens into Parliament.

Despite the less than complete commitment of the centre-left parties to a centre-left victory, I do believe that the Greens will reach 5% of the party vote after specials are counted. This is because many of those who were late to register to vote were young people. An Ice TV pre-election telephone poll gave 19% support to the Greens. The late interest of young voters seems to have been inspired by the realisation that there was a party on the left with ideals, and with candidates who were a bit different.

Preferential Voting in Electorates?

It would be tempting to claim that, if preferential voting had been used in electorates, Winston Peters would have lost Tauranga and Jeanette Fitzsimons would have won Coromandel. But I suspect that the Labour candidate would have won Coromandel had preferential voting been used to decide the electorate winner. In eliminating tactical voting, preferential voting probably reduces the chance of minor party electorate success, as Australian experience suggests. What we can say is that neither Peters nor National's Murray Maclean would have won their seats if preferential voting had been used.

The hurdles parties face under MMP at present are (i) too high at 5% of the party vote, and (ii) too inconsistent in the case of FPP electorate votes. We need to reduce the hurdle to 4%, and to adopt preferential voting to eliminate the tactical voting that creates both injustice and confusion. It is hard to give voters the simple message that it is the party vote that matters when all of the drama is in the Coromandel and Tauranga electorate polls?

A Mandate?

Does a Labour-Alliance government have a mandate? These parties are overrepresented in the new Parliament. On election night they got 52.5% of the seats with 46.8% of the vote, about the same level of support that FPP got in the 1993 referendum. Under FPP Labour would have been much more overrepresented than they are under MMP. They would have prevailed in perhaps 66% of the seats. The Alliance would have got 1 seat.

The centre-left has a mandate. But Labour and the Alliance do not have a mandate to force through policies that no other party - including the Green Party - supports.

The Cannabis Vote

I thought it was irresponsible the way the media emphasised the Green's cannabis policy while ignoring the very real challenges posed by the Greens in social and economic policy. Jeannette Fitzsimons wanted to talk about "the new internationalism" - ie an alternative international economic philosophy to that of global free trade and investment.

In its own way, the election proved that cannabis does damage individuals' intellectual and moral faculties. Over 18,000 people voted for the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party. If any of them had had even half a brain, they would have voted Green, thereby putting some liberalisation of cannabis laws at least on the agenda. By voting against their own self-interest, they discredited their cause. Furthermore, what kind of person is it who cares about nothing else other than the cannabis laws?

The First Elected Woman PM?

It is a nonsense to call Helen Clark the first elected woman Prime Minister. Prime Ministers - as distinct from Presidents - are elected by the caucuses of the party that dominates the government. Jenny Shipley was thus elected. The voters vote for local candidates and party lists; not for Prime Ministers.

Who Says that MPs are Unpopular?

Another interesting feature of the election was the development of the electorate vote as a personal vote. Thus people like Harry Duynhoven in New Plymouth won by a margin of 20,000 rather than the usual 500 in the FPP days. And Tony Steel in Hamilton East was able to resist a big swing against his party.

On the whole, the election showed that most of us like and trust our local MPs. This is inconsistent with the inference from the referendum that we don't trust MPs as a collective. This time it was clear which MPs were disliked: eg Max Bradford, Ian Revell. Bradford, rejected by the people of Rotorua, deserved to remain in Parliament because he was endorsed at the national level through the party vote.

Not only do we like our electorate MPs but we like our list MPs. Those party lists with large numbers of sitting MPs did best. We could have rejected National and Labour MPs en masse. But we chose those we knew in preference to those we didn't know.

That Slow Count

Why was the election night count so slow? I wonder if there was a piece of covert industrial action taking place. The decision to give counting the referendums priority might have been a kind of "work-to-rule". The two referendums were piggy backed on the election to save money. Electoral staff were expected to do much more work for little more pay.

In the end the referendums were a waste of money in that they told us nothing we didn't already know. The votes were not informed by debate and the questions were designed to appeal to sentiment rather than to the design of effective legislation. Almost nobody was surprised that the two YES votes were very big, and that the one for hard labour for criminals was the biggest.

Long-Run Strategies

In the future, both the Alliance and Act will need to develop some new electorate bases. Both parties are uncomfortably close to the 5% threshold, and Jim Anderton cannot go on forever. Both parties need a situation similar to that of United in Ohariu-Belmont. Grant Gillon seems like the sort of person who could win large cross-party support in an electorate seat. Likewise, Act needs someone like Owen Jennings in a seat like Port Waikato.

I think it would be a great pity if Act did not survive as the ideas party of the right. Much better to have a party openly contesting the right than to have a ruthless right-wing faction within Labour or National. Act, along with all the other parties in the last Parliament, did contribute constructively to the process of governance in New Zealand.

Overcoming Past Gerrymanders

Why is the electoral map so much bluer in the North? In fact northern New Zealanders are not more right-wing by inclination than are southern New Zealanders. It's just that there are many more Maori in the left-wing constituency in the north. Their votes are creamed off into the Maori seats. Fortunately with MMP, because only the separate party vote counts in determining the government, the fact that most local MPs in the north are National doesn't really matter.

Under FPP (and the SM [supplementary member] system that National wants to replace MMP with), the Maori seats acted as a classic right-wing gerrymander. The trick was to cream off a large proportion of the left vote into a few electorates which had huge Labour majorities election after election. The effect was that the diversion of say 10% of the left-wing vote was enough to give most of the general seats to the right most of the time. In the old days it was always the provincial city marginals in the North Island that determined the government. Provincial cities with the highest numbers of Maori in their populations were the most consistently National (eg Whangarei and Rotorua), thanks to high proportions of their lower class populations being on a separate electoral roll.

MMP must be retained for the very long term, if for no other reason than to ensure that the existence of Maori seats does not bias the final result against the parties that Maori support.


We needed a change of government. I just hope that we do not have inflated expectations of the Labour-Alliance government. Much change happens despite government rather than because of it, so we should be slow to confer praise or heap damnation upon the new government.

In the coming decade, the New Zealand electorate is looking for fairness and inclusion; not revolution, not counter-revolution. We are also looking for new ideas. We need a government that listens; that does not act as if it has all the answers.

I believe that, if the Greens make it into this Parliament, the Fifth Labour Government is less likely to do the harm to itself and to the country that its predecessor did in 1984-90. The Greens can help the government to maintain a democratic culture.

© 1999 Keith Rankin

SEE ALSO: Thursday Column Archive (1999): http://pl.net/~keithr/thursday1999.html

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