Jon Johansson: The big crunch - minor party struggles

Marama Fox is one of the election campaign's real stars, charismatic and a hugely effective communicator of the Māori ...

Marama Fox is one of the election campaign's real stars, charismatic and a hugely effective communicator of the Māori Party Kaupapa.

OPINION: 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.  

In 2005, centre-left voters maximised their voting power as well as any amorphous group of individuals can when unconsciously coalescing together. They made sure the Greens were returned to parliament, but only just, with them winning 5.3 per cent to break the threshold. 

These same voters then gave the Helen Clark-led Labour Party 41.10 per cent of the party vote, 2 per cent more than the Don Brash-led National, giving Clark crucial bargaining advantages which, after a few post-election twists and turns, she used to stitch together a minority government with Jim Anderton, enhanced by supply and confidence arrangements with Winston Peters and Peter Dunne and an eventual side-bar deal with the Greens. 

That incredibly tight race saw ACT shed over five points from its result at the previous election, with NZ First and UnitedFuture losing over four points from 2002.  

Apart from 2005, minor parties have generally flourished under MMP because it is a far more proportional electoral system and so the threshold for entry is far less onerous than under First-Past-the-Post, but still high enough to prevent a proliferation of micro-parties. 

MMP also heralded a new electoral phenomenon that has affected both main parties and so also the minor parties. Since 1996 the electoral tides for National and Labour, when they lose office, have sucked out further, and for longer. National's 20.93 per cent nadir in 2002 and Labour's 25.18 per cent result in 2014 embody this feature of post-MMP politics.

Simply put, under  MMP there are more tributaries for votes to flow down when support for one of the two main   parties dries up. 

Now, in the 2017 campaign, according the RNZ's latest poll-of-polls, National and Labour are caught in a close contest, attracting 81.8 per cent of the vote between them, so the big crunch is on again for the minor parties so; how are they reacting?

Of the established minor parties, NZ First is travelling the strongest, but now well short of its pre-Ardern ambition of challenging Labour's place as one of the main political parties. Starved of media oxygen, NZ First is nonetheless implicated in virtually all of the coalition permutations post-election so maintains its strategic location as the king or queen maker as we enter the final phase of the campaign. 

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The Greens are facing their greatest existential crisis since the flirtation with electoral death in 2005. Nothing has gone right for the party since Metiria Turei's welfare foray. A co-leadership stripped of one of its co-leaders saps the Greens' Kaupapa and, evidently, James Shaw's energy, because he already looks beyond exhausted, which doesn't help a party trying to project youthful energy and purpose. 

It also appears that cumulatively poor decision making is compounding Green attempts to tell voters why they are needed in parliament. It will take the collective unconscious of centre-left voters to again rescue the Greens, one suspects. 

The Māori Party has given the country one of the campaign's real stars, Marama Fox. She is charismatic and a hugely effective communicator of the Māori Party Kaupapa, whether in debate or on television. 

Given the party is currently tracking in the poll-of-polls at 1.4 per cent, while other polling shows Howie Tamati ahead in Te Tai Hauauru, Fox could become an ironic and tragic casualty unless either Tamati loses or the party lifts it vote to win a third seat. 

David Seymour would have rejoiced at the Newshub poll last night as it gave him a lifeline of relevance as regime support for a fourth term National government. On the poll-of-poll averages, however, his zero point six standing makes him irrelevant, but Epsom voters seem to enjoy their lack of agency as much as he hates his, so united they travel.   

Which leaves The Opportunities Party (TOP). For a collection of intelligent, policy-focused individuals, they have fashioned an incoherent political strategy and, indeed, seem to be, presumably unwittingly, devoting their energy to undermining founder Gareth Morgan's goal of influencing policy. Achieving a wasted vote seems a bizarre reward for all of that effort but that seems their destiny.

In the difficult situational dynamic of voters gravitating to National and Labour, the minor parties have been starved of necessary oxygen. None of them will be happy about it so the post-election relevance of NZ First, the Māori Party and the Greens will entirely hinge on this election staying close. That, in 2017, is the grim lot of our minor parties. 

Jon Johansson lectures in New Zealand politics at Victoria University of Wellington.

 - The Dominion Post


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