While the formal and informal relationships between particular third parties and specific political parties have been declining, paradoxically, the overall political influence of third parties appear to be greater under MMP than under FPP – due to the greater number of parties now involved in the policymaking process. [Read more below].
Political scientist Richard Mulgan has argued that third parties (or ‘interest groups’) are likely to have increased influence under MMP, due to the fact that ‘issues are more likely to be negotiated between parties in Parliament’ and therefore there is more room for interest groups to influence MPs’ decisions (Mulgan, 1997a: p.226). This has also been the finding of Grant Klinkum, who has written, that ‘In New Zealand since the introduction of MMP there is a greater emphasis being placed by interest groups on trying to influence individual Members’ (Klinkum, 1998a: p.421). Klinkum also believes that ‘Small parties or new opposition spokespeople may initially rely on interest groups and lobbyists for information’ (Klinkum, 1998: p.422). He also noted that, ‘With greater contestability of advice under an MMP electoral system, the New Zealand State Services Commission predicts a possible increase in importance of think tanks and private sector organisations’ (ibid: p.427).
Politics is therefore evolving into a more pluralist-style model, where parties no longer monopolise relationships with societal organisations. Third parties still have a relationship with political parties, but it now tends to be a more informal one and more distant, as such groups forge links with a greater range of parties in order to maximise their influence. Essentially interest groups lobby all the political parties and provide information resources to them:
Apart from maintaining links with ministers and public servants, interest groups will also try to keep in close contact with the political parties, both inside and outside Parliament. Backbenchers can play a critical role in caucus and on select committees and are inundated with a constant stream of propaganda material from interest groups…. Parties outside government, having only their small parliamentary research units to help with developing new policies… welcome additional input from interest groups, many of which have their own professional research teams (Mulgan, 1997a: p.225).
In line with this less formal dimension, the former relationship between interests groups and political parties has been replaced by an informal relationship between individual MPs and outside groups.
This decline in the partisanship of third parties has important consequences for the ideological nature of political parties. This is because the act of sharing similar relationships with third parties contributes to the ideological conformity between the parties. By having friendly relationships with all those third parties occupying the strategic middle ground the parties inevitably end up being influenced to adopt similar policy positions. The flip side of this is that the way modern New Zealand political parties operate leaves them with no particular need for a formal engagement with third parties. The chase for the middle ground, and the wider electorate, means that the political parties no longer require formal vertical ties with a particular section of society or its organisations. New Zealand’s modern electoral-professional parties require a quite different form of interaction with society than the mass parties of traditional New Zealand politics.
Societal organisations are now more likely to take a less partisan approach, but instead align themselves with particular political models, therefore supporting whichever party also supports those ideas. For example, the Trade Liberalisation Network (TLN), set up in 2001, is said to enjoy ‘strong support from both major parties’ (Kelsey, 2002: p.42). In 2002 the Business New Zealand group criticised all of the parties for their economic policies, although they said National and Act’s came closest to what was needed to achieve acceptable economic growth (Edlin, 2002). A cause and consequence of the fact that the TLN is not aligned to any particular party is that neither main party questions the neoliberal policy consensus on seeking further free trade arrangements.
Similarly, sections of the media have traditionally opposed the Labour Party, but this pattern broke down in the 1980s when those same media organisations became more favourable to Labour due to its economic reforms. According to Mulgan, these media organisations have since ‘returned to a less obviously partisan approach, though they remain generally sympathetic to the restructuring policies of first Labour and then National and critical of the economic policies of the Alliance and New Zealand First parties’ (Mulgan, 1997a: pp.300-301). And according to Jim Anderton, ‘The Dominion has an editorial policy to slaughter the Alliance on every possible occasion. The Herald says there’s no balance of payments problem unless we get an Alliance government’ (quoted in McLoughlin, 1996). The then editor of the Dominion, Richard Long, has responded saying that Anderton’s ‘too glib for TV, so it falls to newspapers to ask the hard questions about his balmy policies’ (quoted in McLoughlin, ibid).