Where there’s voting, there’s a Deciding Vote
There’s a lot of focus on how much power Winston Peters (i.e. NZ First) currently has in coalition negotiations. He can choose which of Bill English or Jacinda Ardern is Prime Minister, and he’ll probably get some generous policy/baubles concessions from whichever one he chooses.
A lot of people seem to be saying it’s MMP that gives Winston this power. It’s obvious why people would say this: he’s had this power twice in our eight MMP elections, and he never had it under FPP. Still, I don’t think it’s the whole truth.
Rather, I think kingmakers/queenmakers (or, in general, people with a lot of power because they hold a deciding vote) are produced by the practice of making decisions by voting.
For example: in practice, the most contentious legislative matters in the United States of America are currently decided by one person: Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy. He was appointed by Reagan, but he’s more left-leaning than the other four Republican-appointed justices and more right-leaning than the four Democratic-appointed justices. So he’s often the deciding vote when the justices vote along broadly partisan lines. For example, he allowed same-sex marriage to be legalised, and he could also strike down partisan gerrymandering.
Of course, he’s not literally deciding by himself: it takes a majority vote to make a decision. However, where majority rules, whoever finds themselves in the position where they can tip the majority one way or another decides what the majority that rules is.
Of course, voting is not the only way things can be decided. In consensus-based decision-making, decisions are reached in much messier but more democratic and empowering ways. In dictatorship, decisions are made by one person or party, not because they find themselves at the centre of the people’s preferences like Winston or Anthony, but because because they’re in power and people are following them instead of resisting or supplanting them.
But when there’s voting (e.g. the votes that happen in Parliament, as well as the votes for who will be the members of Parliament in the first place), there is what we can call the “deciding vote”. And it’s inevitable that whoever holds the deciding vote has a lot of power: the people on either side of the decision can try to motivate them to vote the way they want. This is especially true when it’s clear who holds the deciding vote and when it’s concentrated in the hands of just one person or party (e.g. Kennedy or NZ First). But even when it’s unclear, parties from either side can still speculate about what the deciding voters are likely to want. This is why political parties try to win the centre over to supporting them.
What determines who has the deciding vote is who has a vote and how they’re willing to use it. Who’s made up their mind to support one side in a vote, who’s made up their mind to support the other side, and who’s undecided. A voter among the undecideds who can make or break a majority with their vote has the deciding vote.
Sometimes the deciding vote is held by just one party/person, and it gives that party/person a lot of power. For example, on the US Supreme Court, if four justices have decided to vote against gerrymandering and four have decided to vote for it, Anthony Kennedy has the deciding vote all by himself. But if four justices have decided to vote against gerrymandering and only one has decided to vote for it,1 the remaining four justices share the deciding vote among themselves: any of them can decide to kill gerrymandering.
The Deciding Vote in government formation: the King/Queenmaker
A “kingmaker”/”queenmaker” is someone who holds the deciding vote on who will be Prime Minister. If we directly elected our Prime Minister/government, the deciding vote would be held by members of the general public. It wouldn’t be clear who held it, and it wouldn’t be concentrated in one person’s/party’s hands.
But in parliamentary systems, we don’t elect a PM/government; we elect a Parliament. The members of Parliament elect a PM/government by voting to support the government in votes of confidence and, usually, supply.
So the deciding, king/queenmaking vote is held by an MP or some MPs. (This is the case in all parliamentary systems, not just MMP systems.)
In a way there’s always a king/queenmaker, because there’s always a deciding vote on who the Prime Minister will be. When one party wins a decisive victory in an election, they win the deciding vote, and they get to king/queenmake their own leader. In 1999 and 2002, Labour won the deciding vote; they got to decide how to make up a majority from among the Alliance, the Greens, and United Future. In 2008 and 2014, National won the deciding vote; they got to choose how to make up a majority from among ACT, United Future, and the Māori party.2
It’s only in close elections where neither the left nor the right wins a decisive victory (and when left and right parties aren’t willing to form a grand coalition) that the parties in the centre become king/queenmakers. They get to decide whether to create a centre-right majority or a centre-left majority. And they get to choose which of the two major parties will lead the government and provide the Prime minister.3 And I think I’m OK with that.
When the king/queenmaker is just one party, it gives that party a lot of power. E.g. NZ First currently, or in 1996.
When it’s a group of parties, the power they have is reduced by being shared and requiring coordinated action. For example, technically United Future, the Māori party, and NZ First were joint kingmakers in 2011: if all three had joined Labour and the Greens they could have made Phil Goff Prime Minister with a one-seat majority. But they weren’t willing to do that. Instead, two of them kingmade John Key.
Similarly, Winston is often referred to as the kingmaker in 2005, but technically to kingmake Don Brash, he would have had to bring the Māori party on board too. And that was not going to happen.
Why is NZ First currently the king/queenmaker?
Currently NZ First is the sole king/queenmaker. This is because of which parties won seats and who they’re willing to support in government. There are essentially only four parties, and three have essentially made up their minds which way to vote about who the Prime Minister should be. So that leaves the fourth party with a monopoly on the deciding vote.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Germany (whom we copied MMP from) also recently had an election, but they had six4 parties cross the line. If NZ had more parties represented in Parliament, the kingmaking power would be shared amongst various parties (e.g. TOP, Māori, or even the Conservatives might have been able to make or break governments). This is one reason I support eradicating the undemocratic 5% threshold. When the left, the right, and the centre are all dominated by one party each, those three are more likely to find themselves the sole king/queenmakers.
Germany also have more of a tradition of parties being willing to form coalitions across the left-right spectrum. Until this year’s election, Germany was governed by a grand coalition between their equivalents of National and Labour. But their equivalent of Labour have pulled their support. So now it looks like they’re going to have something roughly equivalent to a National-Conservative-UF-ACT-Green coalition to keep the Alternative for Germany (the closest thing to the Nazis in Germany since the Nazis) out of power.
If a “Teal Deal” was a real option in NZ, the deciding vote would be shared by NZ First and the Greens: Either of them could kingmake Bill English, or they could decide together to queenmake Jacinda Ardern. However, a Teal Deal isn’t a real option in NZ right now—for very good reasons. So NZ First are left as the sole king/queenmaker. (This is presumably why National supporters want to promote the possibility of a Teal Deal: to weaken Winston’s power, as well as Labour’s).
When a party with 0.22% of party votes was the kingmaker and nobody seemed to mind
It’s not often noted in these discussions, but actually even before this election, a minor party held the deciding vote. Moreover, it was a tiny party with only one MP (and 0.22% of the party vote at the previous election): United Future, aka Peter Dunne.
After National lost the Northland seat to Winston Peters in the 2015 by-election, National lost the deciding vote to Dunne.5 In practice, Dunne usually used his deciding vote to support the National-dominated government. However, on some matters he sided with the parties to his left. For example, he (and all other parties except National and ACT) supported Sue Moroney’s bill to extend paid parental leave to 26 weeks. Dunne’s vote was the 61st vote that allowed the bill to pass its second reading. However, then-Finance Minister Bill English implemented a financial veto to stop the bill becoming law. This means Dunne and the Māori Party effectively voted both for and against this bill: while voting for the bill, they were also voting to support the National government in confidence votes, and therefore allowing National its financial veto power.
When this power is a problem, and how it can be addressed
People generally don’t like it when the king/queenmaker is a small party (especially a small party they don’t like); they prefer it when it’s a big party (preferably the big party they like).
People rightly observe that the power of the deciding vote is disproportional to the level of support voters gave that party (whether it’s NZ First’s 186,706 party votes or Peter Dunne’s 5,286 party votes + 13,569 local votes).
This sometimes makes people dislike MMP itself. As I hope I’ve established by now, the deciding vote is not created by MMP: it’s created by the act of voting and distributed by particular voters’ choices. Nonetheless, when New Zealand used First Past the Post instead, we didn’t have this situation. Either National or Labour won the majority of seats every election from 1935 to 1993, even though they rarely won a majority of votes (National only got 35.05% of votes in our last FPP election).
FPP makes it more likely that the deciding vote is held by one of two major parties for one simple reason: because it stacks the deck in favour of major parties. FPP makes it very hard for smaller parties to gain representation: the only way is to earn pluralities of support in certain local constituencies (e.g. the Scottish National Party in most of Scotland, or Rātana in the Māori seats, until they joined Labour).
FPP still doesn’t make small-party king/queenmakers impossible. In Australia in 2010, Labor and the Liberal-National Coalition won 72 seats apiece, and the sole Green MP plus three independents queenmade Labor’s Julia Gillard.6 The same year in the UK, the Liberal Democrats were (technically) kingmakers, because if they’d banded together with some of the tiny parties, they could have kingmade Labour’s Gordon Brown. In 2017, the conservative Northern Irish party the Democratic Unionist Party (1.5% of seats, 0.9% of votes) queenmade Theresa May. They wouldn’t have kingmade Jeremy Corbyn, but nobody else was going to queenmake May, so if the DUP had refused also, a fresh election would have been required. Thus, they had a lot of leverage and won a lot of concessions from the Tories.
Moreover, FPP has other problems that, to my mind, outweigh the greater risk of a small party exercising disproportionate power when it finds itself with the deciding vote. Here are three pretty major problems:
- Under FPP, the party that wins the most votes doesn’t necessarily win the most seats. Labour got more votes than National in 1978 and 1981, but Robert Muldoon got to remain PM because National had a majority of seats. Similarly in the USA (where the electoral college votes work like Parliamentary seats in voting for the executive), the popular vote winner often doesn’t win: this is what gave George W. Bush and Donald Trump the presidency. Small parties may produce king/queenmakers we don’t like, but big parties produce PMs and presidents we don’t like, even when they only get a minority of votes.
- Under FPP, parties often receive a large proportion of votes, but few if any seats in Parliament. Again in 1978 and 1981, Social Credit won 16.1% and 20.7% of votes, but they only got one and two seats. In 1993, the Alliance got 18.21% of votes and only two seats. Similarly in Australia, for the last three elections their Green Party has got about 10% of votes but only one seat.6
- Under FPP, “swing states” or “swing electorates” often receive the vast majority of the attention and policy promises. This is most obvious in the US: in last year’s presidential election, 12 states received almost all the advertising and visits from candidates. The disproportionate power centrist constituencies hold is similar to the disproportionate power centrist parties receive when they find themselves with the deciding vote.
So solving the “Winston too likely to become kingmaker” problem by going back to FPP is undesirable for other reasons.
I would rather address the problem with an approach that’s desirable for other reasons: making MMP more genuinely proportional and democratic. We should eradicate the 5% threshold that lets National, Labour, and NZ First dominate the right, the left, and the centre. We should also introduce elements of preferential voting. Electorate votes should be selected by a Single Transferrable Vote, like city councillors are. And if we insist on keeping a party vote threshold, we should allow people to name a second choice, so if their first choice doesn’t make the cut, their vote won’t be wasted. These changes would make it more likely that NZ First would have to share the deciding vote with other parties in the centre. They would also make it easier for major parties to win the centre and the deciding vote, by giving them more support parties at the far ends of the political spectrum.
I’ve previously suggested that the Opportunities Party should devote their considerable resources to making MMP more democratic in these ways. Their dislike of Winston Peters and desire to strip him of his “monarch maker” powers is yet another reason for them to do so.
- Gorsuch, I assume, cos he’s a dick. Though, to be fair, he’s not the worst. ↑
- Shrewdly, they chose all three even though they only needed one or two, to ensure none of the three had too much power. If they’d just chosen ACT, that would have been enough for a majority, but if ACT ever considered voting against National, the deciding vote would have flipped into ACT’s hands. With three small support parties, all three of them would have had to decide to vote against National in order to seize the deciding vote. ↑
- Technically, it’s not impossible for a junior coalition partner to provide the Prime Minister. This happened in NZ in 1931: the third-biggest party, United, provided the Prime Minister, George Forbes, in their coalition government with the second-biggest party, Reform. This is a very different situation to our current Parliament, because United and Reform ran as a coalition (and eventually merged to form the National party). However, the United-Reform coalition was formed precisely because United, the kingmakers, broke away from Labour and united with Reform. In both governments, United kingmade their own leader as Prime Minister. Anyway, I’d be astonished if Winston will become PM in this case, despite what David Seymour might say. If either National or Labour/Green gave him the top job, the voters would severely punish them in three years. ↑
- Technically seven, but the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union of Bavaria are basically one party. ↑
- Technically Dunne shared the deciding vote with any other party willing to vote with National/ACT. But on questions where Dunne voted against National/ACT, it would have been unusual for Māori or NZ First to vote with them to give them a majority. I don’t know of any votes where this happened. ↑
- Australia doesn’t actually have FPP, but it does have single-seat constituencies in its lower house. They’re distributed via Single Transferrable Voting in each constituency. They almost always go to a candidate from either Labor or the Liberal/National coalition. STV doesn’t really help Green candidates get in, but it does ensure Green votes are redistributed to voters’ second choice (usually Labor candidates, it seems) instead of splitting the left vote and letting the Coalition win every time. ↑
One initial thought: While certain people get up in arms about using the MMP threshold system to gain representation, the real problem is how big parties can use it to deny representation… whether Internet Mana or Conservative. So RIP Internet Mana and even the Conservatives, who earned their right to air their lunatic views in Parliament with 19 times United Future’s votes.
Also, John Campbell is quite wrong to say the deaths of these two shows that “money cannot buy politics in New Zealand.” Who does he think pays National’s extremely successful PR people? What does he think is the force that keeps mainstream media so uncritical, anaesthetising, anti-intellectual, anti-policy and pro-National (despite his best efforts to work against that)? In fact, what it shows is that money is no substitute for good strategy, being in tune with dominant opinion in your society, and/or (in our unjust electoral system) support from a major party.
Anyway, onto how I was wrong…
Of all the blogs I’ve written, I think the most off the mark was this one where I said I was “(tentatively) happy about Internet Mana.” Second would be this one where I underestimated how bad Dotcom’s failure at the Moment of Truth was. I may have been wrong when I backed Cunliffe for Labour leader too, but I don’t know if it would have made much difference if Shearer or Robertson or Jones was in charge (probably the main difference would be that if Shearer had stayed on, there would have been a cleaner break post-this-election).
I still like pretty much everything I previously liked about Internet Mana. I still think the deal is ethically legitimate given the unjust threshold system. And it was a valiant idea to try and appeal to the young, poor and disengaged people who stay home in their droves on election day. But as it turned out, the experiment failed. It looks like turn-out-per-enrolled-voter was only slightly up this time, Internet Mana’s vote was only slightly higher than Mana’s last election, Hone lost his seat so Internet Mana are out of Parliament, and the Key government is returned with an increased majority. So I was totally wrong about the strategic value of the Internet Mana alliance.
I was wrong because I underestimated the backlash of dominant opinion in NZ against Kim Dotcom (not so much when he was a victim of the US-style-US-instigated illegal police raid, but certainly after he started trying to throw his own power around). This felt its effect in a few ways:
- It looks like for every apathetic Gen-Y-er vote Internet Mana won for the left, they scared several boomers, conservatives and Stuff readers towards the far-right. Though this isn’t 100% clear. Labour started to drop in the polls after the Internet Mana deal. But they also dropped after the WhaleOil + Herald smear on Cunliffe that turned out to be 95% bollocks, but not before doing its damage in the polls. And, bizarrely, Labour dropped after Dirty Politics too.
- NZers don’t like what they see as “dodgy deals,” though they’re hypocritical about it: they’ll forgive National’s Epsom and Ohariu cups of tea, but when they already didn’t like Harawira or Dotcom (and didn’t understand the ways the two parties are consistent; thinking it was entirely a money thing), the deal was another reason to oppose them and anyone who might end up in government with them.
- Dotcom and the Internet Mana deal seems to have turned Te Tai Tokerau voters off Hone Harawira enough that they could be convinced by Labour, National, NZ First and the Māori Party to vote for Labour’s Kelvin Davis. Labour had no choice but to oppose Internet Mana, a populist boomer swing voter’s nightmare, given that they rely on the opinions of such voters for success. But they tried to have their cake and eat it too by not unequivocally ruling Internet Mana out of any kind of government agreement, which was understandable given they’d be struggling to form a government without them, but ultimately a big mistake. They were close enough that Internet Mana presumably scared baby boomers and conservatives away from Labour, but far enough away to kill off Internet Mana and waste thousands of change-the-government votes, including my own.
- Dotcom failed at the “Moment of Truth” worse than I previously acknowledged. He’d been promising for months to provide evidence Key knew about the US plot against him earlier than the day before the raid. Instead, he made the MOT entirely about spying, and leaked a bizarre e-mail without anything to back it up, which didn’t prove anything – I still can’t figure out if it was fraudulent and, if so, whether Dotcom knew it was fradulent or not; but it’s certainly not convincingly real. The annoying thing is it’s quite likely he’s right about the “political pressure” on his case. But his e-mail took credibility away from that theory, rather than adding it.
- Even without that failure, the cartoonish and manipulative way he went about the MOT made it too easy for people to simply ignore all the genuinely alarming revelations about spying at the MOT, and Key’s dishonest and desperate (yet apparently successful) defence. Dotcom tried to use the event for his ego and his desire for revenge, rather than for the good of the country. If he wanted to raise awareness about spying and really get through to NZers about it, he should have:
(a) not talked it up but kept it quiet, exceeded expectations and let the revelations do the talking;
(b) kept revelations from spying separate from revelations about his case, or at least made sure he had proof about the latter before revealing anything;
(c) released the info months ago rather than five days before the election in a transparent attempt to influence the vote; and
(d) stayed in the background himself got a respected figure from the left and a respected figure from the right (e.g. Graeme Edgeler) to front it.
(Possibly Nicky Hager should have followed a similar strategy with Dirty Politics: not just writing about the WhaleOil stuff, but making sure he also focused on some of the dodgier things Labour have done… even if it meant dredging up old news. I don’t say this for ethical reasons – “balance” is an illusion and he’s perfectly justified in having a specific focus on WhaleOil and associates – but for rhetorical strategy reasons. If he’d come across as more bipartisan it would have been harder to write him off as a “left wing conspiracy theorist.” He could have left it to the readers to realise National are so much worse at Dirty Politics than Labour.)
Kim Dotcom clearly has no idea about NZ culture, and the NZers he had alongside him (Laila Harré, the Mana people, Bradbury, Edgeler etc) should have known better, just as I should have.
To Dotcom’s credit, though: tonight he’s acknowledged that he poisoned the party with his toxic brand. (His concession speech is in stark contrast to Cunliffe’s denial. If Cunliffe had said he’d have to go back to his party and see who they wanted to continue leading the party, they may have let him stay on. But saying he’s going to hold onto the leadership probably guarantees he’ll be rolled… the only thing leaving him there is the fact they don’t have anyone better).
I’m not going to say I was wrong to vote Internet Mana, but I was definitely wrong not to realise the experiment would actually make Key more likely to be re-elected, not less.
(Of course, there are other reasons for tonight’s result too: Labour’s bitchy in-fighting, lack of consensus about what they stand for, and general incompetence; National still being extremely good at PR; a docile and blatantly biased mainstream media; dominant “common sense” in NZ being a lot more in line with National’s confident neo-liberalism-with-lip-service-to-welfare-state than anything any other party’s offering; etc. And of course it’s ridiculous that Kim Dotcom and Hone Harawira – whose policies are quite normal in Germany or pre-1984 NZ – are seen as dangerous extremists while ACT are seen as acceptable coalition partners and the Conservative joke party won around over 85,000 votes. But it would be denial to blame the media and dominant ideology entirely – the various mistakes of the left-of-NZ First also played a significant role).
PS: I was also wrong about the polls – turns out they were actually biased AGAINST National this time. Or maybe the media were right that the Moment of Truth aftermath and Dotcom backlash actually gave a bump to National. Or maybe soft National voters / Labour voters without hope freaked out when there was a last minute turn away from National and it looked like Winston Peters or Colin Craig might be in government? It’s impossible to know.
PPS: I was also wrong to spend so many hours writing blogs during the last parliamentary term. This will be my last blog for Cut Your Hair, at least for the foreseeable future. Thanks all readers and sharers and commenters etc; it’s been cathartic if nothing else.
Generation Zero have just released an article suggesting “You can do Both … Vote Centre-Right [and] Care About Climate Change.”
They offer three ways this is supposedly possible… in reverse order:
2) Consider party voting United Future, Maori or New Zealand First (OK, those parties do/will prevent some of National’s most extreme policies, but you’re still actively blocking the possibility of a Prime Minister who’s actually sure he believes in climate change)
And worst of all:
1) Vote for National but make it clear that you care about climate change (Sorry, No.)
They seem to have forgotten their own previous release about how Bill English (deputy PM and the guy basically in charge of everything except selfies and smear campaigns) thinks climate change is “a non-issue at the moment, because there are more pressing concerns,” and wants to adapt to climate change after the effects are felt rather than mitigate against it now.
If you doubt their anecdotal account, English later confirmed in Parliament that he did say it, and does think it. Besides, it’s entirely consistent with National’s record. They provide little more than lip service to climate change – and often not even that: they don’t even answer questions about it, including Generation Zero’s!
The truth is: If you want to vote centre-right and care about climate change, vote Green. In global and historical context the Greens and Labour are centre-right. (National are hard right and ACT have no place being mentioned in a blog with the word “centre” in the title).
However, it’s doubtful whether a “climate voter” can vote for any party that supports sustaining the capitalist system, given that capitalism is based on an unavoidably anti-environmental premise: that we can have infinite growth in a finite world. Sorry, that’s not possible, and neither is prioritising both Creation and Mammon.
The two faces of National’s hitherto successful PR strategy
UPDATE (19 Aug, evening): Literally in the last few hours, National have unveiled some policy on their website. This renders the first two graphs and table out-of-date. But the second half is still relevant, and I reckon it’s worth leaving the first half online as a time capsule of what National’s campaign looked like until WhaleGate. Coincidence? What do you think?
Original blog (19 Aug, afternoon):
“the left have given up on the policy argument. They don’t think they can beat the National Government on the issues … so what they’ve decided is they’ll play the man, not the ball … but we’re going to keep talking about the ball.”
This is similar to his quip when Laila Harré announced she was running against Key in his local seat:
“we won’t be having much of a debate about policy – the only policy the Internet Party has is to make sure Dotcom isn’t extradited.”
In fact, I’ve been following and compiling the various parties’ policies, and the Internet Party have far more policy on their website than National do – even though the IP have only had a few months to formulate theirs. In fact, National have less policy on their (single) policy page than any other party – significantly less than most of them. On word count, they only provide literally 2.4% as much as Labour or 1.1% as much as NZ First:
It is true that some parties (notably Labour, the Greens and the Internet Party) provide fuller versions of their policies or additional documents, linked from their main policy pages. This is the main difference between National’s and the IP’s policy websites.
If we’re generous, we can include a couple of documents from January about their 2014 priorities in this category… the speech is largely not policy, but they do link to these documents at the bottom of their policy page. This time National manage to claw their way up to 2nd-to-last, because ACT only expand upon two of their policies – but they’re still left in the dust by the left-of-NZ-First parties he accuses of giving up on policy:
It’s also worth noting that Labour and the IP both state that even more policy is forthcoming, and the Greens are frequently updating theirs. I wonder if National’s are on the way, too? [update: I guess so! National also now say there’s more on the way]
Here’s the full data, if you’re interested:
While I spent an embarrassingly long time on this [update: now-obsolete! grrr…] number-crunching, we actually didn’t need these numbers to know that National try to run policy-free campaigns and policy-free politics wherever possible. They don’t engage with public questions like this, this or this. They don’t engage (openly) with blogs; certainly not opposition ones, and certainly not on policy questions.They don’t really put policy on their billboards – some people had to do it for them last election. Their flagship policies are generally pretty unpopular. They [update: still] have [basically] no policy about some of the biggest issues facing NZ (climate change, child poverty, inequality and the housing crisis) – in fact, they often deny that they’re issues.
Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics has provided some alarming insight into what kind of politics they do instead of policy politics. I haven’t read it, but Danyl McLaughlin helpfully summarises the basic thesis thus:
John Key’s National government uses a ‘two tier’ communications strategy; positive communications, which are focused around John Key, who is presented as ‘relaxed’ and decent, and negative/attack communications, which are conducted covertly by senior staffers in Key’s office and fed to the media mostly – but not exclusively – through Cameron Slater’s WhaleOil blog.
Obviously, the emphasis of the book is on the negative ‘tier’; the positive ‘tier’ was already quite obvious… but in fact both strategies involve “playing the man, not the ball” … positively, they focus on “the man” of John Key, his smiling face [update: which emblazons 12/18 of these and 4/4 of these plus a bonus] and perhaps some content-free feel-good generalities coming out of it. Negatively – well, you can read the book or the excerpts or the leaks or the blogs yourself.
Playing the man in these two ways has been a winning strategy so far, and has kept National riding high since Key took over (they’re currently polling well over double their 2002 election result). Will Dirty Politics and Whaledump change that? I hope so, but I can’t say with confidence.
What I can say with confidence, though, is that Key’s latest accusation is the most brazen hypocrisy I’ve witnessed since I’ve been following NZ politics.
Post-script (21 August):
Here’s the updated first graph now that National finally have some policy (5965 words of it, to be precise):
They’ve also deleted the two documents they previously linked to, but they’ve added a whole lot of links on each of their policy pages (mostly past news stories about what they’ve done while in government, which is kind of cheating… but also some fuller policy statements). I can’t be bothered counting that up at this stage. My guess is it’s still much less than Labour and probably less than the Greens and Internet Party too (definitely if we only include policy announcements proper).
I’m a huge fan of minimum wage laws, which were introduced in NZ before any other nation-state, in 1894. Along with a good welfare safety net (remember when we had one of those? I don’t), they ensure employers can’t take advantage of prospective workers’ desperation to exploit their labour while paying them barely enough to survive, like upper classes have done for most of history and most of the world. They also put more money in the pockets of lower-income earners, which means more money circulating in the local economy, rather than the ‘trickle-down’ approach that directs more money to Swiss banks and Hawaiian holiday homes. All this is good for all workers, and good for society. As a Christian, I can’t help but agree that minimum wage laws as a necessary (though not sufficient) response to James 5:4-5, and enactment of Luke 6:20-21.
Employers and right-wingers often respond to the minimum wage (or proposed increases to it) in the same way they did to the abolition of slavery: countering that minimum wage laws end up hurting the people they mean to help, by making jobs unaffordable for employers, and therefore increasing unemployment. However, as the Sydney Morning Herald reports, most economists now agree that reasonable increases in the minimum wage don’t increase unemployment, and may even decrease it. They’ve found room in their theories to explain this, by observing that reality is more complex than their older models.
The SMH also offers plenty of real-life examples of minimum wage increases not increasing unemployment. New Zealand’s history, Treasury and Department of Labour corroborate this, as does recent US experience, various other research and this very rich man. The Living Wage movement adds evidence of employers actually getting more value for each wage dollar by paying employees better, as their staff are healthier, less likely to need long hours or second jobs, more loyal to their workplaces, better-motivated and often more productive. New Zealand has notoriously low productivity, so higher wages may help improve this.
If the old, baseless myths of minimum wages harming workers and employers are cast aside, there remains no economic or ethical justification for a minimum wage below a living wage, “the income necessary to provide workers and their families with the basic necessities of life” and “enable workers to live with dignity and to participate as active citizens in society.” The living wage is currently calculated at $18.80 per hour.
I thought it would be useful to survey the various political parties’ policies and past records on the minimum wage and/or Living Wage, to see what each of them may do if in power after September the 20th.
There’s some quite significant differences, which I’ve roughly quantified in scores out of ten for the sake of TL;DR readers who probably haven’t read this far anyway.
The parties on minimum wage
Alongside the below, please note that Bryan Bruce recently asked all parties “whether they would or would not support in principle the introduction of a living wage rather than a minimum wage.” “The Green Party, Labour, Mana, Maori Party. Alliance and Internet Party said Yes they would. ACT, United Future, Conservative Party, Democrats For Social Credit said No. NZ First gave no answer, while Bill English for National refused to answer saying the question was hypothetical.”
Policy: National typically don’t campaign on policy, and they have barely have any policy on their website compared to every other party – including nothing on the minimum wage. We can assume current trends will continue.
Past record: The 1990s National-led government was famously committed to lowering, not raising wages, due to similar beliefs to the minimum wage myths discussed above. They let it stagnate except when NZ First forced them to increase it in 1997 (nice graph here), and left it in 1999 at about 40% of the average wage. The current National-led government have done better; they’ve maintained it basically where Labour left it in 2008 – around 50% of average wage. They’ve increased it gradually, though much slower than the last Labour-led government – 18.75% in six years (just above inflation) compared to 71.43% in nine years (considerably above inflation; they also introduced Working for Families – see below). Their latest increase has been the highest – 50c to $14.25. They promote this a lot in their media releases. If their ‘status quo’ policy continues, it will further increase inequality, because it’s well out of step with economic growth.
National also re-introduced lower minimum wages for young and new employees, because of the minimum wage myth that it would increase youth employment. This bill passed with the support of ACT and United Future, with all other parties opposing.
Policy: Labour have a clear policy to “Increase the minimum wage by $2 an hour in our first year,to $15 an hour in our first hundred days in government, and increased [sic] again to $16.25 an hour in early 2015.” They will also “Set a target of returning the minimum wage to two-thirds of the average wage by the end of our second term, as economic conditions allow,” noting that the minimum wage “averaged around two-thirds of the average wage in the post-War period until the policies of Muldoon, followed by the neoliberal period, slashed it to just 40% of the average wage by 1999. The sixth Labour government brought it up to half of the average wage, but it has flat-lined since then.”
They also intend to reform employment law to be more in the interests of workers, and support the Living Wage movement in a number of ways: they’ll “Ensure that all core public service workers are paid at least the Living Wage, and extend this as fiscal conditions permit,” favour private sector firms who pay living wages, and “progressively address inequities in the pay of the publicly-funded aged care and disability care workforce and non-teaching staff in … schools.” The latter would be great for our huge numbers of hard-working, poorly-paid aged-care workers. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that government subsidies are currently not enough for rest homes to pay their staff a living wage.
Past record: While the fourth Labour government kick-started “the neoliberal period” they mention in their policy, the last (Clark) Labour-led government raised the minimum wage much faster than inflation, and much faster than the current National-led government, as mentioned. They also introduced Working for Families to top up sub-living wages with government subsidies – John Key called this “communism by stealth” at the time but now supports maintaining it rather than making employers pay more. They also passed a diluted version of Sue Bradford’s bill for youth to receive the same minimum wage as older adults, which National have essentially reversed (see above).
Policy: The Greens’ policy is to “increase the minimum wage and ensure it cannot fall below 66% of the average wage.” 66% of the average would translate to $17.16 as of a year ago, but as a friend pointed out, raising the minimum wage would also raise the average, so the final figure would be higher than that – it would take a smarter statistical mind than mine to give you a firm figure. The advantage of a relative measure is it deals with the material, absolute effects of inequality, as well as the material effects of poverty. Superannuation is indexed to average wages, and I think it’s a good idea for the minimum wage to be also. The Greens also say they are “committed to full employment with dignity and a living income, and reject the idea that economic stability requires either a significant level of unemployment or a low level of protection for those in the paid workforce.”
Past record: Former Green MP Sue Bradford led the charge for youth to receive the same minimum wage as adults, and the Labour-led government passed a version of this. Contrary to what right-wing bloggers and politicians say, it didn’t cause any adverse affect to youth employment; in fact it decreased youth inactivity.
Policy: Their policy is to raise the minimum wage to $16 “in the first instance.” It’s not clear what would happen next; Winston Peters has previously said that after an initial raise they will “then add margins for skill and good service,” which isn’t particularly clear either. This lack of clarity means I’ve given them a score below Labour’s, despite their increase being higher until April 2015. They’ll also make employment law better for workers, and reverse National’s policy of lower minimum wages for young workers, preferring a more constructive policy of “subsidizing wages for employers who take on young, unemployed people for trade training and skills programmes.”
Past record: In their confidence and supply agreement with Labour in 2005, NZ First asked Labour to “continue the practice of annually increasing the minimum wage, with a view to it being set at $12.00 per hour by the end of 2008,” which happened. Also, the only significant increase to the minimum wage in the 1990s National-led government was prompted by NZ First. All their media releases on the minimum wage advocate for raising it (or oppose reintroducing the youth rate), and in a speech to the Combined Trade Unions Peters boasts that “New Zealand First has supported every increase in the minimum wage.”
Policy: The policy section of their website hasn’t been updated for this election, and suggests raising the minimum wage to $16 as of 2011. More recently, they announced a policy of raising the minimum wage to the calculated living wage of $18.80. The Living Wage movement’s figure, which is updated each year, is based mostly on absolute measures. The advantage of this is that it deals with the material necessities of living a full life in society, can’t be written off as “merely relative” – though of course this writing-off misses the point spectacularly.
Past record: They haven’t let their role in National-led government blunt their criticism of its slow increases in the minimum wage, saying “The Government should be ashamed of themselves” for raising it a mere 25c to $13.75 in 2013. In the same release, they described “the increase in income inequality over the last 25 years as a major threat to our economic well-being and social cohesion,” and said “The Government should focus on reducing wage inequality by targeting high wages of excessively high income earners” as well as increasing the minimum wage.
Policy: Mana’s policy is to “Increase the minimum wage to $18.80 per hour (a living wage) and index it at 66% of the average wage to ensure it remains a living wage.” This combines the advantages of the Māori party policy (combating material deprivation by adopting a living wage) and the Green Party policy (combating the material affects of inequality and relative poverty by ensuring the minimum wage never goes below 66% of the average wage). Their economic justice, livelihoods and social wellbeing policies also include many other ways to “Raise the incomes of low-income earners,” including better protection for workers, working towards full employment by creating community service jobs for the unemployed, reversing National’s lower minimum wages for youth, finally increasing welfare support from the poverty-level it’s been at since 1991, abolishing GST which disproportionately impacts on the poor, and working towards a Universal Basic Income, as recommended by Gareth Morgan.
Past record: Mana is only three years old as a party, so their main past record has been advocating for the last three years for a higher minimum wage, and opposing the reduction of the minimum wage for young and new workers.
Policy: If ACT had their way, minimum wage laws would be “gone by lunchtime” (to quote their former leader on NZ’s nuclear-free stance). This is part of their welfare [or lack thereof] policy, which they note would be a continuation of the current government’s approach to welfare. It’s interesting that even though the minimum wage is not about benefits, but work, ACT lump it under welfare policy – presumably because it goes to poor people, not rich people.
Past record: All their releases on the minimum wage advocate for lowering it, oppose raising it, or oppose it altogether. They successfully lobbied National to have it lowered for young and new workers. They frequently repeat the minimum wage myths discussed above; that minimum wages are a “barrier to unemployment,” and that a “myth that minimum wages protect the poor.”
2/10: Seems to support the status quo, whatever that might be
Policy: The policy section of their website is in progress, and mostly still lists 2011 policy. I can’t find anything on their 2011 policy or even their media releases on minimum wage, except for saying they’d require “foreign charter vessels … compl[y] with New Zealand minimum wage laws and labour conditions,” which is a good and much-needed policy.
Past record: United Future have been confidence and supply partners of both the last National government and the last Labour government, and from what I can tell, they’ve supported what both their big sisters have done, despite the contradictions. This news report clarifies what I couldn’t find in their 2011 policy: they didn’t support a higher minimum wage last election (not sure about since). Last year, Peter Dunne’s one vote allowed National’s lower minimum wage for young and new workers to pass.
Policy: Their policies are still in progress, and I can find barely anything even being discussed on their policy forum and/or policy incubator – I found a few comments here, which aren’t too encouraging. Ironically, their media releases lack the basic internet feature of a search function, so I’m finding it hard to see if they’ve even mentioned the minimum wage anywhere (except for this release from Hone Harawira on behalf of Internet Mana). Perhaps the most solid statements they’ve made are one-off responses to questions: their affirmative response to Bryan Bruce’s Living Wage question above, Bruce’s other questions and #3-ranked candidate (#6 in Internet Mana) Miriam Pierard’s strong response to bFM on inequality.
Past record: Since they don’t even have policy yet, they certainly don’t have a past record. I suppose Kim Dotcom’s past record is worth mentioning; though here’s another perspective on it. In any case, while Dotcom does have a largely undefined “oversight” role, there are plenty of others involved in shaping policy: candidates, members and even to some extent the Mana party.
Policy: I only found one thing about the minimum wage on their website; it’s an undated response from Colin Craig to a reader’s question about the living wage and unions. Craig’s answer shows he believes in minimum wage myths as much as “tough on crime” myths, but it also clarifies his policy, which is to “increase the [non-existent] tax free threshold to $25,000” [now $20,000, and with an undefined flat tax after that] instead of raising the minimum wage.
A tax-free threshold would be great for low-income earners (and is one of the few policies the Conservatives have in common with Mana), but isn’t really a substitute for fairer wages. Quick calculations show if there was flat tax of 20% above $20,000, a minimum wage worker would end up with the equivalent of about $15.50 per hour on current tax rates (though presumably less public services). If it was 30% flat tax, they’d end up with the equivalent of $15/hr on current tax rates. If it was 40% (unlikely, given their low tax rhetoric), they’d end up with basically the same net wages as now.
Past record: I can’t find anything apart from the above.
Scores/10 according to me:
NZ First: 6.5
United Future: 2
EDIT (August 2015)
I’ve made a table showing how quickly the last three governments have raised the minimum wage.