Comment

Welcome to the twilight zone

There are many National MPs languishing in the twilight zone of the party list, where a poor showing in the polls will see them ousted from Parliament and will also make the National caucus even less diverse, says Peter Dunne

When the Electoral Act was amended in 1993 to establish New Zealand’s Mixed Member Proportional electoral system it contained a provision for the first time that the internal party processes by which candidates were selected both for electorate seats and the party list had to be democratic, although it did not spell out precisely what that entailed.

As a member of the select committee considering the Bill, I had pushed for such a clause to try and stop the stacking of candidate selections by trade union delegates that was becoming such a feature of Labour Party selections at that time (even though I was still a Labour MP then!).

The committee did not go as far as recommending my preferred amendment that the words “on the basis of one person, one vote of equal value” be included – which would have certainly ended the dubious way unions affiliated to the Labour Party influenced candidate selections in those days. But the inclusion of the statement of principle, which has remained in the Electoral Act, is an important reminder to political parties that they must operate in a democratic fashion.

Over subsequent years the provision has been more honoured in the breach than in practice, although there have been no cases lodged with the Electoral Commission alleging that parties have failed to conduct democratic electorate and list candidate selections. Nevertheless, it is clear that all parties have at some time or another breached the provision, especially when it comes to the party list. But as the breaches have been largely for pragmatic reasons there has been very little public outcry, or even notice taken.

National holds so many electorate seats at present (and seems likely to hold them at the election) there will, given its current polling likely be very few, if any, list seats allocated to it, once the electorate seats are counted.

Yet, every selection round, there are examples where the democratic selection rules are overlooked by the parties. The most common – and probably most widely accepted one by the public – is where a candidate is “guaranteed” a high list place in return for either standing aside in their electorate as part of an electorate deal, or because their seat is a considered a safe one, and the party wants to use that to bring in a new candidate as fresh blood and the high list place is the pay-off. In other instances, parties have used the enticement of a high list place to attract in new candidates who might not want to run in an electorate contest.

These types of situation are now so commonplace that it would be only a pedant or a fool who would dare raise the spectre of democratic selection processes to challenge them.

National’s recently released party list contains many of these elements but there is no suggestion that it has been put together improperly. It was, for example, widely accepted that Paul Goldsmith would be number three on the list as a quid pro quo for his not campaigning to unseat David Seymour in Epsom.

But that is not the real point of interest in National’s list.

Rather, it is because National holds so many electorate seats at present (and seems likely to hold them at the election) there will, given its current polling likely be very few, if any, list seats allocated to it, once the electorate seats are counted. So, while Paul Goldsmith may be number three on the list, he is actually number 42 when it comes to the allocation of seats.

With National’s Party vote sitting in the low to mid-thirties in the polls at present, it is currently unlikely to win any list seats at all. For the likes of Goldsmith, Michael Woodhouse, Nicola Willis, Melissa Lee, and Maureen Pugh – all sitting MPs running in seats where they will not win – to be sure of re-election, National would need to win just under 40 percent of the party vote. (For example, at the 2017 election Labour secured almost 37 percent of the party vote and won 46 seats. A similar result for National this year would see all the above MPs re-elected.)

Of more interest is the fate of seven sitting MPs ranked in the twilight zone between 24 and 44 on the list, although in reality they are between numbers 47 and 55 when it comes to the allocation of seats.

These seven (Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi, Paulo Garcia, Parmjeet Parmar, Agnes Loheni, Alfred Ngaro, Brett Hudson, and Jo Hayes) are running in seats which they do not hold. Ngaro and Hudson might be considered possibilities to upset their sitting Labour rivals, but they are long-shots, probably reliant on the list to get back to Parliament. Bakshi, Garcia, Parmar, Loheni and Ngaro will need National’s party vote to be heading towards 42-43 percent at least before they can feel secure.

To put that into perspective, only once under MMP has a party polled that highly on the party vote and not come into government. As polls strongly suggest the current Labour-led government is likely to be returned at this year’s election, the prospects of National polling around the 42-43 percent mark, or higher are currently very low.

That is particularly bad news for Hudson and Hayes. Hudson would be National’s 54th seat, and Hayes its 55th. National won just under 45 percent of the party vote in 2017 (considerably more than Labour it should be remembered) and ended up the largest Opposition ever with 56 seats. Current polls suggest National will not do nearly as well this year, leaving Hudson and Hayes in very difficult positions.  

... it is out of step with the face of New Zealand in 2020

But aside from the mathematics and electoral calculations there is another intriguing aspect to National’s list. For most of this year National has been criticised for a lack of diversity in its ranks. The list ranking was an opportunity to address some of these imbalances, but it has failed to do so.

Shane Reti is ranked at number five on the list, but he will win his electorate seat anyway. Melissa Lee is ranked at number 16, but as pointed out above, will need National to get around 37 to 40 percent of the party vote to be re-elected. A highly touted new list candidate, Nancy Lu, is at number 26 on the list and would be elected on a party vote of above 40 percent.

What is most telling is that of the seven twilight zone MPs only Hudson is European. The other MPs are Indian, Pasifika, Filipino and Maori and make up a large chunk of National’s current Caucus ethnic diversity. Yet they have been allocated list rankings from which it will be difficult or near impossible in current circumstances for them to gain re-election. In turn, that will make the future National Caucus that much less diverse than at present.

Whether that is a deliberate or accidental move is hard to tell. It may well be that the party is making the best use of its available talent. (Judith Collins has made it clear that as far as she is concerned all rankings should be merit-based.)  

Whatever the answer, it is out of step with the face of New Zealand in 2020. That detracts from the many new quality candidates the party has selected in winnable seats, who will be coming into Parliament. 

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