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The long shadow of Winston Peters

By Jo Coghlan - posted Wednesday, 23 November 2011

On 26 November New Zealanders will vote in a national election and vote in a referendum on the voting system. The referendum asks voters a two-part question: if they want to retain the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system (voted in at a referendum in 1993 and first used at the 1996 election) and what is the preferred alternative voting model: First Past the Post (FPP), Preferential Voting (PV), Single Transferable Votes (STV) or Supplementary Member (SM) voting. Polling indicates New Zealanders are likely to vote to retain MMP.

For most of the election campaign, the National Party government of Prime Minister John Key has been on track to be re-elected. The only question has been would he be able to govern alone? The key to the National Party's chances of a stand alone government are held by New Zealand's most enigmatic politician Winston Peters' and his New Zealand First Party.

While Key remains personally popular with an approval rate of 68 per cent, compared to the Labour Party's Phil Goff with only a 17 per cent approval rating, it is the Party vote that will determine who governs New Zealand. During the election campaign the National Party vote rose as high as 54 per cent before dropping to 49.9 per cent in recent days. The Labour Party, consistently polling within 28 to 29 per cent of the vote, has not benefited from the decline in the National Party vote. Polling indicates about 2.5 per cent of National's vote has gone to the Greens, who have rise from 9 per cent to 12.6 per cent in recent days.


Votes for other parties are fluid, and because of the nature of the MMP electoral system, Peters' The New Zealand First Party – who were polling at 1.7 per cent at the start of the election campaign and now are polling at 4.9 per cent – will determine whether Key governs in his own right or will need to form a Coalition government.

The MMP electoral system gives New Zealand voters two votes. One is the Electorate Vote where the voter chooses their local representative. The second vote is the Party Vote where the voter chooses which party will represent them in the national parliament. MP's are broken into two groups, Electorate MPs who are elected as local representatives and List MPs elected from the party lists. Votes are cast on one ballot paper.

While MMP electoral systems are considered effective because they combine single member district representation with proportional outcomes, one complexity is that a political party can be elected to parliament without winning an electorate. Under MMP if a party secures at least five per cent of the party vote they are entitled to representation in the national parliament courtesy of the party lists. Neither ACT nor the Maori Party have any chance of achieving five per cent of the nation vote meaning they both rely on winning Electoral Votes to sit in the national parliament. However, the Peters' New Zealand First Party could secure the five per cent threshold and secure representation as List MP's. Without five per cent of the Party Vote New Zealand First will not likely be represented in parliament and Keys should be able to govern without forming a Coalition. Key may though still rely on the votes from the ACT and United Future, should they be returned.

Given this scenario, and because of MMP, Key has been lobbying for voters to support ACT candidates, notably ACT candidate John Banks in the Auckland seat of Epsom, over National Party candidate Paul Goldsmith. Should Banks lose and New Zealand First Party secure five per cent of the Party List vote, Peters and his New Zealand First Party would be returned to parliament after being wiped out in 2008. Peters has promised New Zealand voters that he would not support a National Party government forcing Keys into a Coalition with ACT and United Future.

The nature of the electoral system also means that it is possible, though highly unlikely, that Labour supported by Peters could also form a Coalition Government with the Greens, the Maori Party and the Mana Party. Labour Leader Phil Goff has said he would not form a Coalition with the Mana Party, making any sort of Labour Coalition Government even more unlikely. Other scenarios however could see either the New Zealand First Party or the Maori Party end up holding the balance of power. The German MMP system and its five per cent Party List vote is not helping political commentators determine an outcome. The political uncertainty that the MMP has caused has been blamed on a declining dollar.

The 'Vote for Change' campaign is using New Zealand First Party as an example of why MMP should be rejected at the referendum. They argue that even though Key is a popular prime minister and his party is likely to secure 50 per cent of the national vote, Peters with a handful of Party List MPs could deny New Zealand a stable majority government instead installing a minority government. Peters has made it clear that he would not join a Coalition government but after 26 November could be in a strong position to deny a National Party government.


Key is claiming that Party votes for New Zealand First would destabalise national politics saying Peters' would withhold confidence and supply if he held the balance of power. Peters' denies the claim saying Keys is scaremongering: "He is blaming New Zealand First for bringing down a Government that you haven't had a chance to vote for yet." For some commentators, Peters is casting his shadow over New Zealand politics yet again. For the third MMP election out of six Winston could choose the government and the Prime Minister.

Peters' has a long and colourful history in New Zealand politics. He was first elected in 1978 as the National Party member for Hunua before losing that seat and re-entering the parliament as the National member for Tauranga from 1984 to 2005. From 1984 to 1987, Peters' was the Opposition spokesperson on Maori Affairs, Consumer Affairs and Transport and from 1987 to 1990 was the Opposition front bench and became spokesperson on Maori Affairs, Employment and Race Relations. He became the Minister for Maori Affairs following the 1990 election of the Bolger National Government before being dismissed from Cabinet in 1991. In 1993 he resigned from the parliament but was re-elected as an independent at the subsequent by-election with over 90 per cent of the votes. He established the New Zealand First Party in the same year, securing two seats at the 1993 election and 17 seats at the 1996 election. As leader of New Zealand First, he held the balance of power following the 1996 election, enabling the National Party to form a Coalition government with Peters' as Deputy Prime Minister.

Peters' revival in New Zealand politics fits into the pattern of a growing number of right wing populist parties who have established themselves in liberal democracies since the 1980s. Unlike the traditional postwar radical right, the contemporary populist right has developed a populist ideology that is anti-elitist. The larger goal behind the radical right-wing populist political project is to destabilise the power elite, from which they feel excluded. It is for the latter reasons that Peters' statements on government alliances are made.

In this election Peters' has said that he will not form a coalition, rather he will sit in opposition to keep the government honest. These are the same words he said in 1996 when he formed a Coalition government with the National Party and in 2005 when he became Foreign Minister in Helen Clarke's Labour Government. To say Peters' is unpredictable is putting it mildly. He has at least provided political watchers some entertainment in what would otherwise be an underwhelming heavily staged-managed election campaign.

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About the Author

Jo Coghlan is a lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University.

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