Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind


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Will COVID-19 harm our democracy?

The question posed in this blog’s title refers to Aotearoa New Zealand, and no other country. America, has an orange clown who all by himself is harming that nation’s democracy more than the virus can. Putin has already sunk Russia’s fledgling democracy, and Boris is trying to do a Trump impersonation, but is hamstrung by the collective decision making process inherent in a parliamentary democracy.

Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, it’s the government’s success in squashing the virus that makes me a little uneasy. It has made Jacinda and the Labour Party too popular based on recent polls. We have our triennial General Election in September, and if voting is anywhere near recent opinion polls, Labour will romp home with an clear, outright majority. And that’s the problem.

What I like about our MMP voting system is that since its introduction in 1996 no political party has been able to govern alone. This may not seem all that important to many today, but as one who lived through decades of governments that in many respects acted as three-year dictatorships, I’m grateful that no party can steamroll whatever legislation it likes through Parliament.

Perhaps the worst part of FPP voting is that it almost invariably leads to a two-party system, and if as in Aotearoa New Zealand, you have a unicameral legislature, the majority party has almost unbridled power and that was the case until the introduction of MMP.

Given that the NZ Parliament is sovereign and we don’t have a formal constitution, it is perhaps surprising that this nation has the highest levels of economic and personal of freedom and lowest levels of corruption worldwide. Perhaps it says something about our politicians, or about respecting social and parliamentary conventions?

Two conventions that have arisen from MMP ensure that a single political party does not hold sway over Parliament. One is that political parties do not form coalition arrangements before an election. The other is that coalitions are very loose allowing the coalition partners to pursue their own policies apart from those specified in the coalition agreement.

A case in point is the current government formed after a coalition agreement between the New Zealand Labour Party and the New Zealand First Party. Together they form a minority government, and to ensure stability on matters of confidence and supply, the Labour Party entered into a confidence and supply agreement with the Green Party.

So, getting back to my concern:

Prior to COVID-19, opinion polls placed both the two major political parties, National and Labour, each with a little over 40% support, although national was usually slightly ahead. I’m comfortable with that although the slow decline in support for minor parties as a concern.

However, the success of the government’s handling of the pandemic, which at its height had an approval rating of 87%, has seen opinion polls reporting those who intend to vote Labour soaring well above 60% while National have slumped to the low 30s, with one poll showing only 28%. That, I don’t like.

Just as alarming is that Labour’s popularity has resulted in support for minor parties dropping away. The outcome is that there are likely to be fewer political parties in Parliament after the elections given that a party must gain at 5% of party vote or gain an electorate (voting district) seat to be represented in Parliament.

While governments need to be able to govern, they also need to be subject to effective scrutiny. They also need to be inclusive – to listen to minority voices. One way of guaranteeing this is to ensure that no political party has absolute control over the legislature. One method is to have a bicameral or multicameral legislature, although my observation of such arrangements is that scrutiny often disintegrates into filibustering and political point scoring.

Here, the parties that make up the government are free to disagree in all policies apart from those specified in coalition or support agreements. Given that Labour’s partners are a centrist nationalist party and a socialist environmental party that have about as much in common as chalk and cheese, it often requires a lot of negotiation and compromise all round for bills presented to Parliament to be passed.

As sometimes occurs, Labour is unable to gain the support of one or both of its partners, in which case either the bill is dropped from the Parliamentary schedule, sent back for further consultation and redrafting, or support is negotiated with National. All round, it results in more inclusive and better written legislation.

If Labour does achieve an absolute majority in September’s election what guarantee do we have that we won’t return to the pre MMP days where poorly drafted and ill considered legislation too easily became law? The only safety net would be the select committee process that all legislation must pass through.

The select committee process allows for the public to present oral and or written submissions and committees themselves can recommend and draft amendments to bills for consideration by the Parliament. The select committee stage may take three to six months for all submissions to be considered. Convention has it that these changes are accepted, but if one party commands an absolute majority, would it continue to adhere to convention? Would it heed the voice of the public?


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The Jacinda effect, or how a week is a long time in politics

Is it a Kiwi thing to name political events after the first name of politicians? For example when Laissez-Faire economics was flavour of the decade in the 1980s, it was dubbed Reaganomics in the US (after Ronald Reagan), Thatchernomics in the UK (after Margaret Thatcher), but here in Aotearoa New Zealand it was called Rogernomics, (after Roger Douglas).

For the past month we have been faced with a new political event named after the first name of a politician – the Jacinda effect, also dubbed Jacindamania. Named after Jacinda Adern, it has turned a what was expected to be a boring and predictable general election into one balanced on a knife edge, with the major political parties leap frogging each other with the publishing of each new opinion poll.

Under our MMP electoral system, party representation in Parliament is determined by the nationwide party vote, and opinion polls can give a very accurate prediction of election results. During election campaigns, support for the major parties do not vary by more than a few percentage points. This year it’s very different.

At the commencement of this year’s campaign in July, the National party was polling at around 47% support while the Labour party was at 25% and falling. Of the minor parties, the Greens and NZ first were neck and neck with 10% each. Other parties were polling at 1% or less. The outcome was predicted to be that either National could form a government on its own or in cooperation with its current allies, NZ Futures, ACT and the Māori Party.

So what happened? First, the admission by Metiria Turei, the co-leader of the Greens that she failed to declare to Work and Income (the government department responsible for handling most social security benefits) when she was a solo mother and university student in the 1990s, that flatmates were contributing to her household income. Surprisingly, this omission, dubbed fraud by her opponents and an economic necessity by her supporters, saw her personal popularity rise, and the Greens rising dramatically to 15% support in the polls, and Labour dropping to 23%. Support for National also rose to 49%, making the election result an almost forgone conclusion.

Then the unexpected happened. With less than two months until the elections, Andrew Little, the leader of the Labour Party, resigned. I guess we’ll never know whether he jumped or was pushed, but clearly the resignation was due to his very poor personal ratings in the opinion polls and the effect that was having on the Labour Party. The party elevated the deputy leader, Jacinda Adern to leader, and the results were astounding.

Within days, the Jacinda effect saw National and Labour polling within a few percentage points of each other, and they have gone on to take turns at being the most popular party. Currently they both sit at around 40% – 43% support, depending on the poll. It seems certain neither party will be able to govern on their own.

The Jacinda effect has not only had a detrimental effect on National. It has had a devastating effect on the minor parties. Whereas the Greens had 15% support and NZ First 12% support – 27% between them, the Greens dropped to just under 5% support and NZ First to 7%.

Under MMP, a party gaining less than 5% of the party votes is ineligible for any party seats unless it also gains an electorate seat. That could mean that the Greens might not make it to the next Parliament. That would be a shame, as that leaves NZ first as the only potential government partner. And there’s nothing that Winston Peters, the leader of NZ First, likes better than being seen as the “king maker”.

What’s the problem with that you may ask. Look at it this way. Think of Donald Trump as Winston Peters on steroids. While he’s nowhere near as egocentric as Trump, he’s the most xenophobic, nationalistic politician we have. The name of his political party – New Zealand First – gives a clue to where he stands. And when I say his party, I do mean his party. Winston created it, leads it, and when he eventually leaves politics, so will NZ First.

What I like about our political system is that under MMP no party has been able to govern on its own. The major parties must rely on minor parties to form a government. Typically these are not coalitions, but agreements on matters of confidence and supply. This means that the governing party is not able to railroad legislation through Parliament, but must negotiate support for each bill, and not necessarily from their supporting partners.

It also means that other parties don’t automatically oppose every piece of legislation that comes before the House. I like to think that legislation is more considered and debated rationally as a consequence, instead of the “It’s good because we wrote it” and “It’s bad because they wrote it” mindset that occurred in the days prior to MMP. In those bad old days, it was not uncommon for bills to pass though Parliament without amendments, only to be found wanting after they came into effect.

Our unicameral legislature inevitably means that some poor legislation sneaks through, but these days, the lack of absolute power in Parliament for the governing party, and scrutiny that legislation undergoes through our select committee system means as it’s nowhere near as common as it once was.

The problem with Winston Peters is that he’s likely to demand full coalition instead of the more loose arrangements that have become more or less the convention. If he has a talent (apart from the ability to spend ten minutes not answering an interviewer’s question), it’s getting what he wants in political negotiations. While he makes politics in this country interesting, I really wouldn’t like Winston and his party to be the tail that wags the dog.

As to where my party vote will go, that’s no-one’s business but my own. But I will say this: I have voted every three years since 1969, and not once in all that time has my vote gone to a party forming the government. The odds are that it’s not going to be any different come the 23rd of September. So no matter which party or parties form the next government, it’s unlikely that I voted for them.


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The Orange Guy

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All Americans know who the orange guy is, and for that past year, so does most everyone everywhere who is not a cave dwelling hermit. It’s the guy to the right.

For most of us he’s the butt of jokes and provides current affairs programs with something to fill in time when news is otherwise in short supply.

But there is another orange guy who’s been around for for several decades here in Aotearoa New Zealand. As far as we know the guy doesn’t have a name, so is only known as the Orange Guy. The Kiwi orange guy is very different to tRump, except that he too is fake.

Our Orange guy is a gender-neutral, ethnic-neutral, political-neutral amorphous blob that appears for a few months once every few years and then, unlike tRump, completely disappears. The guy has been around for a couple of months now and I quite certain we’ll see no more of the person after the 23rd of this month.

Personally, I think our Orange Guy is much more likeable than the other orange guy. I can’t find any recent clips of the Orange Guy, but here’s one from 2014.


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The elections are nigh!

Aotearoa New Zealand goes to the polls on the 23rd of September this year to elect our 52nd Parliament. Up until today, it has been difficult to see any sign of the upcoming event apart from the occasional news item and advertisement reminding us that we must be enrolled in order to vote.

However today the campaign begins in earnest as this is the first day on which candidates are permitted to put up election hoardings (billboards), which can be up to 3 square metres (32 square feet) in size.

Election campaigns here are quite different from the spectacle we see on our television screens regarding the American elections. Even from 14,000 Km away, we find the US elections over the top and tiring. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be in the midst of it. Thankfully, ours are short and sharp and we find the two months of campaigning more than enough.

One reason that our elections are quieter is that there are very strict controls on how much candidates and political parties are permitted to spend. From today up until the day before polling day spending is restricted to:

  • $26,200 for an electorate candidate
  • $1,115,000 for a registered political party plus $26,200 per electorate contested by the party
  • $12,600 for an unregistered third party promoter
  • $315,000 for a registered third party promoter

That covers all forms of spending: hoardings, newspapers, radio, television, pamphlets, rallies – in fact every expense related to the election campaign. And thankfully, all advertising must stop by the end of the day before election day.

Although most parties have determined who will stand for which electorate, and have sorted out their party lists, official nominations don’t open until the 24th of August and close on the 29th of the same month, so I’ll wait until then before starting my own selection process for my preferred candidate and party. And unlike in many parts of the world, we get two votes: one for the electorate candidate, and one for the party vote. (an electorate is an area containing approximately 60,000 people, plus or minus 5%. The total number of seats each party gets in the Parliament is determined by their share of the party vote nationwide.)

Best of all, radio and television advertising can’t commence until the 23rd of August, so if you can’t avoid listening to commercial stations, you’ll only have to put up with it for a month max. Thank goodness!


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“Trump might do some good for democracy”

Now before you conclude that I have lost my marbles, read on.

Throughout the world, voter turnout at national elections have been declining, mainly due to apathy of younger voters. This is also true in Aotearoa New Zealand. Our most recent General Elections were held in 2014 and the voter turnout was at an all time low of 77%. Voter turnout for those under 30 years of age was 62%, while 88% of people my age voted.

The main reason put forward for poor voter participation by younger people is that they feel that they can make very little difference to the results. While there is some degree of truth in that, especially in electoral systems where “winner takes all” such as with FFP (First Past the Post), the same can’t be said of systems with proportional representation such that used here in Parliamentary elections. If a party gains 5% of the votes, it gets 5% of the seats in the Parliament. in other words, every vote counts.

We next go to the polls on Saturday the 23rd of September 2017 to elect our 52nd Parliament. The head of the Electoral Commission (the body that oversees national and local elections in NZ) believes we may see a reversal in the decline in voter participation this year. She gave two reasons: Brexit and Trump.

The results of both Brexit and the US presidential elections were due largely to voter apathy. In both cases, younger voters were strongly against the final result, and had younger voters participated in numbers approaching the national average, the results would have been different. It seems that finally there is evidence that NOT taking part in the democratic process can have serious consequences.

The good news here is that the younger generations are talking about how and why results such as Brexit and Trump as president could possibly occur. Both results seem contrary to common sense. I do hope that the head of the Electoral Commission is correct and that such discussion will lead to greater voter participation, especially among the young.

So thank you Donald, you are the reason the next generation of Kiwis are beginning to take a greater interest in the democratic process. They don’t want to see our leaders behaving as you do.