Bryce Edwards: The sad decline of the crucial minor parties in 2017

Bryce Edwards: The sad decline of the crucial minor parties in 2017

One of the great contradictions of this year’s general election is that the minor parties have gone into significant decline at the exact same time they look to have a significantly increased role in deciding which major party will govern after the election. So, on one hand this election is set to produce the lowest number of minor party MPs since MMP began, and yet the minor parties look to dominate post-election negotiations in a way not seen since 1996, meaning the small parties are, at once, very weak and very powerful.

According to last night’s 1News Colmar Brunton poll, the minor parties are destined to win the lowest number of seats yet in an MMP election – between them, they are only receiving about 17 per cent support. And some of that will end up being “wasted vote” as not all the minor parties will make it into Parliament.

According to the Herald’s latest forecasted election results, the minor parties will only have 18 seats between the four likely to get back into parliament – see: Herald Election Forecast has National ahead. Even the biggest small parties are well down on what they usually poll, which means that the minor parties are turning into “micro parties”, while the micro parties are simply fading away.

The importance of minor parties in the likely result

Recent opinion polls have been very volatile, with all sorts of wild swings and surprises. For example, last night’s Colmar Brunton poll showed National surging ahead of Labour, and New Zealand First down to only five per cent. But the one thing they have consistently shown is that neither National-Act nor Labour-Greens can form a government without another minor party’s support.

Therefore, despite Winston Peters’ party looking likely to be surprisingly small after this election, he is still very much looking to be the king maker.

There is a small chance that the Maori Party might supplant New Zealand First as kingmaker. If National ends up with anything like the 46 per cent it received in the latest Colmar Brunton poll, and if there is a large wasted vote, then they might be able to govern with the help of Act’s one seat and whatever number of seats the Maori Party end up with. Conversely, a Labour-Green-Maori configuration might just make it over the line.

Despite its potential power, the Maori Party is possibly the most volatile of the parties in Parliament at the moment. It’s not clear whether it will only win Te Ururoa Flavell’s Waiariki seat or whether Howie Tamati will win the Te Tai Hauauru seat off Labour  (leaving a big question mark over Mamara Fox making it in off the list.) There is also an outside chance that Shane Taurima could take Tamaki Makaurau and Hone Harawira could wrest Tai Tokerau back off Labour. Part of the uncertainly is simply because the Maori electorates are very hard to poll. For example, two independent polls in Tai Tokerau have widely varying results.

The Maori Party is also hedging its bets in terms of choosing coalition partners. Like New Zealand First, there is ambiguity about what party they would choose if they were the king makers. And the mix of its MPs could impact on whether it chooses Labour or National – Flavell is well disposed towards National, whereas Fox is far closer to Labour, and if Howie Tamati comes in that could also change the dynamic. But according to one recent article, “The Maori Party is signalling it would prefer to go with Labour over National if it’s in a position to make a choice” – see Mei Heron’s Is there a road map for the Māori Party?

Minors turning into minnows

The most recent poll has the two major parties hoovering up 83 per cent support between them and, if this occurs on Saturday, then it will be the highest support for the major parties in decades. Victoria University political scientist Jon Johansson has detailed how the majors have not done so well since the 1980s: “In the last four First-Past-the-Post (FPP) elections before the first Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) one, in 1996, National and Labour attracted on average 80.88 per cent of the vote between them. Since the advent of MMP, however, the pair have averaged 71.36 per cent of the combined vote, nearly 10 points fewer. In only one election, 2005, has the 80 per cent threshold been breached, although 2008 was also close” – see: The big crunch – minor party struggles.

Similarly, RNZ’s Brent Edwards emphasises the fluctuations in support for the major parties in recent years: “In the first three MMP elections Labour and National did badly as a bloc, winning just 62 percent of the party vote in 1996 and 2002 and 69 percent in 1999. That left plenty of votes for the other parties, with ACT, Alliance and New Zealand First doing well early on. In 2002 ACT, United Future and the Greens all got 7 percent each and New Zealand First 10. Then in 2005 the pendulum swung, with the two major parties vacuuming up 80 percent of the vote” – see: Election no two-horse race.

Brent Edwards says, “This appears to be one of those MMP elections where the combined support of the two major parties is crowding out their likely allies”, and we need a reminder that “this is still an MMP election”. He says, “So don’t forget about the minor party leaders. Depending how the votes fall one or more of Winston Peters, James Shaw or even David Seymour or Marama Fox, might be as influential in determining who leads the next government as either English or Ardern.”

There’s also a small chance that many of the above leaders won’t make it back. The Greens appear to be comfortably above the magic five per cent threshold – they are at 6.4 per cent in Colin James’ poll-of-polls on RNZ – see: National overtake Labour in latest election poll. But an upset is still a small possibility. Likewise, New Zealand First might end up being reliant on Peters winning his Northland seat, which isn’t certain. In the poll-of-polls, the party is on just 5.5 per cent. Of course, Peters himself says he isn’t worrying about his seat – see Kirsty Johnston’s Winston Peters ‘confident’ of winning Northland.

But according to a briefing by the Senate Communications PR firm, in “an outright war between the major parties, the smaller ones can become collateral damage”, and there’s still a chance of most of the minor parties being obliterated – see: When six becomes three – the squeeze on smaller parties.

Senate Communications imagine a scenario in which this happens: “Labour and National have cherry-picked minor party policies with proven voter appeal, and in the process they’ve stripped the small parties of their relevance. Like The Warehouse of politics, could the big guns force the small high street shops to close? This would leave just two tribes. Left and right, red and blue. And the minor parties relegated to think tank status while the majors enjoy their respective portions of the wasted vote, lessening the vote percentage they need to govern alone. This would certainly impact the diversity of the Parliament and trigger a rethink of the current thresholds for representation under our MMP system.”

Certainly, if there are minor party casualties in the election, this could have some important impacts for the outcome. Audrey Young explains the impact of a high wasted vote: “If the Greens do not survive, the wasted vote could be high and that would lower the percentage needed for a majority. For example, if the parties that didn’t make it to Parliament received 6 per cent of the vote, and the parties that did received 94 per cent, then a single party or combination of parties would need just over 47 per cent to get a majority to govern” – see: Small parties’ race to coalition contention far from over.

Given the squeeze being put on the minor parties, it’s not surprising to see that they’re starting to bite back – see Sarah Robson’s Bill English ignoring reality of MMP – minor parties.

The sad demise of minor parties

The list of minor political parties that have effectively died since MMP was introduced just keeps getting longer. Some big minor parties died early on, with the Alliance being kicked out of Parliament in 2002, and then Act dropping down to just one MP (reliant on National’s support to win Epsom) in 2011. Mana departed Parliament in 2014, and United Future will do so at this election.

There will be many losers if more minor parties are discarded from Parliament. And in this regard, the Otago Daily Times’ Bruce Munro “surveys the seeming demise of small party politics in New Zealand and asks what it means” – see: Minorities of none.

Munro gives some evidence for the decline of the minors. For instance, “When the nation votes on September 23 there will only be 16 registered parties to choose between, down from 19 in 2008. There has also been a significant decrease in the number of candidates willing to nail their colours to any political mast. There are 534 electorate and list candidates this year, compared with 682 nine years ago. It is the small registered parties that are especially feeling the lack of love and devotion: their electorate candidates have dropped by more than 40% to 76.”

On the topic of the major parties dominating more than ever at the expense of the fringe parties, I am quoted in Munro’s article: “We need to have people there that are fringe and marginal, precisely because society is made up of fringe and marginal people… Democracy should be like a mirror held up to society, reflecting all of the great, the good, and the fringe. And at the moment, only certain parts of society are being reflected in who governs us.”

Pete George also canvasses these concerns in his blog post, How well is MMP working? He argues: “Conceivably we could have only four parties in parliament after his election.  That’s not what MMP envisaged when introduced. It’s failed for many reasons.  One major reason is the absolute duopoly the two large parties have on virtually everything.”

George points to the five per cent MMP threshold as the main problem: “This is supported by the larger parties because it protects them from challenges from new parties. No new party has been able to beat the 5% threshold… National and Labour won’t change the threshold simply because it doesn’t suit them. Even the Greens, who pride themselves on their democratic principles, want an undemocratically high threshold.”

Looking at the whole issue from a different angle, Tim Watkin says that we don’t scrutinise the minor parties and potential post-election coalition possibilities enough – see: Minor parties’ budget demands need scrutiny.

His main point is worth quoting at length: “Party leaders in this campaign have insisted that they can’t talk about coalitions until the voters have spoken; no-one shows their hand when the cards haven’t been dealt. How much would the minor parties’ policies cost? But when an election is this close and a single party (probably New Zealand First, but possibly the Greens, Māori Party or even Act) could decide which major party leads the government, voters need an idea of not just which party and policies they like, but what sort of government they can expect. In the early days of MMP, this was a more common discussion, but party leaders have become increasingly reluctant to show their hands. But the risk is that, as in 1996, voters will think they are voting for one thing and many will end up feeling as if they get something else.”

Furthermore, he says: “isn’t it time for the smaller parties to spell out what their priorities would be in negotiations? Don’t voters deserve to know not just what each party stands for, but how they might trade in an MMP negotiation?”

Finally, the parties outside of Parliament have received very little coverage in this election campaign – arguably with the exception of Gareth Morgan’s TOP. So for some balance and variety, see Emma Hurley’s The Outdoors Party wants to get into Parliament, and Isaac Davison’s What happened to the Conservative Party?