Under MMP we supposedly have a multi-party system – with a plethora of minor parties giving colour and life to political debate. But the reality is that this image is more of a mirage. Our minor parties are the weakest they’ve been for decades, and it’s not clear that any of the them have an assured future in Parliament. These are the issues examined by Jennifer Curtin and Raymond Miller in their excellent chapter entitled ‘New Zealand’s party system: a multi-party mirage?’ in the new post-election book Key to Victory: The New Zealand General Election of 2008 (edited by Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts). This blog post highlights some of the most interesting points made by Curtin and Miller, including the suggestion of a more limited future for the smaller parties. [Read more below]
The decline of minor parties
Jennifer Curtin and Raymond Miller’s chapter gives the impression that the hey-day of dynamic minor parties has passed, leaving only the current atrophied small parties that cling onto to a few seats in Parliament:
the multi-party system has become something of an artificial construct. New parties that are destined to succeed have a vibrancy that lights up and energies their base of support. This most certainly was the case for the parties formed out of the neo-liberal debate of the 1980s and 1990s. Over time, however, the passion and relevance of their arguments have abated, as evidenced by the gradual erosion of support, first for the Alliance, and, more recently, for ACT and New Zealand First. The major parties have adapted and moderated their economic platforms, in the process squeezing out those whose raison d’etre was built on opposition to the economic policies of successive governments (p.127).
The decline is particularly apparent when you consider the previous strength of minor parties:
it appears that today’s multi-party arrangement is also an artifact of another time. With the implosion of the Alliance in 2002 and the defeat of New Zealand First in 2008, two of the most influential products of the neo-liberal transformation of the 1980s and early 1990s have disappeared from the New Zealand Parliament. In their prime, these parties had commanded, on their own, the support of 18 per cent (the Alliance in 1993) and 13 per cent (New Zealand First in 1996) of the electorate (p.122).
They argue that despite the introduction of MMP, ‘multi-partyism has yet to become a truly defining feature of the New Zealand political system. The incapacity of contemporary small parties to solidify and institutionalize a parliamentary presence suggests that their continued representation in Parliament cannot be taken for granted, even under MMP’ (p.121). Furthermore, none of the new parties have ‘been able to sustain its support beyond one or two elections, and none has threatened the electoral dominance of the two major parties’ (p.122). Even the Greens – currently the most successful of a relatively unsuccessful lot – are not high-achievers:
While the Greens have managed to overcome the 5 per cent threshold in four successive elections, the party is the perennial under-achiever. The Greens’ share of the vote in 2008 (6.7 per cent) was slightly worse than at their very first election – one that was held under the former plurality system – in 1990 (6.8 per cent) (p.122).
The “Independent”-based minor parties
We have an exaggerated idea of how broad the New Zealand party system is, due to the fact that the minor parties of Act, United Future and the Progressives have managed to stay in Parliament through the lifeline of their leaders winning an electorate seat. It seems that it is ‘the one-seat threshold, which creates the illusion of a healthy and diverse multi-party system’ (p.123).
Curtin and Miller suggest that the parties of Anderton, Dunne and Peters have really been just the vehicles for what are effectively just Independent MPs. MMP has forced these ‘Independent’ MPs to form parties. Yet ‘it has essentially been personal support and the electorate vote that has sustained the ongoing presence in Parliament’ of the three MPs (p.124). For example, the authors point out that ‘In Anderton’s electorate of Wigram, the party vote for the Progressives was 529 per cent higher than its nationwide party vote. This is an extraordinary difference in support and demonstrates the importance of Anderton’s personal vote to the fortunes of the Progressives’ (p.124).
Interestingly, this ‘Independent’ effect isn’t so strong for the Act Party: ‘The party won only one electorate – Rodney Hide’s electorate of Epsom – yet Epsom did not top the ACT party vote, being only the eighth highest; the top three were Hunua (contested by Sir Roger Douglas), Tamaki (by Chris Simmons) and North Shore (by John Boscawen)’ (p.126).
The problems facing minor parties
Curtin and Miller put forward three explanations for the plight of the minor parties:
1) ‘the absence of a relevant and gripping narrative, or raison d’etre, capable of capturing the public imagination’. Parties need ‘a binding narrative that generates a core community of followers’ (p.127).
2) ‘a recurring inability to recover from the electoral costs of coalition’. The cost of coalition seems very high. While ‘High office offers the chance of policy gains, public prominence and ministerial largesse. Conversely, there are bound to be agonizing costs, the most damaging of which is the loss of public approval and votes’ (p.128).
3) ‘the absence of a firm set of social or identity cleavages in New Zealand upon which small parties can take root and develop over time’. This means that ‘although there are more small parties emerging, few have put down any roots’ (p.127). In particularly, ‘new parties need to construct their own constituencies’ (p.127).
How many parties will New Zealand have in the future?
Much of the Curtin and Miller chapter is based around revisiting an important journal article published in 1994 in Political Science entitled ‘How many parties will New Zealand have under MMP?’ written by Jack Nagel. This article had attempted to predict the future party system (and thus what minor parties might survive), examining what social and issues cleavages existed for political parties to base themselves on: ‘Nagel identified ten potential cleavages, five of which he considers to be salient: socio-economic class; ethnicity; post-materialism; economic interventionism; and (potentially) religion (or a version of social conservatism)’ (p.130).
Curtin and Miller now say that ‘With the arrival of the Green and Maori parties, the post-materialist and ethnic dimensions appear to be adequately covered’ (p.131). There is some likelihood of their survival:
both small parties are likely to remain features of New Zealand’s party system, at least in the medium term. A possible threat to them, however, derives from the ability of the major parties to incorporate environmental and ethnic issues in their own programmes, or even to absorb one or both parties into their own political organisation (p.131).
Curtin and Miller also point out that there is still a small chance of a further ethnic party finding some success. They point out that ‘Taito Philip Field garnered strong local support in the electorates of Mangere (his own), together with Manukau East and Manurewa’ (p.126), and that ‘the concentration of support for a Pacific candidate suggests there is a real possibility of an ethnic electorate effect emerging in general, as distinct from Maori electorate seats’ (p.126).
In terms of other minor parties, Act are the most likely survivor, but even that party has difficulties finding an social/issue cleavage to build itself upon:
The remaining issues dimensions identified by Nagel – social conservatism and economic interventionism – are two dimensions on which the party system in New Zealand could be seen to be more fluid. First ACT, on the one hand, and New Zealand First and the Progressives, on the other, sit at opposite ends of the economic intervention dimension…. In recent years, the two major parties appear to have moderated their economic policies, converging on a version of soft neo-liberalism. This has made it difficult for ACT, the Progressives and New Zealand First to construct alternative economic positions with the capacity to generate ongoing protest-voter support (p.131).
The authors put forward a sensible warning about the centrist intentions of minor parties:
all small parties should be warned about positioning themselves between Labour and National. A small party that locates itself in the centre is prone to being squeezed out; in New Zealand, centre parties are only sustainable if their core followers’ loyalty is cemented by group identities based on a second issue dimension. While this is a distinction that the Maori Party can perhaps opt to take, the resilience of the two-party foundations of New Zealand’s party system… should not be underestimated (p.133).
So are things settling down, or could we be about to see a whole new configuration of our party system? As if to answer this, the Curtin and Miller chapter begins brilliantly by ambiguously describing the nature of the election campaign and fortunes of the minor parties in 1935, to make the point that the 2008 election and party system had historical precedents. The lesson from the past is ‘The party systems of 1935 and 2008 have some uncanny similarities, not just in the range and character of the parties themselves, but also in the parallels in their levels of support’ (p.121). And pointedly, ‘the 1935 election marked a watershed between the end of one party era and the advent of another – a two-party system in its purest form’ (p.121). So nothing is certain, but ‘It appears, then, that there is growing substance to the claim that, as in 1935, we now have something approaching a “multi-party mirage” whereby the two major parties remain the dominant players with only two new small parties truly in the game: the Greens and the Maori Party, both of which are yet to consolidate their positions in terms of ongoing electoral support’ (pp.127).
Table of contents
Preface - Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
Overview of the Election
2008: Key to victory - Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
2008: The last baby-boomer election - Colin James
2008: Leadership during transition - Jon Johansson
Political Party Perspectives
National - Steven Joyce
Labour - Grant Robertson
The Greens - Catherine Delahunty
ACT - John Boscawen
The Maori Party - Rahui Katene
The Progressives - John Pagani
United Future - Rob Eaddy
New Zealand First - Damian Edwards
New Zealand’s party system: a multi-party mirage? - Jennifer Curtin and Raymond Miller
2008: Images of political leadership in the campaign - Claire Robinson
2008: Media coverage of the election - Babak Bahador
2008: The international media and the election - Aljoscha Kertesz
2008: The campaign in cyberspace - Nicola Kean
2008: The YouTube campaign - Rob Salmond
2008: Voting behaviour and the keys to victory - Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
2008: The impact of the Electoral Finance Act - Bryce Edwards
2008: Opinion polls and prediction markets in New Zealand - Shaun McGirr and Rob Salmond
2008: National’s winning strategy - Therese Arseneau
Key to Victory: The New Zealand General Election of 2008
Levine, Stephen (ed)
Roberts, Nigel (ed)
Victory is the
story of the New Zealand general election of 2008, in which the experienced and
long-serving prime minister, Helen Clark, was ousted by a political newcomer –
National’s John Key.
Veteran academic commentators Colin James, Jon Johansson, and Therese Arseneau offer perspectives on what New Zealanders were voting for when endorsing John Key and National, and what they were voting against. Several MPs elected for the first time in 2008 provide first-hand accounts of their parties’ campaigns, including Labour’s Grant Robertson; the Greens’ Catherine Delahunty; the Maori Party’s Rahui Katene; ACT’s John Boscawen; and the director of National’s winning campaign, Steven Joyce, appointed to Cabinet following National’s victory. New Zealand First’s doomed campaign is described by its campaign director, Damian Edwards, while party strategists John Pagani and Rob Eaddy provide accounts of the Progressive and United Future campaigns.
Key to Victory also investigates the important issues of the 2008 election, such as the impact of the Electoral Finance Act, and the likely future of New Zealand’s remaining small parties.
During the 2008 campaign political parties started getting to grips with websites, blogs, Facebook and YouTube, and ‘prediction markets’ competed with traditional polls in forecasting the election results. The book describes these developments and provides insights into the use of the media by John Key and Helen Clark in their rival campaigns for leadership. International reaction to the New Zealand campaign and the country’s vote for change is also highlighted.
Key to Victory includes a special DVD with excerpts from key campaign events including the televised leaders’ debates, the leaders’ opening night campaign addresses, parties’ TV ads and campaign billboards.