Island Life by David Slack

All The Pretty Voters

Here's a test for you: in all the First Past the Post elections since 1935, what was the lowest percentage of the vote required for a party to win office?

The answer is 35.05%. It was 1993. Come on down Jim Bolger and, yes, you might well say bugger the pollsters and perhaps mention Ruth Richardson and Jenny Shipley while you're at it.

The following election was the first MMP one. Not surprisingly, voters went giddy with opportunity and cast fully 40% of the votes on other parties. But not this time.

This time, the two major parties have collected, between them, a bigger share of the vote than they managed in various First Past the Post elections over the past seventy years.

What's more, although the closeness of the vote gives some support to the argument that we're a sharply divided little nation, the numbers over the past three quarters of a century tell you quite clearly that we have passed this way many times before.

Take a look at these figures. The winner in each election is listed first.

1935 Lab 46 .1 United/Reform 32.9 Democrat 7.8
1938 Lab 55.8 Nat 40.3
1943 Lab 47.6 Nat 42.8
1946 Lab 51.3 Nat 48.4
1949 Nat 51.9 Lab 45.8
1951 Nat 53.9 Lab 45.8
1954 Nat 44.3 Lab 44.1
1957 Lab 48.3 Nat 44.2
1960 Nat 47.6 Lab 43.4
1963 Nat 47.1 Lab 43.7
1966 Nat 43.6 Lab 41.4
1969 Nat 45.2 Lab 44.2
1972 Lab 48.4 Nat 41.5
1975 Nat 47.6 Lab 39.6
1978 Nat 39.8 Lab 40.4
1981 Nat 38.8 Lab 39.0 (Socred 20.6)
1984 Lab 43.0 Nat 35.9 (NZ Party 12)
1987 Lab 48.0 Nat 44.0
1990 Nat 47.8 Lab 35.1 (New Lab, Greens 11.9)
1993 Nat 35.05 Lab 34.6 (Allce 18.2, NZF 8.4)
1996 Nat 33.8 Lab 28.2
1999 Lab 38.7 Nat 30.5
2002 Lab 41.2 Nat 20.9

I was going to graph them but the raw numbers speak for themselves, and don't they have a lot to say?

For one thing, look at the period from 1949 through to 1972 when National acquired its mantle as the natural party of government. In many of these elections, it was only a percentage point or three ahead of Labour. In all but one Muldoon election, Labour actually scored a greater percentage of the popular vote. (Right wingers grumbling today about the gerrymander qualities they see in the Maori Party overhang might like to reflect on the karma that might be at work there.)

Secondly, look how rare it is for one party to get more than half the popular vote, even in an FPP system. The last time it happened was in 1951, and the country had just been through the waterfront strike. Before that, Labour was chalking up percentage victories in the low fifties in an era when a picture of the sainted Michael Joseph Savage hung on the walls of thousands of New Zealand homes.

We do not live in such times today, and yet, heroically, Don Brash set his sights on a mandate of those proportions.

To be fair, he many not necessarily have been shooting for 50%. Under the right circumstances, 45% of the vote, with most of the minor parties falling below the threshold, could have delivered him a bare majority. Some of his remarks on the campaign seemed to suggest he was punting for that outcome. But that was pretty high-risk stuff, and even though the special votes might yet carry the game his way, you'd have to say it looks the least likely result.

The fact that New Zealanders have quite consistently been split fairly evenly between left and right was masked by the nature of FPP. You might have a margin of just a few percentage points on your main rival, but end up with as many ten or fifteen more seats in the house.

Labour, for example beat National by 4% in 1987, but won 17 more seats. Even landslides weren't quite as profound as you might think. Muldoon's win in 1975 won him a margin of 23 seats with 10% more of the vote than Labour.

These figures all come from the site, and there's much more to pore over if you're in the mood.

One other interesting number-crunching point. Look at the trend in the minor party vote. Provisionally, the vote for the minors this time around sums to about 20%. It was near 40% on our first dance with MMP.

1996 NZF 13.5 Allce 10.1 ACT 6.1 Chrst 4.3
1999 Allce 7.7 ACT 7 Green 5.1 NZF 4.2
2002 NZF 10.3 ACT 7.1 Green 7 UF 6.6

So God has spoken. I wonder if the Exclusive Brethren are wondering whether they might need to get themselves on the electoral roll next time.

If they're fretting about the godless types who might now wield power over this sinful land, I think they can relax a little. This is looking a lot like bridled power, and there's a lot to be said for that.

First Past the Post was a system that encouraged two main competing parties to destroy each other's credibility. The hope for MMP was that you might move from an adversary style to a more cooperative one. So far, not so good, you might say. In this most recent MMP election, they were still going at it as good as ever. But Helen Clark isn't wrong to maintain that she has spent six years running stable minority governments under this new system. It can be done, and she demonstrably knows how to do it. It was, after all, Winston Peters she turned to get the Foreshore and Seabed legislation passed.

Anyone who feels inclined to bemoan the prescription we've written ourselves might like to cast their mind back a little. The Muldoon government was as good an example of any of the shortcomings of concentrating too much power in too few hands. He didn't even have to go to Parliament to get much of his work done. He could simply write a regulation, which he was entitled to do under the Economic Stabilisation act. Blank cheques all the way. He ran up quite a bill.

If he did need an act of parliament, that wasn't especially tricky, either. Legislation could pass its happy way through parliaments with very little scrutiny, and we acquired something of a reputation as the fastest lawmakers in the west.

That's all but impossible today. Select committees have teeth, the government is subject to far more transparency and scrutiny, and the nature of MMP means that no one party is likely to be able to make all the running. The possible configurations that Helen Clark is trying to assemble now are undeniably constrained, but that doesn't necessarily mean that our democracy is the worse for that.

For all that Don Brash wanted us to accept that there is one approved way of looking at the world that the majority of right-thinking New Zealanders (otherwise known as mainstream) subscribe to, it is surely not, nor ever was, the case. If it were, why do we never see a figure of say 80 or 90 per cent in that table of results?

The plain reality is that we are diverse, we are plural and we are growing more so. We need to be able to consult and find ways to compromise and work together in some tolerable degree of harmony. That's not easy when you have many differing points of view to accommodate, but neither is it impossible. A system of bridled power has a good chance of achieving that.

The drawback is that it becomes harder for anyone to implement a grand plan. Roger Douglas managed one, the 1935 Labour government managed one. You might say that could never happen under this kind of system. You might also say that was a good thing. Given comparable pressing circumstances, though, it's not inconceivable that you could do the same under MMP.

What I really hope this new government will try to do is take advantage of the reprieve we've had from the simplistic response the National party put on offer to the so called "Treaty issues". They picked an issue that resonated with substantial strands of the electorate, and it resonated in large part because the policy developments of the past thirty years had been undertaken in an absence of consultation with the voters.

The government needs to find a way to summarise what has been done, explain why it has happened, and make a case for re-setting the policy on a basis that is acceptable to all the interested parties. That might be easy to say, and altogether harder to do, but it's simply not possible to do nothing.

You can make a good case for much of what has been done, and you can say with hindsight that other aspects could have been differently or better. But you absolutely cannot make the case that it should all be undone, and that in essence is the assimilation impulse behind the platform Brash mounted.

The new government may well have no more than three years to get it right, because there is every chance that unless it finds a way to bring the country to some accord on this issue, the National Party will be campaigning louder and longer on the same platform next time. You can bet that Gerry Brownlee will be carefully noting down every single radical proposition Hone Harawera has to make and building it into a potent platform of campaign outrage. If that can win them more than 50%, it won't be pretty.