Podcast: The Detail

What’s the point of minor parties?

What's the point of voting for a minor party that has no show of ever making it into Parliament? 

With the election less than three months away and the major parties fighting tooth and nail to differentiate themselves, what becomes of those that fly under the radar - and the 5 percent threshold?

In today's episode of The Detail, Emile Donovan speaks to minor party enthusiast and writer for The Spinoff Alex Braae, and satirist and editor of The Civilian - and former leader of the Civilian Party - Ben Uffindell about the function of minor parties, and the challenge of building a lasting political legacy.

In the 2017 election, five parties won representation in Parliament: National, Labour, the Greens, New Zealand First, and ACT.

But the list of contenders in this year's election includes at least eight other parties: The Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, the Māori Party, the New Conservatives, the Opportunities Party, Sustainable New Zealand, the Outdoors Party, Vision NZ, and Social Credit.

Advance New Zealand - the prospective political party mooted by former National MP Jami-Lee Ross - is also expected to contest the election, though it hasn't yet been registered.

But Braae says since MMP was introduced in 1996, successful upstart political parties in New Zealand have tended to rely on electorate MPs branching off to form their own parties, or join others - think Winston Peters forming NZ First for example.

"One of the really telling points is that under no MMP election has a party come from completely outside of Parliament, never having had MPs, to cross the 5 percent threshold. The only way that minor parties in Parliament have ever started up is from an MP defecting."

Ben Uffindell says the challenges for minor parties are many and varied: the 5 percent threshold, for example, might not sound like much, but it equates to well over 100,000 people voting for your party.

There are also issues with resourcing: political parties are allocated Crown funding to pay for TV and radio broadcasts, and the distribution disproportionately favours the larger parties.

"You get rewarded for how well you did at the last election, and it seems it just upholds the status quo.

"That's not to say we can give the same amount of money to Labour and National as some of the no-hope parties, like the Civilian Party. But the way it's allocated feels very archaic."

While minor parties don't have the best track record when it comes to representation, this year's election offers some hope to those who might be perceived as being on the political fringes.

The Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, which was formed in 1996, has contested all eight general elections held since its founding, as well as all 12 by-elections, despite never winning more than 1 percent of the vote, and not passing even that threshold since 1999.

However, the 2020 election will finally involve a non-binding referendum on what the party's been asking for for more than 20 years, and Braae says its vigilance in pushing the issue shows persistence can bear political fruit, even in the absence of formal representation.

"Time and again, voters are seeing: 'Should we legalise cannabis' on the ballot in front of them.

"Finally, there's a referendum coming up. The party itself has been almost entirely absent from the media discussion around it - it's largely fallen to NGO groups like the Drug Foundation and Family First.

"But I'd argue that you have to say that over that period of time, Legalise Cannabis will have had some impact on the overall discourse around the issue that they're trying to get going."

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

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