A Guide to the New Zealand election and the MMP electoral system

A Guide to the New Zealand election and the MMP electoral system

A Guide to the New Zealand election and the MMP electoral system

Updated 23 September 2017, 23:30 AEST

With the campaign over, who will be the next prime minister of New Zealand could come down to the quirks of the MMP electoral system.

When Prime Minister Bill English announced in February New Zealand would go to the polls on September 23, it was with the expectation his Government should be re-elected.

Mr English became Prime Minister in December last year following the retirement of his popular predecessor, John Key, a three-time election winner and prime minister since 2008.

Despite an unsuccessful previous stint as leader in 2002, Mr English had developed public respect and profile over the previous eight years while serving as deputy prime minister and finance minister to Mr Key.

Having presided over a strong New Zealand economy, and with the backing of his predecessor, Mr English was the obvious successor to Mr Key, though the two men have different political styles.

The son of post-war migrants, John Key grew up in state housing in Christchurch. He trained as an accountant and benefited from New Zealand's economic deregulation in the 1980s by moving into foreign exchange trading.

He amassed his fortune working overseas in foreign exchange before returning to New Zealand early this century to raise his family and with the desire to enter politics and become prime minister.

Bill English is the second youngest of a family of 12 and has six children of his own. He grew up on a Southland sheep property before studying at university and working as a policy analyst at Treasury in the 1980s before entering Parliament in 1990.

Mr English lacks the personal charisma of Mr Key, but despite his decades in public service and politics, retains the earthy charms of a Southland sheep farmer.

Labour's leadership problems

Since the defeat of the last Labour government in 2008, led by the formidable Helen Clark, the Labour Party leadership has been caught in a revolving door.

Andrew Little was elected as Labour's fourth leader in opposition after the 2014 election, but Labour's support in opinion polls remained stuck in the mid-20s. Support for the National Party under its new prime minister remained strong, while Labour continued to lose support on its left to the Greens.

Mr Little's greatest success as leader was negotiating a memorandum of understanding with the Greens aimed at defeating National, but polls indicated the two parties were making little headway.

With an election looming and a series of bad polls in mid-2017, Mr Little announced his resignation as Labour leader on August 1.

His 37 year-old deputy, Jacinda Ardern, was thrust into the Labour leadership with just seven weeks till polling day.

Jacinda Ardern has been in Parliament since 2008, elected as a list MP until succeeding former leader David Shearer in early 2017 in his Auckland seat of Mount Albert. Mount Albert had previously been the seat of Helen Clark, and Ms Ardern had previously worked for Helen Clark and as a policy adviser on the staff of UK Labour prime minister Tony Blair. Ms Ardern was elected Labour deputy leader in April 2017.

After joining the Labour Party at 17, Ms Ardern was active in the party's youth wing and is also a former president of the International Union of Socialist Youth. She was raised a Mormon but left the church over conflicts between its teachings and her political beliefs.

Ms Ardern's appointment as leader had the good fortune of coinciding with an implosion in the leadership of the Greens. A series of scandals in quick succession saw Greens co-leader Metiria Turei resign within days of Ms Ardern's appointment.

The two events led to a remarkable turnaround in the polls, with the National average poll lead over Labour falling from 20 per cent in June-July to 7 per cent in August.

Before the changes of Labour and Greens leadership, June-July polls had National averaging 46.0 per cent of the vote, falling to an average of 43.4 per cent in August.

Labour's average poll rating in the same period rose from 26.3 to 35.9 per cent, the Greens fell from 13.2 per cent to 7.8 per cent, while New Zealand First support fell slightly from 10.2 to 9.1 per cent.

By early September, some polls had Labour narrowly leading National, but as election day approaches, polls suggest 'Jacindamania' has subsided.

In one debate Mr English quipped: "Now the stardust has settled you're starting to see the policy."

While National has reopened a lead in polls, the operation of New Zealand's Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system will ensure National cannot govern alone.

Since MMP was introduced in 1996, no single party has been able to form government. All governments have been required to cobble together majorities, either as formal coalitions, general agreements on confidence and supply, or by agreements in specific policy areas.

It is now more likely political maverick Winston Peters and his New Zealand First party will have a say on who forms government.

Winston Peters first entered Parliament as a National MP in the 1970s when Rob Muldoon was Prime Minister, splitting from National in the early 1990s to form New Zealand First.

It was Mr Peters who made government formation so difficult after the first MMP election in 1996, negotiating with both sides for two months before eventually opting to become deputy prime minister in a government led by National Prime Minister Jim Bolger.

When he again captured the balance of power at the 2005 election, Mr Peters negotiated with greater speed and became foreign minister in Helen Clark's third Labour government.

In 2017, he has indicated he does not want to be part of a government with the Greens. If National plus New Zealand First has a majority, there would appear little chance of Labour forming government.

But if Labour plus New Zealand First fall short of a majority, would Mr Peters be prepared to form government with Labour if that government relied on Green support from the parliamentary cross bench?

In the end, the result will be determined by the vote share of the four main parties, plus a smaller number of members elected from minor parties.

This is where the intricacies of New Zealand's MMP electoral system become important.

The New Zealand Parliament

The New Zealand Parliament consists of only one chamber, the 120-member House of Representatives. The Parliament's upper house was abolished in 1950, the country has no states, and the country's written constitution has only limited power to restrict government.

Until 1996, the parliament was elected by simple majority or 'first past the post', creating a political system that acted like a form of elective dictatorship.

From the mid-1970s, concerns emerged that the electoral system was electing members to parliament in numbers that did not properly reflect the votes of the public.

A royal commission appointed by the Lange Labour government in the 1980s recommended the adoption of the MMP electoral system. By an accident of political history, first Labour and then National committed themselves to holding a two-part referendum after the 1990 election on changing the electoral system.

By the time the referendums were held, New Zealand voters had experienced a decade of newly elected governments introducing policies very different from what had been promised before the election.

After a decade of ambush government in which New Zealand's economic and welfare systems had been turned upside down, voters carried out their own ambush by voting to implement MMP for the 1996 election.

What is MMP?

The system is mixed member because the elected parliament contains two types of members — representatives elected from single-member electorates, and representatives elected from party lists. It is also proportional in that the electoral system is designed to make each party's share of seats in the House of Representatives proportional to its share of the overall party vote.

It is very similar to the system used to elect parliaments in Germany. By coincidence, this year Germany goes to the polls on the same weekend as New Zealand.

The House of Representatives to be elected on September 23 should consist of 120 members, 'should' because it can be slightly larger due to overhang, a concept explained further down this article.

The 120 members are divided into:

  • 71 electorate seats returning a single member elected by simple majority or 'first-past-the-post' voting. Two electoral rolls are maintained in New Zealand, a general roll and a Māori roll, with Māori permitted to choose on which roll they appear. Based on the enrolment on the two rolls, New Zealand is divided into 64 general electorates and seven Māori electorates. The two types of electorate cover the entire country and overlap.
  • 49 list seats where party members are elected based on national vote share. List seats are allocated to bring each party's share of seats into line with its overall share of the party vote. A party that wins lots of electorate seats wins proportionally fewer list seats, and a party that wins fewer electorate seats receives more list seats.

New Zealand voters have two votes on their ballot paper. One is a party vote, used to determine the overall share of seats for each party in the new parliament. The second is an electorate vote, used to determine a local representative.

A sample ballot paper is shown below.

New Zealand does not use preferential voting. Electorate seats are filled by the candidate with the most votes, and the allocation of list seats is based on the proportion of party first preference votes.

Of the two votes, the party vote is the more important as it determines the overall party composition of the House of Representatives.

Candidates can nominate for an electorate only, can appear on the party list only, or nominate both for an electorate and appear on a party list.

Most candidates appear on both, but some senior party figures, such as Prime Minister Bill English, appear only the party list. This frees senior cabinet figures from local constituency work.

How Seats are allocated

MMP does not use quotas like the Australian Senate, but a party needs roughly 0.83 per cent to have a chance of electing an MP. However, there are rules in place that make it difficult for very small parties to enter parliament.

The following rules apply to allocating seats:

  • A party must pass a 5 per cent threshold before it is entitled to list seats. A party with 5 per cent is entitled to at least six seats.
  • If a party that falls short of the threshold, but wins at least one electorate seat, it is entitled to be allocated list MPs equal to its share of the vote.
  • If a party wins more electorate seats than it would be entitled to by its share of the party vote, the party keeps the extra seats and the parliament expands in size. The extra seats are the overhang referred to earlier. In 2014 there was a one-seat overhang, in 2008 a two-seat overhang.

Explaining how these rules apply is best done by looking at the 2014 election results set out in the table below.

2014 New Zealand Election - Final Party Votes
Party Vote Seats
Party Votes % Electorate List Total
National Party 1 131 501 47.04 41 19 60
Labour Party 604 534 25.13 27 5 32
Green Party 257 356 10.70 .. 14 14
New Zealand First 208 300 8.66 .. 11 11
Conservative ** 95 598 3.97 .. .. ..
Internet Mana ** 34 095 1.42 .. .. ..
Māori Party 31 850 1.32 1 1 2
ACT New Zealand 16 689 0.69 1 .. 1
Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis ** 10 961 0.46 .. .. ..
United Futrure 5 286 0.22 1 .. 1
Ban 1080 ** 5 113 0.21 .. .. ..
Democrats for Social Credit ** 1 730 0.07 .. .. ..
Civilian Party ** 1 096 0.05 .. .. ..
NZ Independent Coalition ** 872 0.04 .. .. ..
Focus New Zealand ** 639 0.03 .. .. ..

To explain the entries:

  • Parties shown with '**' were excluded from the count for failing to elect an electorate MP or pass the 5 per cent threshold. The 93.8 per cent of the total vote for the remaining parties becomes the basis for determining proportionality.
  • National had 47.04 per cent of the total vote, or 50.17 per cent of the remining party vote. National was entitled to 60 of the 120 seats, but having won 41 electorate seats, was allocated only 19 list seats.
  • By the same formula, Labour was entitled to 32 seats, and having won 27 electorate seats was allocated five list seats. Labour's share of the electorate vote 34.13 per cent compared to 25.13 per cent of the party vote, so some of the hard work done by Labour's electorate MPs did not flow through to the party's share of party vote and share of seats won.
  • The Greens passed the threshold and were entitled to 14 seats. Having won no electorate seats, all 14 seats were allocated from the party list.
  • New Zealand First was entitled to 11 seats, all from the party list.
  • The Conservative Party polled 3.97 per cent and won no electorate seats. Its vote was below the threshold and was allocated no seats.
  • The Māori Party polled 1.32 per cent, and having won an electorate seat, was entitled to two seats, with a second seat allocated from the party's list.
  • ACT New Zealand polled 0.69 per cent and won an electorate seat. Its vote was high enough to be allocated a seat, which was taken by its elected MP.
  • United Future polled 0.22 per cent, not enough to be allocated a seat, but did elect an electorate MP in Peter Dunne. It retained its one seat, creating the one-seat overhang for the House of Representatives.

You can find more information on the operation of the MMP system at the New Zealand Electoral Commission's website. This includes full statistical returns on the 2014 election results, a summary of the electorate and party votes, a summary of how seats were allocated by the Sainte-Laguë divisor method, plus a detailed Sainte-Laguë seat allocation worksheet.

New Zealand's political parties

Despite differences in electoral systems, there are strong similarities between Australia and New Zealand's political parties.

The governing National Party occupies the same ideological space as Australia's Liberal-National Coalition, and the New Zealand Labour Party like its Australian cousin, has strong links with the trade union movement. Similarly the Australian and New Zealand Greens are brethren parties.

New Zealand First has some surface similarities to Pauline Hanson's One Nation in its populist and anti-immigrant rhetoric, but New Zealand First has had greater continuity in its representation. Party leader Winston Peters began in politics in the Muldoon National government era, before economic deregulation, and his party has a vision heavily tinted by nostalgia for an older New Zealand. The party is often dubbed 'Winston First', and only Mr Peters' personal charm and chameleon-like ability to glide over policy contradictions keeps the party afloat.

ACT New Zealand was a free-market breakaway from the 1980s Labour government. When Rob Muldoon was National prime minister from 1975-84, New Zealand was often dubbed the only command economy in the OECD. His economic policies that fixed wages, prices, profits, interest rates and imports resulted in many free-marketeers joining the Labour Party. When infighting and policy contradictions led to the demise of the 1984-90 Labour government, MMP encouraged many of Labour's economic liberals to help form the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers or ACT.

ACT has held as many as nine seats under MMP, but since 2005, the party has polled below the 5 per cent threshold and relied on winning the affluent Auckland seat of Epsom to maintain its representation. National has encouraged its supporters to back ACT in Epsom, currently held by David Seymour. However, since 2011, ACT's sole representative has been the member for Epsom and polls do not show any rise in ACT support.

The pace of economic change in the 1980s led to a fragmentation of New Zealand's political parties. At the first MMP election in 1996, all six parties elected had members that had served in Labour cabinets between 1984 and 1990.

The last representative of that era bows out at the 2017 election. Peter Dunne served in Labour cabinets in the 1980s, and since 1996, has been almost a permanent fixture in government. He has served as a minister in both Labour and National governments. His United Future party has had as many as eight MPs, but he has been the party's sole representative since 2008. His retirement seems certain to end United Future's representation.

The Māori Party formed in 2004 after the Clark government's decision to legislate against Māori traditional control over seabeds ands foreshores. The party broke Labour's control over representation from the reserved Māori seats, and the party's willingness to deal with National assisted the stability of John Key's government.

What to watch for on election night

Voting in New Zealand takes place on Saturday between 9:00am and 7:00pm (local time). Any form of active campaigning is banned on election day. All posters and signs must be removed by midnight the night before, and media outlets are banned from reporting politics other than mentioning polling places are open.

A million New Zealanders have used advance voting options in the two weeks before polling day. These votes begin to be counted from 9:00am on polling day, but there is an absolute ban on the reporting of those results until the polls close.

After the close of polls, the Advance Vote tallies start being entered into computer systems and reported to the media. In the early stages of the night, all reported results are advance votes.

In the past, there was a bias towards National in the advance vote. This bias has diminished as the proportion of votes cast in advance has increased.

As the night unfolds, the big question is predicting what proportion of the vote will National and Labour poll. Will National's vote be high enough that no alternative Labour-led government could be formed?

How will the Greens and New Zealand First poll? During the campaign both parties have at some point dipped below the 5 per cent threshold in national polls. If New Zealand First fall below the threshold, it can still elect MPs if Winston Peters can hold his Northland seat, won at a by-election in 2015.

The Māori seats will be closely watched for Labour's bid to win all seven. The Māori Party poll higher in the electorate vote than the party vote, but need to win at least one electorate seat to maintain representation.

If ACT's David Seymour retains Epsom, there will be interest to see whether his victory brings any list candidates in as well.

If National's vote drops significantly from the 47 per cent it polled in 2017, it opens the way for Winston Peters to play a larger part in government formation. If Labour plus Green support can match National's vote, the negotiating power of Winston Peters will increase.