I’ve spent a lot of time lauding New Zealand’s election system on this site. One or two have found that pretty annoying, and I don’t care; I stand by my comments. It’s called MMP, which stands for Mixed Member Proportional. Here’s how it works:


This video explains it slightly differently:

Someone who calls himself “Soliloquy” did an analysis of the last United Kingdom election to see what would have happened if it had been run under New Zealand’s MMP system. Many were unhappy with the result of their election because it resulted in the Conservative party winning the right to govern alone even though they received only 37% of the vote nationwide. The United Kingdom system is called “FPP” or “First-Past-the-Post” which is what we used to have in New Zealand. It also resulted in several unfair election results here and that prompted our, ultimately successful, campaign for change. Here is what “Soliloquy” found would have happened in the United Kingdom under MMP:

Our system isn’t perfect, but I really do think it’s better than any that any other country currently has. There are several reasons for this which include:

Unless you vote for an extreme fringe party, your vote counts.

The influence of money is limited.

There is no gerrymandering. Electorate boundaries are decided by an independent commission and are all roughly the same size in population.

The system results in higher numbers of women and minorities becoming members of parliament.

It fairly represents the votes of the population.

Smaller parties get a chance to have their voice heard in parliament.

That last one though can also be a weakness. If you asked any New Zealander what they don’t like about our system, it is the problem of rogue members of parliament getting more power than they should because bigger parties need their support in order to govern – the problem of the tail wagging the dog. And if you asked them to expand on their answer, the name that would come up most often would be that of Winston Peters, leader of the NZ First party, which he established in 1993.

Peters is a man of contrasts, and it’s very difficult to put him in a box. At times his populism and anti-Asian racism will remind you of Donald Trump. His frequent inability to work with colleagues will remind you of Ted Cruz. Like Cruz, he’s also highly intelligent, was very talented in his original career of law and is a very skilled politician. Unlike Cruz though, Peters is extremely charming. In 1998 he was appointed to the Privy Council and he’s the only current parliamentarian in that role. For many years he had a reputation as a man of integrity, though there were allegations of campaign finance fraud made in 2008, that may or may not be true, but put a big dent in his reputation.

Most smaller parties are reasonable about their demands and are often a good limit on the power of larger parties. The Green party for example has been a regular presence in parliament ever since we adopted MMP and has had a positive influence on the policies of the two biggest political parties – National and Labour. Even though there is no likelihood of the left-wing Greens ever entering into a coalition with the centre-right National party, the National party knows there is a sizable number of middle-class New Zealanders who have a positive view of the Green’s environmental policies and they don’t want to lose that voting bloc. If those voters defected to the Greens because National didn’t take it’s responsibilities as guardians of our environment seriously enough, it would likely mean a Labour-Greens coalition government and National would be out of power. Similarly, the centre-left Labour party needs to maintain strong environmental policies in order to retain its strong ties with the independent-minded Greens party.

NZ Parliament 2014

Allocation of seats in New Zealand’s parliament following 2014 election (Source: Wikipedia)

NZ First is the fourth biggest party in parliament, and because they have often been in a position of deciding who will govern, Peters has a pretty big opinion of his own importance. He is already talking about being the kingmaker at our next election in November 2017.

Peters first became an MP when he was only 33 as a member of the National party. He served for them from 1978-1981, then again from 1984-1993. He was made a cabinet member and Minister of Māori Affairs when National took over government in 1990, but soon made himself disliked and mistrusted among his colleagues because of the way he publicly attacked his own party. He was eventually sacked as a minister in 1991. He continued as a National MP until 1993, but as his behaviour hadn’t changed since he lost his ministerial role it was decided he would not be allowed to be a candidate for them at the election that year.

Not being a “team player” made him enormously popular with the public though, and he retained his seat in parliament in the 1993 election with the new party he created, NZ First.

The next election in 1996 was the first run under the MMP system. Billboards for NZ First all over the country had Winston Peters standing at the front and the electorate MP standing behind him as some kind of pale afterthought. In many ways his was the first political personality cult New Zealand had seen. There was talk of our elections turning into the presidential-type hype of the United States. Peters though did have several achievements in exposing financial scams to run on, and had a reputation for integrity.

Peters, Winston

Winston Peters (Source: Twitter)

Throughout the 1996 election he ran a campaign in opposition to the then National government. He constantly told voters that a vote for NZ First was a vote against National. His criticisms of National made him very popular with the public. There was also a lot of criticism of Labour taking the Māori vote for granted. When the votes were counted on election night, Peters had not only retained his Tauranga seat but NZ First had swept all the Māori seats, which had been held almost exclusively by Labour for decades. National had the most votes, but Labour wasn’t far behind. Neither had enough votes to govern alone. Winston Peters had 17 seats and held the balance of power.

For a month he negotiated behind the scenes with the two parties. He then held a news conference to announce which party he was going to support. No one knew his decision. The leaders of National and Labour had to wait along with everyone else as he spoke at length, giving little away, to see what his decision would be. He eventually stated he would be throwing his support behind National. It then took another seven weeks to sort out his coalition agreement with National. His taking advantage of holding the balance of power in this way, and the length of time he took – virtually holding the whole country to ransom – made many extremely angry with him.

His campaign manager, Michael Laws, later stated that Peters had intended from the start to support National but had pretended otherwise to gain more concessions from them. Peters, of course, never said whether or not that was the case. Either way the fact that he did this is a weakness of the MMP system. Most smaller parties recognize that 5 or 10% of the vote means that 90 or 95% of the people don’t want them running the country and taking advantage of holding the balance of power only turns voters against them. Further, if they drop below that 5% threshold at the next election, they lose all their seats unless they can retain an electorate seat, and that’s not easy.

Many of Peters’ supporters felt betrayed by both the way he handled negotiations with the larger parties, and his final decision to support National. Further, Peters continued to prove he couldn’t play well with others and his relationship with National steadily deteriorated. The 1999 election saw both Peters’ and NZ First’s support crash. The party received only 4.3% of the vote and they only managed to stay in parliament, with a much reduced presence, because Peters himself held his Tauranga seat – and that by just 63 votes.

Peters modified his behaviour and went after a new constituency – one that no party really held and one that was getting bigger. He began to court the grey vote, especially those who were concerned about the rising numbers of new immigrants. His speeches were (and still are) peppered with comments like:

We have now reached a point where you can wander down Queen Street in Auckland and wonder if you are still in New Zealand or some other country.

We are being colonized without New Zealanders having some say in the numbers of people coming in and where they are coming from. This is a deliberate policy of ethnic engineering and re-population.

There is a significant percentage of Asians in Auckland. That’s my view. If you don’t like it, vote for another party and let race relations go into chaos.

We are being dragged into the status of an Asian colony and it is time that New Zealanders were placed first in their own country.

Peters visits rest homesThis led to a rise in his support and by the 2002 election his share of the vote was back up to 10%. He hoped this would see Labour leader Helen Clark courting his support. However, much to his chagrin, she rejected him. Perhaps she was recalling the way he treated her in 1996?

In the 2005 election he finally lost the Tauranga seat, though NZ First managed to maintain its hold on enough of the vote to stay in parliament. He entered into a confidence and supply agreement with the Labour-led government, though not a full coalition. (He had nastily stated that he wouldn’t enter into any coalition that included the Greens.) As a part of that agreement he introduced the “Super Gold Card” which provided discounts, concessions and several other special benefits for superannuitants. He has thus maintained a level of popularity with that group ever since.

Winston Peters greets Condoleeza Rice at Auckland Airport 2008 (Ola Thorsen, Wikipedia Commons)

Winston Peters greets Condoleeza Rice at Auckland Airport 2008 (Ola Thorsen, Wikipedia Commons)

Once again his presence in parliament was proving difficult to manage. While many members of the public loved him as a rogue element, his colleagues found him problematic. Prime Minister Helen Clark devised an interesting solution – she offered him the role of Minister of Foreign Affairs which would see him spend most of his time out of the country. Peters had recently spent a lot of time going on about not being interested in the “baubles of office” as cover for not negotiating a full coalition with the Labour government, but when the position was offered, he quickly accepted. And in truth, he did a good job. He’s intelligent and capable and a big part of the problem had always been, in my opinion, that his level of skill was never put to its full use – a lot of the issues with him had arisen because of his own frustration.

However, Peters had made one too many mistakes in the last three years. He lost the 2008 election for Tauranga by a huge margin and NZ First only got just over four percent of the nationwide vote. He was out of parliament.

Anyone who knows anything about New Zealand politics though will tell you never to underestimate Winston Peters. In 2011 he was back. Peters still couldn’t win Tauranga, but NZ First got 6.8% of the vote so they were in parliament. They kept their heads down and focused on their anti-immigrant message, targeting older voters, and in the 2014 election increased their vote to 8.6%.

Some bad behaviour by National MP for Northland Mike Sabin (I think he assaulted someone, but the details have been kept pretty quiet) led to his resignation and subsequently a by-election last year. National had held the seat for decades. But Peters is originally from that part of the country and has extensive personal links there. He decided to run and against the odds not only won the seat, he did it with a big majority. Because of the way our electoral system works, Peters becoming an electorate MP and getting a greater share of nationwide votes for his party in the process meant that NZ First got an extra seat in parliament as well.

So everything is looking pretty good for Winston Peters and NZ First. As I noted above, because of the way the polls are shaping up for next year’s election, he is already talking about being the kingmaker again. He wants to be the one to decide whether the current National government will get to stay in power or whether they will be replaced by a Labour/Greens/NZ First coalition.

This weekend NZ First held their annual party conference in Dunedin to discuss their strategy to ensure that decisive role following the election. But early on the first day (Saturday) he said something in response to a question from a journalist that led New Zealanders to ask, “What the f**k was that?!”

So what did he say?

I’m not personally interested in going on and nor would my party be [if we didn’t make it into parliament at the next election]. Oh, look, it’s in the good book, “Any man who sets his hand to the plough then looks backwards is not fit for the kingdom of heaven.” [Luke 9:62]

Boyed, Greg TVNZ

Greg Boyed (Source: tvnz.co.nz)

The clip was replayed on Q&A on Sunday (a New Zealand current affairs show), leaving host Greg Boyed looking completely bewildered. Viewers could hear giggles in the background from the panel members, including the head of the Islamic Women’s Council. If you’re a USian, you might not see what the big deal is, but in New Zealand a senior politician quoting the Bible is just not normal.

When Boyed went back to the panel, who were all still looking highly amused, he asked political scientist Raymond Miller what he made of the comment. Miller replied:

Well, I never know what to make about comments like that from Winston Peters, um, it’s, um, I mean, I can understand at age 72 or whatever age he’ll be [at the next election] if he doesn’t get the opportunity to exercise the kingmaker role then he might want to give it away, um, but on the other hand I do believe that he thinks that he can make it and if he does then I think he’ll want to extract as much as he can from whichever party’s in government.

Peters clearly saw the segment, because he commented on it in a speech he gave at his party conference later that day. He claimed that Q&A didn’t give him the opportunity to respond:

… never had the intellectual fortitude, integrity, or outright decency to ask us on the programme.

Q&A stated though that Peters was twice asked to appear on that day’s show and twice backed out. Further, as TVNZ News (of which Q&A is a part) had a reporter at the conference all weekend, it would have been easy enough to arrange a segment at a moment’s notice if Peters had changed his mind. However, attacking the media has always been one of Peters’ standard operating procedures, so he wasn’t going to let the truth get in the way.

After attacking the media he said:

You know, I’ve seen some downright lies in politics …

Yeah, look who’s talking. And it got worse:

There are some in parliament who think manual labour is the prime minister of Mexico.

Actually, it’s the sort of people who vote for Winston Peters who are more likely to think that. Either way, it’s not the sort of “joke” a respectable politician should be making.

So we’ll see how things pan out over the next year or so. NZ First attracts voters with some pretty nasty attitudes that we can do without. As we’ve seen in several other countries though, there’s always a niche for anti-immigrant politicians. That niche is not very big in New Zealand because we’ve had few problems where the blame can be squarely placed on immigrants and there’s a low tolerance for racism. However, for years we haven’t been building enough houses to keep up with population growth, which is mostly as a result of immigration. It’s especially bad in Auckland where the average house price is now NZ$950,000. Unless that gets sorted soon that anti-immigrant niche could get big enough that no one will care whether Winston Peters has lost the plot – they’ll vote for him anyway. And to be fair, he looks pretty good next to Donald Trump.


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