Monday, September 15, 2008

An introduction to the New Zealand election

(Cross-posted from Larvatus Prodeo, and aimed mainly at foreign readers)

As some of you may be aware, New Zealand is having a general election on November 8th. Over the next eight weeks, I'll be blogging it on and off here, with the aim of informing people what the hell is going on this side of the ditch.

The problem is where to start. So, I'll start with the meta-narrative: currently, New Zealand has a nominally centre-left Labour-led minority government. The NZ Labour Party - basically like the ALP, only without a right faction - has run the country for the past nine years through various coalition arrangements, most recently with the populist New Zealand First Party (old grey economic nationalists crossed with One Nation immigrant-bashers) and the supposedly centrist (but really neo-liberal and Christian) United Future Party (a one-man band centred on former Labour cabinet minister Peter Dunne, with a rotating cast of freaks depending on who he's trying to appeal to this election). After nine years in office, they're looking pretty tired, and this look is not helped by an ugly corruption scandal which has blown up around NZ First leader Winston Peters. Meanwhile, the opposition National Party (standard capitalist conservatives) has managed to get itself a fresh-faced young leader uncontaminated by the economic atrocities of the 90's, who is willing to be pragmatic on policy and huddle up to Labour in order to gain power (something which incidentally takes the focus off his 90's-era front bench, who have some serious baggage and have not forsworn their neo-liberal ideology). There are a couple of other parties - ACT (market Darwinists, complete with insane prophet), the Greens (who are exactly what they say they are) and the Maori Party (ditto) - but the basic narrative is a Rudd vs. Howard, youth vs. experience, change of the generational guard story.

Currently, Labour is well behind in the polls, with the most recent showing National holding a commanding 18-point lead. But that lead is expected to shrink during the campaign, which could cause serious problems for National. Why? Because New Zealand has a fair election system, which (give or take overhangs and the 5% threshold) assigns power according to the proportion of the votes won. This means that parties must usually gain the support of other parties in order to form a government. And this is a particular problem for National because it has cannibalised all of its friends and has problems working with other parties. At the extreme, this may see National "win" the election (by winning a plurality of the vote), but lose out in the post-election coalition games - something likely to cement right-wing hostility to MMP. More likely, they will fail to win enough seats to be able to form an easy coalition with ACT and/or United Future, and so be forced to try cutting a deal with the Maori Party or even the Greens. While both parties are on the opposite side of the political spectrum, it's not entirely unthinkable (particularly if alternative arrangements look complicated or the Maori Party wants utu over the foreshore and seabed), but it would likely see National lacking a legislative majority and unable to enact its policies - something they are unlikely to tolerate for long.

(Of course, Labour might be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat and fight its way to a fourth term. But they will only do that by being bold - something they have shown a pathological aversion to doing).

I haven't talked about policy yet because there hasn't been much - the government has kept on governing, and the opposition has been "keeping its powder dry" / "trying not to scare the horses". But no doubt we'll see a big pile of it in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, apart from tax cuts and the usual law and order fearmongering, and some pro-forma whining about "bureaucracy", almost all of it will be ignored. We have a presidential-style of politics here now, with the media focusing relentlessly on the personalities, the narrative, and the "game" of who's up and down in the polls. And in the process, the stakes - the stuff we're actually fighting over - gets completely lost in the noise.