Some nameless person at the New Zealand Herald thinks either Labour or the Greens may have to support National after the 2014 election. And that person gets a salary to write this sort of stuff!

I don't normally read anonymous postings on the internet, but yesterday's NZ Herald editorial about the prospect of a "coalition of the losers" government forming post 2014 has been brought to my attention. It's a topic that both Tim Watkin and I have posted on before, but the Herald's treatment of it is so annoying that I'm revisiting it in a cut-paste-and-comment format.

The anonymous writer begins:

As they stand in our poll today, Labour and the Greens together would have 49 per cent, probably enough on paper to form a government. But Labour's leadership contenders last month all acknowledged that a party needs a "4" in its score to lead a credible coalition.

That's one interpretation of the contenders' positions. I'd suggest that saying Labour has to get back into the 40s was pretty mandatory campaign rhetoric; no-one putting themselves up for Labour's leadership was going to say "we're doing fine as we are ... just a couple more points in the polls and the Greens will pull us over the line in 2014!" Equally, of course every prospective leader of Labour would love to go into Government in 2014 with a dominant polling edge over their support partners - it would make their job that much easier.

But to turn this into some sort of tacit admission that Labour won't be able to take charge of the country unless and until it gets into the 40s by November of next year is, with respect, attributing a meaning to the contenders' words that I doubt they intended.

Politicians understand this better than academics and commentators who simply add up the seats won by parties of the left and right. Instinct tells politicians the public would not respect a government formed by those that finished a distant second and third at the election, though their combined seats outnumbered the winner's.

Yes, well ... we silly academics and commentators who insist on pointing out that "common wisdom" is not always an accurate reflection of the world. Let's accept that the NZ public has some sort of nebulous, unexamined belief that the biggest party after each election "ought to get to govern". What should we do about that - simply sit back and say "the public gets what the public wants", or try to suggest to people that their views rest on a misconception?

After all, as a country we go to great lengths to educate people about how MMP works in terms of casting votes. We pump millions of dollars into advertising to try and make sure that they understand that it's the party vote that ultimately determines the share of representation in Parliament. So why so blase about potential public misunderstanding of the results of all those votes once cast?

Anyone who doubts this should take note of what is happening in Germany, which also uses MMP. Chancellor Angela Merkel's party clearly won the election held at the weekend though she did not win an absolute majority of seats and her previous coalition partner has failed to clear the threshold this time.

Or, of course, they could also take note of what happened in (the then West) Germany in both 1976 and 1980, when Governments were formed by a SPD and FDP coalition despite the CDU/CSU parliamentary bloc having the most seats in the Bundestag. In other words, the model for MMP that the Royal Commission on the Electoral System looked to in its 1986 report had on two occasions within the previous decade seen "coalitions of the losers" take power. So it's not as if the possibility this might happen in New Zealand was unknown at the time.

Alternatively, they could watch Borgen and see what a government run by an "electoral loser" in a proportional representation system looks like. Actually, they should just watch Borgen, full stop. It's great.

On paper, Germany's centre left parties could form a government but since Mrs Merkel's party won 41.5 per cent and her nearest rival, the Social Democratic Party, 25.7 per cent, there seems to be no question that her party remains the rightful Government. The only issue to be resolved in the next few days is whether it forms its next coalition with the SDP or the Greens, who appear to be open to the idea.

Sure, "on paper" the centre left parties could govern in Germany. But such a claim "simply adds up the seats won by parties of the left and right" (remember how that is a bad thing?) without bothering to look at the actual political context.

Any centre left Government in Germany would require the involvement of Die Linke (the Left Party). Here's what The Economist's European columnist has to say about them:

Via four name changes, Die Linke evolved from the communist party of the former East Germany. It might astonish you that anybody anywhere would want to perpetuate that legacy, but that is what a faction of the party does. In eastern (ie, ex-East) Germany, The Left trades on Ostalgie (ie, nostalgia for the old East) and a certain homey we-know-how-you-feel appeal to all those Ossis who still don't quite feel at ease in the new Germany.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the main centre left party in Germany, the SPD, has emphatically and repeatedly ruled out any sort of governing relationship with the Left Party. Meaning that the only way the centre left actually could govern in practice (as opposed to "on paper") would be for the SPD to go back on its word and enter into government with a party that most German voters view with horrified contempt. In other words, the SPD would have to commit complete political suicide ... which it ain't going to do.

So it's not that there is some baseline assumption in Germany that Merkel's strong result gives her a moral claim to govern. It's that there is no viable alternative governing arrangement that could exist. Much as was the case in, say, New Zealand in 2002.

Every election New Zealand has held under MMP has awarded power to the party first past the post. The next election is unlikely to be an exception. Leaders of the main parties know a government needs more than a paper majority, it needs what Helen Clark called moral authority. That comes from winning.

And that's because every election held under MMP has produced an outcome in which the largest party has been able to find the additional support needed to allow it to govern. (Although it's worth remembering that in 1996, this didn't look to be the case at all - it required Winston Peters doing a 180 on his pre-election campaign rhetoric and agreeing to enter into a coalition with National.) 

However, the past is only a partial guide to the future - history only rhymes, it doesn't repeat. Meaning that if we are presented with very different circumstances in 2014, what has happened in earlier times won't necessarily give us much of a steer on what do do then.

For here's the real question for the Herald's editorial writer. Imagine a post-2014 election world where National has received 44% of the vote, while Labour has 35% and the Greens 15%. What exactly does the claim "the biggest party has a moral mandate to govern" mean in this situation?

Is the writer really suggesting Labour should refuse to enter government with the Greens, and support National instead? Or that the Greens should do so? What does the writer think "instinct" will tell the politicians in each party about how their supporters will view such a move?

For it is all very well pronouncing seemingly authoritative platitudes ("the public would not respect a government formed by those that finished a distant second and third at the election"!; "Every election New Zealand has held under MMP has awarded power to the party first past the post"!) But when those platitudes cash out into a claim that either Labour or the Greens will be required to support National in government after 2014, just because it got more votes than them ... well, that's just silly.

And that's why you shouldn't read anonymous postings on the internet.

Comments (19)

by Simon Connell on September 26, 2013
Simon Connell

Who is this "the public" who would be upset if a 35% Labour/ 15% Greens coalition was elected, despite National being the biggest party? It's surely not the ~50% of the public (at least, the voting public) who voted for the parties in the coalition. We would have to think they would be quite happy about the idea of the party they voted for being in power. I can't imagine anyone saying "Gee, I know I voted for Labour, and along with the Greens they have enough seats to govern, but there won't be a mandate."

Perhaps the 44% of people who voted National aren't going to respect the government. It's hardly a surprise that National voters are not going to be thrilled about a not-National-led government, regardless of exactly how the numbers stack up. Sure, they might be a loud 44%, who feel that they naturally represent "the public" ... but it's rather hard to make that claim when the election results say otherwise.

Your final comments remind me of a great xckd on seeminly authoratitive electoral platitudes that were true until they weren't.

by Andrew Geddis on September 26, 2013
Andrew Geddis



I can imagine a scenario where National gets in the mid-40's, but a notional grouping of Labour, Greens, NZ First, Mana and Maori Party could form a government, in which even some supporters of those five parties might say "it's better National gets a run at governing, rather than this rag-tag grouping". So, to that extent, the "biggest should rule" meme isn't complete rubbish.

But to go from there to say, as the Herald's editorial purports to, that National as biggest party still would have a moral right to govern even if Labour and the Greens get a clear parliamentary majority together is completely batty.

by Lee Churchman on September 26, 2013
Lee Churchman

My guess is that they have finally realised that New Zealand has no natural conservative majority.

National has devoured its coalition partners. This is about as good as it gets for them, and they still didn't win enough seats for an outright majority. In contrast, the "left bloc" of Greens, Alliance/Progressive, and Labour managed enough between them to do so in 1999 and 2002 (not that they necessarily formed a coalition each time).

I don't think National can realistically win without destroying or alienating their coalition partners. It happened with NZF and it's happening with the Maori party (which is stupidly propping up a government that is bad for the majority of Maori). The reason is that the constituency of these parties does not favour neoliberalism. Economically, Winston is an anti-Nat, and I don't think that will ever change.

There just aren't enough people in New Zealand willing to vote for the economically right wing policies favoured by the National Party. I guess they could try with Winston again, but I think history would repeat itself. 

The lesson of NZ politics appears to be that if your party opposes radical free market policies, it is a bad idea to provide support for a National government. The idea that the largest party has some sort of authority to form a government is nothing more than an attempt to bully smaller, centrist parties into a coalition that will harm those parties.

by Ian MacKay on September 26, 2013
Ian MacKay

I imagine that National is in reality made up of several would-be minor parties who choose to submerge their true aims in order to maintain power. There are a few in National colours who would willingly be part of ACT or now the Conservative Party or even NZ First. It is much better that we have fairly clear choices in the aims of Labour and those of the Greens rather than wonder at the murky true colours of the dark figures in National. So a minority Government of Labour/Greens being the will of the people seems great to me.

And doesn't the party with the most votes at an Election, get first bite at forming a Government? If they can't then the choice goes to the 2nd highest party. OK by me.

by Andrew Geddis on September 26, 2013
Andrew Geddis

And doesn't the party with the most votes at an Election, get first bite at forming a Government? If they can't then the choice goes to the 2nd highest party. OK by me.

We don't formalise it in quite this way in NZ. Rather, the Governor General sits and waits for the politicians to come to him or her with the results of their discussions (or, at most, makes polite inquiries of all the party leaders as to what stage their negotiations are at).

So - remember back to 1996 (hey - if I can, you can, too!) and Winston Peters' simultaneous negotiations with Labour and National? He didn't have to exhaust his options with National before talking to Labour - he played them out at the same time.

The Cabinet Manual has a section on the process here.

by Matthew Percival on September 26, 2013
Matthew Percival

A trip to the comments section of the New Zealand Herald will quickly have you losing faith in the ability of your fellow New Zealanders.

Mind you, given the factual inaccuracies of what Lee and Ian have written above the standard on here might not be all that much higher!

by Andrew Geddis on September 26, 2013
Andrew Geddis

A trip to the comments section of the New Zealand Herald...

That way madness lies ... .

by Tim Watkin on September 26, 2013
Tim Watkin

Andrew, hear hear! Shouldn't we educate the public rather than be led by perception? I think it's our role to help people understand what a parliamentary system under MMP looks like because I suspect the Herald's right in saying most people expect the biggest party to govern.

But every point you make is bang on; and fascinating to learn about the German stuff.

I mean, if you haven't seen Labour and the Greens repeatedly spelling out how they might work together to form a majority after the election, you've had your eyes closed for the past 18 months! No-one in a million years thinks either would go with National now, even if Norman maintains his clever "very unlikely" to go with National line. (Which I think is has crossed a line and is now unsustainable).

Oh, and unless he said it somewhere I missed, Cunliffe never said Labour's poll result would have to "start with a 4". Jones and Robertson said that on Q+A, but Cunliffe pointedly didn't.

by Tobias Barkley on September 27, 2013
Tobias Barkley

And if you look over here in Australia there is a Government of minorities: the Liberals, the National party, the Liberal National Party and the Country Nationals. The Liberal party is the biggest and did get 58 seats to Labor's 55, but if they had not there would be no question of them conceding. Their coalition agreement is ongoing and they do share a platform before the election but it doesn't stop differences between them (eg Graincorp and routine fighting over seats). I'm sure the Greens and Labour will be doing some of this type of preparation as well although I expect the Greens would not deal with as close a coalition as the Nationals due to their (somewhat) safe rural electorates.

by Graeme Edgeler on September 27, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

Whatever the constitutional merits of the situation (in which we are in, I think, total agreement), I think there is the possibility that under some circumstances, a coalition of runners-up will raise concerns with a substantial number of people.

Ideally, the first coalition of runners-up would be lead by National, because its supporters seem more likely to be opposed. Hopefully, the first coalition of runners up will only need two parties. And it would be better if there wasn't a massive difference between the major party which gets the most votes, and the major party that is part of the coalition. Similarly, I think it would be better if the first coalition of runners up defeats a government, rather than allows one to stay in office.

Some of these things are likely, others less so.

It will be especially problematic if the coalition of runners up only has a majority of seats in Parliament because of an overhang. Or if the coalition comes as a surprise, or adopts unexpected policies. Given the likely disquiet from some, the more clearly likely areas of compromise are announced before the election, the better.

Yes, New Zealanders elect a Parliament, not a government, but we elect a parliament based on policies they announce before the election. If a new government starts by going back on promises it's major component made before the election, some people will have concerns. I realise that they simply may not have the numbers to do some things, but going back on promises not to do things would be different. If this means being more circumspect about policy proposals before the election, well, we could all benefit from that.

by Alan Johnstone on September 27, 2013
Alan Johnstone

The rhetoric coming from John Key on this is pretty desperate, but no more than a consequence of his strategic political mismanagement.

The "coalition of the losers" meme is a farce, at the end of the day, it's the arithmetic, people voting green know they are voting for a centre left labour led coalition administration, they are just seeking to drag it towards a more environmental viewpoint.

Largest party means nothing; it's FPTP thinking in the 21st century.

by donna on September 27, 2013

I think what this tells us is that someone at the Herald is already running around in a screaming panic at the thought that National might not be able to govern - alone or in coalition - after the 2014 election. The 'coalition of losers' meme is an early attempt to undermine the legitimacy of a Labour/Green coalition.

We're also seeing swipes at Labour policies already: dear old Granny has taken a shot at David Culiffe this week, but on the Ruataniwha scandal (how many muzzled government departments does it take to build a dam?), not a peep.

Given the rate at which this government is using up its political capital, I wouldn't share the Herald's confidence that National will get the most votes in the 2014 election. Maybe the Herald knows something the rest of us don't, but a year is a long time in politics.

by Alan Johnstone on September 27, 2013
Alan Johnstone

The only way National doesn't get the most votes next year is if the green party collapses.If it's core vote is now 8% or 9% then that's a very high bar for Labour to reach if the right remains united.

by stuart munro on September 27, 2013
stuart munro

The real question is what trend is shown by Labour's poll surge? It has not been historically unusual for Labour to command the greatest proportion of votes, and the Greens do not by any means prey exclusively Labour votes. The soft support block that once supported NZ First, and another time United Future, is up for grabs and could propel Labour back into majority party status if they are perceived as offering the lively social democracy that New Zealand has historically espoused. That leaves out most of the lost tribe of disaffected left voters who didn't vote last time.

It's a lot of weight to put on a single poll, but if it is representative, a continuation of the trend by Zipf's law puts Labour back in the mid forties within the next couple of months. This is without further substantive policy rollouts or significant National debacles, both of which are sporting certainties.

Key's assertion about the biggest party may yet come back to bite him.

by Ian Tinkler on September 27, 2013
Ian Tinkler

Didn't the latest election in Norway just produce a coalition between second and third.  Has the NZ Herald writer informed their new right of centre government to resign now so the largest party, Labour, can govern?


by Tim Watkin on September 28, 2013
Tim Watkin

Graeme, as much as I agree with Andrew, I agree with you too. Mostly. As I said, people do expect the biggest party to govern and I agree if it that doesn't happen there will be disquiet and debate amongst a significant number – and fair or not, that perception of unfairness will have consequences. Hence he reason I've been nagging about this for a while – we need to keep talking about this to stop any constitutional spat.

I agree it'd be better with National and better if the gap was small. I'm not sure though if the number of parties in the 'coalition of losers' matters much. I get the point, but we're so used now to 4- or 5-headed hydras that I'm not sure that's a concern.

I think some in Labour – certainly under Shearer – had the same concern about the danger of surprising the electorate, hence the cosying up to the Greens. That partnership is now clearly established in the public mind. Some of the radical stuff like NZPower is also clearly flagged.

I hadn't thought about the danger of unfulfilled promises – maybe, but it depends. Key has broken promises with few repercussions, so he's shown it can be handled better than it might with good political management.

by Andrew Osborn on October 02, 2013
Andrew Osborn

The larger the number of parties, the greater the chance for that coalition to become a hand grenade. We saw this right at the start of MMP with Winston and his merry band.

I'll buy popcorn and watch if Labour tries to put together a government with the Greens and Hone. So many crazies in one basket! OK the country will go down like a burning Zeppelin but the entertainment value will be enormous.

by Andrew Osborn on October 02, 2013
Andrew Osborn

The larger the number of parties, the greater the chance for that coalition to become a hand grenade. We saw this right at the start of MMP with Winston and his merry band.

I'll buy popcorn and watch if Labour tries to put together a government with the Greens and Hone. So many crazies in one basket! OK the country will go down like a burning Zeppelin but the entertainment value will be enormous.

by Graeme Edgeler on October 02, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

I'm not sure though if the number of parties in the 'coalition of losers' matters much. I get the point, but we're so used now to 4- or 5-headed hydras that I'm not sure that's a concern.

The numbers are likely to be important in the sense . We're not really used to the 4- or 5-headed hyrda, in the sense of 4 or 5 parties which must all agree to something. There are four parties in the current governing arrangements, but in the last Parliament National only needed support from one (Maori or ACT) to get laws passed. In the current Parliament, it needs support from the Maori Party, or Banks+Dunne. If, for example, a Labour Government needs support from Labour+Greens+NZFirst+Mana (or perhaps with the option of the Maori Party instead of Mana), that will play out differently.

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