This is an election year in New Zealand. We vote for our parliamentary representatives and indirectly for our prime minister and government. Under our Westminster system the executive comprises MPs from the party (or parties) with the largest number of seats in parliament. We have a particularly silly form of proportional representation where about half the MPs represent electorates but these numbers are disregarded when considering the overall makeup of parliament, which is determined by the total of the party vote. To demonstrate how this would have worked with the US presidential election, Donald Trump may have won 30 of the 50 states and 80% of the counties in America, but Hillary Clinton would have become president under our system.
The proportional representation system gives minor parties power far in excess of their support and means the major parties often cannot really implement any of the policies on which they campaigned. As a result we have had successive governments that have pursued pretty much the same middle-of-the-road policies and have seen a gradual increase in the role of the state in our lives. There is little possibility that a party with radically different policies could ever get enough support to change this gradual progressivism. This is similar to the state of affairs in most Western democracies where the slightly left-of-centre party and the slightly right-of-centre party take turns ruling with essentially the same policies. Donald Trump's election, like Brexit, was the exception, where people said to hell with the same-same and took a punt on something different.
The lack of real choice in policies between the major New Zealand parties, National and Labour, could cause New Zealanders to look for alternatives in this year's election. One of the alternatives is the New Zealand First party led by Winston Peters, a perennial politician whose fortunes have risen and fallen several times over the past four decades since he was first elected as a National Party member of parliament. Peters' political career to date reached its zenith when he was deputy prime minister in National Party Prime Minister Jim Bolger's coalition government between 1996 and 1998. He again reached the top table of New Zealand's government when he served as Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark's foreign minister between 2005 and 2008. Peters has much in common with Donald Trump with his populist appeal to disaffected voters (in Peters' case mainly the elderly) and his nationalist and anti-immigration policies are reflected in New Zealand First's name, which sounds like a ready-made cap logo. His party is rising in the polls and is currently level-pegging with the third-placed Green Party on 11% of the national vote.
We approach the forthcoming election with extra uncertainty because of the resignation of popular prime minister John Key at the end of last year. Bill English, who was Key's deputy, has less personal appeal amongst voters than Key (although I like English because he has at least the semblance of principles whereas John Key clearly had none). English has been leader of the ruling National Party before, having led it to its worst electoral defeat in 2002, gaining barely 20% of the vote against the popular Helen Clark. So while National still leads the polling with nearly half the prospective vote, the gap to Labour is narrowing and if New Zealand First continues to eat into the vote share of the major parties, Winston Peters could well end up at least holding the balance of power again. My guess is that this time around, Peters will demand even more than in previous coalitions and could end up dictating many of the new government's policies.
It is hard to see the New Zealand political landscape changing much in the short term but Trump and Brexit have taught us that things can move very quickly. New Zealand doesn't have the same groundswell of political division and frustration that existed in Britain and the United States prior to their plebiscites last year, but I think New Zealanders are complacent and significant change could catch us unawares.
To paraphrase the Chinese curse, we live in interesting times.