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Sunday 09 April 2017

The (General Election) Year Ahead

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 10th January 2017

This year New Zealand is going to the polls. What can we expect?

There are several possibilities for the outcome. One is business as usual. Despite John Key's departure, Bill English doesn't make too many initial errors and United Future, ACT and the Maori Party (?) make up the numbers.

A second option has National's voter share falling to about forty percent, meaning that it cannot govern without a viable coalition partner or partners. Its current retinue of microparties are inadequate to save it. As in 1996, New Zealand First steps in to salvage matters, much to the displeasure of Labour, the Greens...ACT and United Future.

Consequently, Andrew Little steps down as Labour leader, but this time, Labour abandons the cumbersome primary process of leadership selection and selects Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern as its new leadership team. Little becomes industrial relations spokesperson.

What are possible points against this? The first MMP coalition lasted two years but fell apart over superannuation policy, leading to a schism within New Zealand First while National was forced to rely on a retinue of now defunct microparties to survive its third term under the Shipley administration, while Labour and the Alliance rebuilt, leading to the victory of Helen Clark in 1999.

Without a viable alternative coalition partner, New Zealand First could easily therefore become National's 'natural' coalition partner, but that would remove the flexibility that Peters and New Zealand First desire. Peters may decide to reject this option and 'teach National a lesson', if he means what he says about untrammelled neoliberalism. Even if he doesn't, there may be friction between National and New Zealand First within any such coalition. It didn't work after 1998, would it therefore work in 2017?

In the third option, Labour and the Greens outpoll National. Bill English has erred in raising the issue of a higher superannuation age, and this may lead to backlash from New Zealand First and its core social constituency, older voters. This might lead Peters to decide that National is 'too arrogant' to entrust with a third term, leadering to its ejection from government. In this scenario, Peters decides that New Zealand First has more in common with Labour and the Greens when it comes to economic direction- even if there are some frictions over the Greens' cannabis policy. The latter is resolved through a recreational cannabis referendum.

Unexpectedly, the latter mobilises younger voters sufficiently to reject continued prohibition while medicinal cannabis and its derivatives are treated in a seperate bill. Peters gets the foreign affairs portfolio, while Ron Mark gets defence and Barbara Stewart an Associate Health portfolio. Meanwhile, Steven Joyce becomes new Leader of the Opposition, but in fierce competition with Judith Collins, who wants the job instead and sets out to destabilise the new leader.

In this scenario, we don't quite get everything we want. While gender identity is directly added to the Human Rights Act and comprehensive antibullying legislation is passed, subsidised reassignment surgery has to be performed offshore. On the positive side, there is debate over the advisability of banning early infant intersex surgery, given the accumulating body of facts and evidence about its harms. New Zealand First doesn't raise objections because it is able to similarly introduce and implement legislation that benefits its core elderly social constituency.

But what happens to the minor parties in these scenarios? Family First has announced its intention to actively target ACT in Epsom, probably due to David Seymour's endorsement of euthanasia reform. It will be unable to implement its core charter schools policy if Family First's (tactical voting?) suggestions bear fruit.

Even if Seymour retains Epsom, if Peters is National's next coalition partner, ACT may end up ejected from that position. If ACT loses Epsom, it will probably fall to National's Paul Goldsmith, who is a social liberal. Epsom is not a natural electorate for the Conservative Party, and its prior candidate, Christine Rankin, left the party due to Colin Craig's shenanigans in 2015. ACT likes to model itself on Germany's Free Democrats, but that is an ominous parallel, given that the Free Democrats fell below German MMP's four percent threshold and out of the Bundestag in Germany's last federal election.

All three microparties are vulnerable to any tactical voting campaign waged in their electorates, meaning Wairakei and Ohariu Belmont would fall to Labour in such a scenario. The Maori Party has been steadily losing the Maori electorates over the course of the last three elections and if Wairakei goes in 2017, that will mark the party's end. Similarly, United Future would only require a five hundred vote shift within Ohariu-Belmont to be replaced by Labour, unless Peter Dunne manages to regenerate the party, perhaps by rebranding it to something like the New Zealand Liberal Democrats, given his professed admiration for that British political party philosophy.

Oddly enough, no-one has been looking too closely at the current situation of German politics, even given the fact that like New Zealand, Germany's Bundestag is elected through MMP. At the moment, it looks as if CDU Chancellor Angela Merkel will not get her own fourth term in office.

As mentioned earlier, the Free Democrats are no longer in Parliament, and there are major policy differences with "Alternatives for Germany,' which appears animated though anti-Muslim sectarianism and anti-immigrant racism. One likely outcome might be that Merkel continues to govern through a 'grand coalition' with the Social Democrats. However, this won't be an option if the CDU/CSU falls too short of a significant voter share. This may therefore lead to an unprecedented situation where there is Christian Democrat "confidence and supply" agreement with a Social Democrat/Green coalition instead.

(France is also going to the polls this year. While its Preferential Voting system keeps the French National Front from gaining too many constituency seats, its presidency is directly elected- and at the moment, it is a contest between centre-right standard bearer Francois Fillion and the French National Front's Marine Le Pen on the extreme right. Will Brexit/Trump anti-immigrant racism affect election results this year in France and Germany?)

In New Zealand, though, a grand coalition is out of the question here, given how unprecedented it would be, unlike Germany's federal Bundestag elections.

That is, barring surprise developments, such as (say) a local environmental disaster leading to a surge in Green voter share, as occurred after Tauranga's Rena marine environmental disaster, or a successful assassination of new US President Donald Trump, given that Vice-President Mike Pence is a free trade advocate, or stormy weather for the post-Brexit United Kingdom, perhaps even leading to Scottish secession. Wild cards can still happen.

Craig Young - 10th January 2017

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