Winston Peters and Len Brown both made declarations of intent at the weekend that promise a battle royal on the right of New Zealand politics

The old Middle Eastern political adage is that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Extend that line of thinking into New Zealand politics and the return of Winston Peters offers a twinkle of hope for Labour.

Remember Labour? You won't have heard from them much even though they are her majesty's Opposition in this parliament. They're polling roughly 30 percent at the moment (31.3% according to Pundit's up-to-date Poll of Polls) and seem to have been deemed by the media, and indeed themselves, as essentially irrelevant.

Winston Peters' declaration at the weekend that, assuming his party continues to support him through two more AGMs, he "plans" to stand in the 2011 elections promises a rough and tumble fight for votes on the populist right of New Zealand politics. Labour's support is so low as to be close to its core base; Peters knows there's little to be won scrambling after those crumbs so if anything he will tilt right.

The voters that Peters will be targeting are amongst the 55 percent of those currently supporting the government, but who are starting to get edgy about the smacking referendum (Peters voted against the section 59 amendment so can be populist and consistent on that one), job losses, our steady shift towards Australianisation, the Auckland governance reforms, and Key's strategic decision to move closer to the Maori Party (including his probable decision to favour them with a repeal of the foreshore and seabed legislation.

That army of more than half of New Zealand voters is hugely diverse and cannot be expected to hold together over the next three years; governing by definition requires decisions to be made (although this government has turned stalling into an art form) and decisions alienate voters. Slowly, support will be chipped away from National's record numbers and Peters is looking at picking up enough flakes from here and there to patch together five percent.

Can he do it? Some, such as Michelle Boag think we're in a post-Winston era. Others, such as Matt McCarten, think it's simply too hard and too costly to get back into parliament once you've been voted out.

But voters don't think in terms of eras, at least not unless they are being led by a prime minister more ground-breaking and inspirational than John Key. Just because few politicians are exploiting the xenophobia and populist feeling abroad in this land (Rodney Hide and Paula Bennett being the notable exceptions), doesn't mean it's suddenly gone away. And just because the Alliance couldn't get enough coins into their collection bucket to engineer a way back, doesn't mean Peters can't.

New Zealand First, and Peters especially, will know the millions of dollars it will take to be viable again. My pick is that meetings have taken place this winter that give Peters confidence enough to think he can cover the cost of a campaign. Fundraising, and the identity of his donors, could harm Peters yet again in the next couple of years, but he wouldn't be back in the game unless he had the chips to play with.

Peters will take succour from the fact that last year he lost in a landslide turn against the incumbent government. National won record support, he spent the year dogged by mistakes and scandal, the mood for change was irrepressible... yet he was still able to poll over four percent. The Owen Glenn saga was a disaster, capped off by Peters' helicopter use. But take that out of the equation and his was an otherwise excellent campaign.

One of the greatest political truisms is that 'nothing is forever'. So yes, New Zealand First could work its way back. Will it? It's simply far too early to even attempt an answer. Partly, it will be a question of whether enough New Zealanders will be able to forget the Glenn affair or whether they simply can no longer trust Peters. Partly, it will depend on what happens between now and 2011.

It will be a battle royal. Hide's stance on Maori seats and smacking suggests that the authoritarian wing of ACT is having more sway than the libertarian wing at the moment and that it will be going after the same voters as New Zealand First; ie those on the centre-right and right who think anything involving Maori or government is "PC" or "nanny state". National will also feel compelled to pander to at least the centre-right part of that crowd.

And the battle will be personal. Key's decision not to even consider a coalition with New Zealand First last year did for Peters. The former MP for Tauranga will have the current MP for Helensville in his sights. And Hide led the parliamentary charge against Peters over the Glenn affair. Oh yes, this will be personal. Peters has already called Hide "a mendacious sybarite". (No, I didn't know either; it means "a person devoted to luxury and pleasure; effeminate".

Labour can have the rare pleasure letting them go at it while it gets on with its own game. New Auckland mayoral candidate Len Brown will be a significant player for the party next year. The Auckland mayoralty will be the one high-profile political game next year in which Labour stands a chance; it will be an important anti-government platform and Brown looks up for it. With Bob Harvey likely to stand for the super council rather than the top job (perhaps in the hope of becoming Brown's deputy?), only Mike Lee can split the left. Who knows how fragmented the right could become?

It will be a fascinating contest. Can Brown and Harvey together rally the south and west against John Banks' support in the east and centre? Exactly how much money will business throw at Banks' campaign? Will National use the political capital of popular MPs such as Paula Bennett and Sam Lotu-liga to compete in the south and west? Who will claim the north?

The armies aren't exactly engaging yet, but make no mistake, the weekend's events began a new chapter in this government's story; the call to arms can be heard loud and clear.

Comments (19)

by stuart munro on September 01, 2009
stuart munro

The real question to my mind is when we can expect electoral reform of the kind that would prevent anomalies like ACT - with less votes than Peters & NZ First - having several seats in Parliament while Peters has none - not that Peters or ACT appeal to me in any way whatsoever.

by Tim Watkin on September 01, 2009
Tim Watkin

What suggestions Stuart? Having to meet a percentage threshold as well as a seat? Lowering the threshold so that NZ First could have got in? (Didn't the initial royal commission or someone significant suggest a threshold of two percent rather than five percent?)

by Graeme Edgeler on September 02, 2009
Graeme Edgeler

Didn't the initial royal commission or someone significant suggest a threshold of two percent rather than five percent?

Four per cent. But with no threshold for Maori Parties following the removal of separate Maori representation.

What suggestions? I can see arguments against adopting a system that would lead to a plethora of single MP or small parliamentary parties - so while my preferred solution of no threshold seems unlikely, I'd still drastically lower the threshold.

I think a party with three MPs is large enough to be a force within Parliament and also large enough that it's pretty fundamentally wrong to tell the people who voted for that party that even though enough of them voted for them that they're democratically entitled to 3 MPs, that I'd prefer their minority issues were ignored and they can't have representation.

I'd still have the electorate seat exemption, but it wouldn't play as important a role - merely allowing some parties that would have one seat, a second.

by stuart munro on September 02, 2009
stuart munro

Yes, the original suggestion had low thresholds. They were raised to try to reduce the public support for MMP.

The supposed problem of a plethora of single MP parties would solve itself pretty quickly I suspect. The effect of thresholds is to deny the franchise to blocks of voters. Were I an NZ First supporter last election I would have been outraged at losing my vote.

Single MP parties would effectively be indepedents, a valid role which seems to have been extinguished by the list system. Independents survive in part by being conspicuously scrupulous. That would make a refreshing change.

by Tim Watkin on September 02, 2009
Tim Watkin

How would the single MP parties sort themselves out? I guess no threshold is by default a roughly 0.8 percent threshold, in order to have enough votes to justify one MP out of 120 odd. That would still allow for a gaggle of small parties, making coalition deals more complex and government management more fraught, a la Israel perhaps, encouraging more one-term MPs and so on.

I agree that NZ First voters would have a case for frustration and that 'wasted votes' are a failure of democracy. But how low is low enough? Maybe two percent would be enough to get rid of the single issue brigade. 

by Graeme Edgeler on September 02, 2009
Graeme Edgeler

I guess no threshold is by default a roughly 0.8 percent threshold, in order to have enough votes to justify one MP out of 120 odd.

It would be a bit lower than that. You don't need to earn a whole MP (1/120 MP = 0.833% of the House should need 0.833% of the votes, etc.) you just need to earn more of a right to an MP than the other parties. If one party gets enough votes for 40.4 MPs, and someone else gets enough for 21.3 MPs, the party with enough votes for 0.41 MPs would likely get one.

That sounds more complicated than it needs to be (and it's also a little wrong given the way we allocate seats). Actual numbers will hopefully help: the following would have been the effective thresholds for a single MP Party at our MMP elections:

1996 - 0.387%

1999 - 0.397%

2002 - 0.395%

2005 - 0.412%

2008 - 0.391%

From 1996-2002 that's a little over 8000 votes; in 2005 & 2008 a little over 9000 votes.

A 2% threshold would have set the standard at 3 MPs for each of our elections, except 2005, where it would only have got you 2 MPs (2.06% would have been needed that year to qualify for a third MP). Three MPs seems about right to me. There's no particular reason to have a fixed threshold - it would be easy enough to write into law that any party that got enough party votes to qualify for three seats gets to keep them, but I'd see it as somewhere around 2% if you wanted an actual percentage.

If we were to completely get rid of the threshold, we'd probably change from the Sainte-Lague system of seat allocation to modified Sainte-Lague - making it slightly harder for parties to get a single seat - they still wouldn't need the votes for a whole seat (i.e. 0.833%), but it would go up a bit.

by stuart munro on September 02, 2009
stuart munro

The fact remains that single issue voters are entitled to be represented too. When we consider the dubious behaviour and policies of the major parties - some sycophantic nutjob is even sending our soldiers into Afghanistan for example - then I say, bring on the fringe. They can't be much worse.

by Craig Ranapia on September 03, 2009
Craig Ranapia

When we consider the dubious behaviour and policies of the major parties - some sycophantic nutjob is even sending our soldiers into Afghanistan for example - then I say, bring on the fringe. They can't be much worse.

When Winston takes about thirty seconds before trotting out the same old Maori and immigrant bashing rhetoric, I'd beg to differ.  I know the media just can't resist falling back into the abusive and dysfunctional bromance with Peters (because he's just so much bloody fun!), but if Labour and National haven't learned from their respective marriages of inconvenience with that reactionary old bigot and his personality cult, they don't deserve to govern.

by Tim Watkin on September 03, 2009
Tim Watkin

Interesting figures Graeme, thanks for those.

by doug Sheppard on September 03, 2009
doug Sheppard

The imbalance is caused by the winner of a electoral seat bringing the party % - would it not be better to remove the coattail effct

by Graeme Edgeler on September 03, 2009
Graeme Edgeler

doug - the imbalance isn't caused by what you call the coat-tail effect. The electorate seat exemption actually helps correct the imbalance caused by the 5% threshold.

Enough people voted for ACT so that ACT qualified for 5 MPs (technically 4.38 MPs, but they got rounded up due to the wasted vote). Why should the 85,000 ACT voters get the same representation as 20,000 United Future voters? Wouldn't that be a far greater imbalance?

You don't solve the problem of a bunch of New Zealand First voters being denied representation by denying a bunch of other voters representation as well.

by stuart munro on September 03, 2009
stuart munro

I also despise Winston Peters - but his majorities have steadily eroded because he's such a deleted expletive. Part of our democratic responsibilities are to ensure that properly supported candidates like Peters (however despicable) are electable in proportion to their level of public support - not how well they conform to our notions of political correctness.

Winston found a large enough group of people even stupider than himself, and accordingly, he should be representing them in parliament. But don't make Winston the litmus test for proper representation. Not all MPs are quite that bad. It's a bit of a lottery, and judging by the lousy selection we have at present, we're about due to draw one or two good ones.


by william blake on September 03, 2009
william blake

Thanks Stuart calling Winston a deleted expletive is the funniest thing I have read for a long time.

Isnt it curious how the peripheral parties,3 - 7 % of the poll, have such a percieved influence, as opposed to Labour being invisible at 30%. Is this something to do with the ego's that drive the minor parties making for a more entertaining political picture?

Or are the minor parties given too much power when married to the democratically dominant partner, becoming more like a super-ego to them. and doing thier unpopular work at arms length. qv.Bradford and section 59, Hide and Maori representation.

MMP was supposed to give us more democracy not these sacrificial goats.

by Graeme Edgeler on September 04, 2009
Graeme Edgeler

william, I think that's the nature of all government. National fell just a couple of points and two seats short of Labour in 2005 and didn't get to pass a single one of their laws for the next three years. The Greens got a number - from waste-minimastion, to babies in prison and anti-smacking - with far less voter support.

by Tim Watkin on September 07, 2009
Tim Watkin

William, there's nothing MMP-specific about major opposition parties not getting a say. The Dems and GOP in America are seldom more than ten percent apart and might only have thin majorities across various houses, but the loser still has no say.

I'm sure you'll remember the '84 election when Labour got a higher % of the national vote but still lost the election. MMP improves on that, but unless you can design a system of perpetual compromise and endless grand coalitions, that's the way of it. Better some marginal views get some say than nothing at all.

by Andrew Geddis on September 09, 2009
Andrew Geddis


I'm sure you'll remember the '84 election when Labour got a higher % of the national vote but still lost the election.

I'm sure I don't remember that, 'cause that ain't what happened ... '84 was the start of the 4th Labour Government! It was at both the 1978 and 1981 elections that Labour got more votes than National, but less seats.

by Graeme Edgeler on September 10, 2009
Graeme Edgeler

The Dems and GOP in America are seldom more than ten percent apart and might only have thin majorities across various houses, but the loser still has no say.

You only need to look at the current healthcare debate to know this isn't true. Democrats hold the White House, the House, and the Senate with a filibuster-proof 60 seats, for the first time since FDR (LBJ?), and Obama probably still won't be able to get the government health insurance option he wants.

by Tim Watkin on September 14, 2009
Tim Watkin

Andrew, of course I meant '81. Slip of the keyboard. But I had forgotten about '78. Oddly enough Richard Prebble was reminding me of that same thing just last week.

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