Kiwi election

The New Zealand election: cheap, efficient, and rational

I happen to be in New Zealand just now, and the Kiwis went to the polls last Saturday (September 23). The right-of-centre National Party won a near-majority of seats and only needs to secure two more votes from the minor parties to form another government. I actually predicted this, but didn’t get around to posting before. You can trust RBC bloggers implicitly, right? Right?

A few points for Americans, Brits and other outsiders.

An electoral system designed by adults
New Zealand has a unicameral parliament, filled by the “mixed-member proportional” system, aka “Additional Member”. This gives electors a dual vote for party and constituency candidate. The 71 constituency MPs are topped up from party lists to give proportionality. It’s the sort of scheme you get if you ask dispassionate Vulcans to suggest something, which is more or less how the Germans got it, and later the devolved assemblies for Scotland, Wales and London. So you tend to get moderate coalition governments. (The disadvantage is that you give too much leverage to small parties that can often act as kingmakers, instead of freezing them out completely as FPTP does.) All four of the main parties have been in and out of government in the last decade. Even the populist, anti-immigration “New Zealand First” party is a very genteel version of the type. Can you see the Front National, UKIP or Trump’s GOP including in their health policy a proposal to “increase longitudinal data collection in health like a perinatal database”? That’s as wonkish as the stuff HRC was sneered at for.

Helping voters vote
New Zealand is worried about the participation rate in elections: the time before it shockingly fell below 80%. Voting is not compulsory, as in Australia. USA 2016: 55%. Unlike the US, New Zealand is doing something to make voting easier. They have trialled early voting kiosks in shopping malls, covering a range of nearby constituencies. Instant registration? Naturally. Paper ballots? Naturally. There are automatic recounts and reconciliation with the electoral roll, so the definitive results take two weeks. It’s a good system, but nothing exceptional. It’s the USA that is the outlier, sticking to a worm-eaten, discriminatory, corrupt, profligate and inefficient electoral system out of Hogarth.
BTW, part of Lu’s Brazilian family have happily settled in New Zealand. They aren’t naturalized but have permanent resident rights. They were allowed to vote. And why not?

Democracy on a budget
Expenses for the seven-week campaign are capped by law. Counting the flat allowances for parties, constituency candidates, and the unequally distributed allocation for broadcasting airtime, the most the National Party at the head of the list can spend is NZ$5,091,260. The total costs of all 12 parties, many of them tiny no-hopers, must be in the area of NZ$25m, or US$18m. That’s to elect the government for a country of 4.4m people and an area similar to Colorado. The special election in Georgia for a single Congressional seat cost over $30m.

What health policy?
A big yawn. Nobody wants to change a system that’s working well. The parties put health well down the list of issues: the campaign has been about immigration, housing, transport infrastructure, and taxes. This disinterest is entirely normal. Campaigns in the UK feature the NHS, but it’s all about funding levels not the principle. Once you fix healthcare, on any one of half-a-dozen statist systems, it stays fixed. Here are the health pages on the parties’ platform websites: National Party, Labour, New Zealand First, Greens. See if you can find anything radical.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

8 thoughts on “Kiwi election”

  1. One thing you don't get with our two party system is representation of neoNazis like Germany just did.

    I don't know why people are so worried that low voter turnout is unhealthy. Voter apathy may be unhealthy (or not), but if they are apathetic do we really want their opinion?

    "Once you fix healthcare, on any one of half-a-dozen statist systems, it stays fixed." Most countries that "fixed" their system are not as diverse as the US, or weren't at the time they "fixed" them. In a diverse society, less is more when it comes to government. Otherwise you create too many losers along with the winners.

    1. The advantage of an expectation of high voter turnout is that, when turnout isn't high people are likely to ask what's wrong. The degree to which we want to worry about the apathetic is worth discussing, but a more pressing problem of late has been impediments to voting.

      And I'm curious about the "diversity" argument. We are diverse in many ways. What kind of diversity were you referring to, and why would that particular kind interfere with the creation of a reasonable and accessible health care system?

    2. One thing you don't get with our two party system is representation of neoNazis like Germany just did.

      Careful there. First, the AfD won several seats in Saxony and Brandenburg through the FPTP component of the MMP system; FPTP is not good at keeping out minority parties that are nationally weak, but have strong regional representation. (The SNP in Scotland, while thankfully a very democratic party, was extremely overrepresented in the last two British general elections due to its strong showing in Scotland alone.) This is relevant for America, because Democratic and Republican majorities already follow strong regional patterns. It is hardly impossible to imagine, for example, a party drawing on confederate nostalgia to become strong in the South.

      Second, our big tent parties are de facto coalitions of diverse interests that include quite a few extremists; we have contentious primaries instead, and as we've learned recently, a radicalized base can be very effective at controlling them. Just because you run under the label of being a Democrat or Republican doesn't mean that you are even remotely centrist. The current Republican party has plenty of members in Congress that might easily be classified as extremists in some European countries (much of the AfD would fit nicely within the currently Republican party, if they adjusted their views from German nationalism towards American nationalism). And the British Conservatives more or less openly adopted UKIP positions to keep their voters. (Just because they won't win seats doesn't mean that the lost votes won't indirectly lose you constituencies.)

      I would finally add that we currently have a sitting President who at a minimum seems to have some sympathies for the white supremacist cause; whether that's better or worse than an extremist right party that is being completely shunned by everybody else is a separate question.

      I don't know why people are so worried that low voter turnout is unhealthy. Voter apathy may be unhealthy (or not), but if they are apathetic do we really want their opinion?

      Is it really just apathy? We have the dual problems of active attempts at disenfranchisement by making it harder to vote and a FPTP system where the majority of voters have their votes wasted. Much as we like to talk up voting as an important right, individually any single vote doesn't matter all that much, and it doesn't take a whole lot of adversity to make the tradeoff not really worthwhile for any individual, while it's collectively still very important. (It's a variant on the prisoner's dilemma, essentially.)

      More importantly, the bigger point about having elections is democratic control of the government; the fewer voters participate, the less effective that control is.

  2. I don't know that the fight against impediments to voting hinge on empirical measurement of lower voting rates. It's a matter of principle, no?

    Diversity in all aspects, political leanings, degree of individualistic vs communitarian sentiment, wealth, and ethnicity stand out. Even the cultural histories of different regions differ significantly. As our society becomes more diverse, the possibility of our agreeing on one plan for the whole nation becomes even more remote. It may seem like a no-brainer that everyone should be forced to prepay their health care costs, but maybe that is simply a reflection of our lack of knowledge of alternatives.

  3. Worth mentioning that NZ went to proportional representation after a combination of FPTP and Chicago-school economics trashed the place.

  4. NZ has lagged Australia in GDP per capita, unemployment and debt since the mid 80s (Aus made changes, but much more cautiously and to a lesser extreme). Like everywhere else, it has its ups and downs – currently on something of an up, but the changes did not transform the economy. They did make life much less secure for the ordinary NZ. A good many – in transport, healthcare and the environment – have been reversed.

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