Needed: a centre party to swing with

Helen Clark is hoping for 61 seats for her government in the 2002 election. That way she would not have problems with the Greens.

The Greens on Tuesday abstained on the Imprest Supply Bill, a “confidence” motion which, if lost, would have ousted the government from office. In the event the government had a majority, 64-46, swelled by New Zealand First supporting the bill.

And thereby hangs a special twist in the MMP system. What if the Greens had opposed the bill, not just abstained, and if New Zealand First had not been there to help out? This spectre potentially stalks a post-2002 Labour-led government.

The current Labour and the Alliance leaderships intend to continue their coalition after the next election — and on this year’s combined polling average of 47 per cent they might hope for an outright majority (see box at bottom).

But what if:

* the Alliance caucus is reconfigured as a result of the current internal battles and becomes an unreliable partner in government; and/or

* Labour and the Alliance fall short of a majority again, Winston Peters loses his slender grip on Tauranga and his party is not there to rescue the government when the Greens vote against it, as it did for Michael Cullen’s superannuation scheme?

These questions spotlight the place in an MMP system of a genuine centre party.

For much of the second half of the twentieth century in the Scandinavian countries, which have social and electoral systems recognisably similar to ours, small centre parties provided stability, usually supporting left-of-centre Labour or Social Democratic governments.

That meant those governments were not dependent on parties to their left, as Labour is here now.

In fact, before the 1999 election Helen Clark used to cite Norway as a model. There a long-lived minority Labour government would draw on parties to its right in the centre for support on some issues and parties to its left for support on others.

Ms Clark has done this over the past two years, looking to National and Act for support on free trade and New Zealand First for support on the superannuation fund.

But centre parties can “swing” either way.

In 1996 when New Zealand First negotiated coalition with both Labour and National before choosing National. Since the breakup of that ungainly cohabitation, New Zealand First has more often than not sided with Labour but that could easily change back the other way.

For a classic demonstration of a “swing” party in action, the model is Germany, from which we copied MMP.

From the 1950s to the 1990s, West Germany had a two-plus-one party system. The small Free Democrats (Liberals) “swung” between the large right-of-centre Christian Democrats (similarly positioned to our National party) and the large left-of-centre Social Democrats (similarly positioned to our Labour party).

The Free Democrats were in coalition with the Christian Democrats in the 1950s and 1960s. Then, after a brief “grand coalition” between the two big parties, the Free Democrats coalesced with the Social Democrats through the 1970s before reverting to coalition with the Christian Democrats in the 1980s.

So for around 40 years the Free Democrats were almost continuously in government — though they went through ideological contortions, with consequent loss of members, as they “swung” from side to side. In the 1970s they were leftish on foreign policy with the Social Democrats. But since the 1980s they have been more free-market than the Christian Democrats.

This last swing has removed the stabiliser. The Free Democrats are now in effect positioned not between the two large parties, but roughly where Act is here. And the Social Democrats are in coalition in government with the Greens to their left.

The Greens, like the Alliance here, are divided between the “fundis” (fundamentalists) and “realos” (realists) and also, like the Alliance, are sharply divided over the Afghanistan war. There is also an ex-communist left party (from East Germany), which, like the Greens here, is in the Bundestag (Parliament) though not in government.

There have also been recent shakeups in the once-stable Scandinavian systems, with sharp rightwards shifts in the past two months in Norway and Denmark.

So the messages from our northern cousins are not comforting for those who want stability. And in any case the pickings here are not rich for a genuine centre party.

Peter Dunne’s United Future is one. But no matter how many other parties it absorbs — it is up to four — it can’t break 1 per cent.

New Zealand First claims to be a centre party and this term has operated like one, sometimes supporting the government and sometimes the opposition.

But its policies are not midway between Labour’s and National’s. They are a grabbag policies from each and in some cases of policies to Labour’s left (for example, on trade) and National’s right (for example, on treaty issues).

This makes both big parties suspicious of Mr Peters. Neither relished being played off against each other in coalition talks in 1996. National has no desire to repeat its damaging coalition with him from 1996 to 1998.

But without Mr Peters, whichever big party is in power will depend on parties on their flanks. That constantly tugs them away from the centre which — in the absence of a friendly centre party — they must hold to be in government.

That contest for the centre, in which Helen Clark and Bill English are now locked, is deeply embedded in our political culture. It makes life hell for any small “flank” party trying to win policy kudos and leaves no room on the battlefied in the centre for a small stabilising party.

Which meshes with another deeply embedded element of our political culture. We expect to vote a government out and vote a government in. We habitually choose between two opposing forces.

Labour and the Alliance grasped that when in 1998, despite serious divisions, they formed a united front and thereby a visible alternative government for which people could vote. In fact — treating New Zealand First as the odd party out (and anyway struggling to stay in Parliament) — the political battlefield is once again between two opposing blocks, a left government and a right alternative government.

This is quite different from the Scandinavian habit of “niche” voting for the party best representing your preferred policy mix and leaving government formation to the politicians’ after-match manoeuvrings.

Yet New Zealand has since well before MMP been modifying its political culture. Social Credit (now the Democrats and part of the Alliance) nearly held the balance of power between 1981 and 1984. The tensions of economic deregulation splintered the two old parties and, in the course of that, loosened voting habits.

Maori began to cast about for more assertive representation. Younger voters were less wedded to their parents’ ins-versus-outs customs.

MMP made it easier to express this greater diversity but it was happening anyway.

So don’t necessarily expect a simple refinement of the present system to four or three parties ranged on two sides: say, National and Act (or a Christian party) on one side and Labour (incorporating the remains of the Alliance) and Greens on the other. If such a configuration does eventuate, it would be likely to be unstable.

Act and the Greens would pull their big partners away from the centre. The Greens in any case don’t fit easily on the old left-right scale and so don’t conform to ins-versus-outs rules. The same goes for Maori politics.

These forces might in time get voters more used to niche politics. And it might open up space for a Dunne-type party to play arbiter between and stabiliser of governments. But a lot of turbulent water has yet to flow under the electoral bridge — and in the meantime the only “swing” party on offer is New Zealand First.

How to get a majority under MMP

For a majority in Parliament under MMP a government does not need a majority of all votes. It needs only a majority of the “effective” party votes — the total of party votes of parties which get more than 5 per cent or win at least one electorate seat.
Thus, if votes for parties which fail those thresholds total 6 per cent, as in the 1999 election, a government needs only just over 47 per cent (half of 94 per cent) for a majority of seats. The total Labour-Alliance vote in 1999 fell just short, 46.5 per cent, and so garnered only 59 seats, one short of half and two short of a majority.

Had Winston Peters not won the Tauranga electorate seat in 1999, New Zealand First’s 4.3 per cent of party votes would not have counted among the “effective” votes and Labour-Alliance would have won an outright majority of 62 seats. Their combined 46.5 per cent would have been more than half the 89.7 per cent total “effective” votes.

Thus, a great deal hung on Mr Peters’ 63-vote winning margin in Tauranga — and maybe hangs on him in the 2002 election.