Minority Parties to Decide New Zealand Election

Prime Minister Helen Clark (center)

In one of the closest elections on record, Prime Minister Helen Clark (center) led the Labor Party to a one-seat win over the opposition National Party. (Photo: Dean Treml / AFP-Getty Images)

New Zealand’s ruling Labor Party will have to stitch together a loose coalition with minority parties to rule for a third term despite winning a narrow victory in last week’s general election.

In one of the closest elections on record, Prime Minister Helen Clark led her party to a one-seat win over the opposition National Party but still required another 12 seats to form a government. Opposition leader Don Brash though has refused to concede defeat believing uncounted absentee votes may yet swing the election to the Nationals giving them a chance to form their own governing coalition.

New Zealand’s complex M.M.P. (Mixed Member Proportional) electoral system, introduced at the 1996 election, has given smaller parties greater representation and allowed them to change the complexion of the parliament. The dominant Labor and National parties, accustomed to governing alternately in their own right, must now take into account minority party views in order to govern.

Though this increase in power for the smaller parties has been criticized for destabilizing New Zealand’s system of government, many commentators believe M.M.P. has improved the electoral system by increasing representation and therefore encouraging a more consultative government style according to New Zealand election expert Colin James of the Institute of Policy Studies.

“It’s harder for the government to govern just by ramming its policies through, but in two respects I think it has improved the style of government,” said James.

“Having to get the agreement of two or three more parties for every bill means, I think, a much more consultative style, and also much more input from the public through different channels. In our parliamentary committee system, almost all bills go through the committee system, and only a few of those have a government majority, so if people make submissions to those committees then they have a real chance of being listened to and the legislation changed.

“So in those respects I think the whole process of government and legislation has improved considerably,” he said to ABC Radio.

Smaller parties will hold 23 seats in the new parliament, any combination of which may assist one of the major parties to form a government. The Green party, with six seats, is a Labor ally and is expected to support a Labor government though its exact status has yet to be determined.

Increasing the complexity of the negotiations for Prime Minister Clark has been the announcement by smaller potential coalition member United Future that they would refuse to serve in a government where greens are cabinet members.

Much will depend on the success of negotiations with the Maori party (four seats) and New Zealand First (seven seats). The Maori party, formed to represent New Zealand indigenous Maori interests following a dispute with Labor is also undecided whether to accept entry into a Labor-led coalition. However, Maori party leaders will be unlikely to negotiate with the Nationals given their stated policy of winding back indigenous rights including the abolishing of special Maori seats in the New Zealand parliament.

Clark has already commenced negotiations with New Zealand First, a conservative anti-immigrant grouping under the charismatic ex-cabinet member Winston Peters. New Zealand First, though more a natural ally of the Nationals, has agreed to support the party winning the largest number of seats.

“New Zealand First’s position is that following the final election result, the party with the most seats in the first instance is entitled to form a government and New Zealand First will act to provide stability,” said Prime Minister Clark and Winston Peters in a joint statement following their first round of talks.

The complex discussions revolve around whether Clark is successful in knitting together these sometimes-contrasting elements to form a loose coalition of differing levels of support according to Colin James.

“What we’ve got is rather complicated negotiations, which are beginning today — scoping discussions, the prime minister calls them — with five parties: a one-man party, the Progressive Party, which has been in the coalition, United Future, which has supported the government over the last three years, the Greens, which have had a looser support arrangement, New Zealand First, which has been in the opposition … and the Maori Party.

“And all of those will be in different levels of support rather than all necessarily in the government, I would expect actually three or four of them stay outside the government … in return for policy concessions,” he said.

The result has important implications for the people of New Zealand with opposition leader Don Brash promising to dismantle many of Labor’s domestic and foreign policies. Most controversially, this includes the holding of a referendum on the future of New Zealand’s contentious law of refusing to allow nuclear powered ships to enter access to its ports.

Introduced under the David Lange-led Labor administration in 1984, the no-nuclear ships strategy has constituted an important component of New Zealand’s self-determining foreign policy and stands as a marked contrast to the more deferential approach of near-neighbor Australia.

Applauded by environmental and anti-war groups the legislation has gained the country a reputation for independence in the Asia-Pacific region and has come to embody New Zealand’s ongoing commitment to pacifism.

However, the law has come at great cost to New Zealand’s defense alliance with the United States and the Nationals have focused on the advantages the scrapping of the no nuclear ships policy would bring to the country including closer economic and military ties with the United States. During the election campaign, Brash talked up the possibility of a free trade pact with the United States should the no nuclear ships policy be scrapped.

Also promising wide-ranging tax cuts, smaller government and an end to special reserved Maori seats in the parliament, the ex-governor of the Reserve Bank captured the imagination of voters and took the Nationals to the brink of victory, increasing their number of seats in the parliament from 27 to 49.

With absentee votes still to be counted and the result not due to be officially announced until early October, Prime Minister Clark will continue to govern in a caretaker capacity until a workable coalition can be formed. Though winning only by the narrowest of margins, the Labor leader is long experienced in cobbling together unlikely coalitions and has expressed confidence in being able to form government for a third term.