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. ↑
The Opportunities Party leader Gareth Morgan has come out swinging against the polls, which unanimously report his party polling nowhere near the 5% threshold. He basically says they’re fake news because they (mostly) only poll landlines. He predicts TOP will actually get between 5% and 10% of the party vote and make it into Parliament.
TOP pride themselves on being an evidence-based party. So it behooves us to examine the evidence behind Gareth Morgan’s suggestion that TOP have a real chance of winning representation in Saturday’s election.
Question: Has any party ever achieved what TOP is trying to achieve?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: Only one party has ever won representation under MMP in New Zealand without a sitting electorate MP from a sitting party. That sole exception is ACT, who had several prominent former Labour and National cabinet ministers. That happened in the first MMP election, when everyone and their mum voted minor party.
Not many parties have won representation under MMP in New Zealand, whether through the 5% threshold or local seats. Only one MP has ever won representation for a party that didn’t have an MP elected in 1996 for one party or another: Hone Harawira, for Mana.
Most of the small parties that have won representation have done so via a local seat (Māori, Mana, Progressive, United, ACT, and NZ First have all coat-tailed in). Only 7 parties have ever reached 5%: National, Labour, the Greens, NZ First, ACT, the Alliance, and United Future. The last three have all failed more times than they’ve succeeded and have basically shriveled away to nothing (or, worse, to David Seymour). Scores of parties have failed to reach 5% OR a local seat: the Conservatives, Christian Heritage/Coalition, Legalise Cannabis, Destiny, Outdoor Recreation, Future, etc.
Question: Does the polling suggest TOP have a chance of reaching the 5% threshold?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: No. TOP have never exceeded 2.5%—half the threshold—in either the Radio NZ or the Stuff poll of polls. From information publicly available, their highest poll results are 3% and 3.5%—both on polls leaked from Labour’s internal polling. Most polls have had TOP between 1% and 2%. And their polling isn’t improving—if anything, it’s getting worse.
Question: Might the polling be wrong?
Short answer: Anything is possible, but TOP reaching 5% would require polling error on an unprecedented scale.
Long answer: It’s possible that the polls are wrong. It’s difficult to poll correctly and some error is inevitable. In 2014, in the week leading up to the election, NZ First polled 6.6% on Fairfax-Ipsos (they actually got 8.66%), the Greens polled 14.4% on 3 News-Reid Research (they actually got 10.7%), and the Conservatives polled 3.3% on Herald-Digipoll (they actually got 3.97%).
But polling averages and patterns are more reliable than individual polls. And even the famous polling underestimations of Brexit and Trump were basically within the margins of error. Both outcomes were considered less likely than the alternative but not out of the question. TOP cracking 5% would be way beyond the margin of error and completely bizarre.
Even with the errors cited above, polling averages in NZ in 2014 were reasonably close to the final results. The issue of many polls being landline-based is well-known, but also well-known to the polling companies themselves, and they have ways to correct for landline misrepresentation (and their relative accuracy last election shows they do pretty well at it). No party shot up to more than double its polling average on election day. If this happened for TOP, it would be polling error on an unprecedented scale.
Question: NZ First unexpectedly came back in 2011; could TOP do something like that?
Short answer: This situation isn’t comparable to that.
Long answer: In 2011, NZ First shot up in the polls after Winston capitalised on the Teapot Tapes scandal. Before TeapotGate, NZ First were polling only a bit better than what TOP are polling now. After TeapotGate, their numbers shot up. In the last set of polls before the election, they were above 4% in every poll except Reid Research (generally an inaccurate poll), and at 6.5% on Roy Morgan. They actually got 6.59%. It’s also worth remembering that NZ First were an established party who have never polled below 4% in any election since MMP begam.
There is no indication of any one-off event that’s going to shoot TOP up in the polls. (In fact, the Gareth Morgan Attention Meter has been at dangerously low levels for weeks and has now dropped to zero.) It’s still theoretically possible that such an event could happen in the next four days, but TOP would have to rise further and faster than NZ First did to crack 5%.
Question: Could TOP win a local seat?
Short answer: There is no evidence to suggest they will come close to winning any local seat. Morgan might have had a chance, but he isn’t standing in a local seat.
Long answer: In a “major campaign shift” after voting already began, TOP have started pleading for local votes in 13 seats, as an alternative route to representation as the hope of reaching 5% slips away. But it’s too little, too late. Winning a local seat when you’re not one of the big two parties is extremely difficult. It takes a concerted effort, not a last-minute plea for Grant Robertson’s votes.
Anyway, there’s no polling evidence (or any evidence) indicating that any TOP candidate has any hope of winning any local seat.
This is a good time to remind ourselves that no new party has ever won a local seat (or any seat) without a sitting MP or some high-profile former cabinet ministers. Gareth Morgan could have been the first exception to this, because he has a high profile and a lot of resources. But for some reason he declined to stand in a local seat—he’s a list-only candidate.
Question: Is this a good year for a minor party to achieve the never-before-achieved?
Short Answer: No—on current polling this will be the worst MMP election ever for minor parties.
Long answer: No, this is not a good year for a minor party to try to achieve the never-before-achieved. Before Jacinda took over, it might have been. But now, it’s looking like the worst ever year for minor parties since MMP began. On the latest figures, only about 16.5% of party votes will go to minor parties:
Question: Couldn’t a vote of support for TOP’s policies still help those policies come to fruition, even if TOP don’t win representation?
Short answer: Maybe, but you’d have to really prefer TOP’s policies to any other party’s policies for this vote of support to pass cost-benefit analysis.
Long answer: Sure. This could be the case—indirectly, if a decent party vote makes other other parties more likely to adopt TOP’s policies, or makes TOP more likely to come back next time with a more evidence-based electoral strategy. If you do the Spinoff’s Policy tool, you may find that you greatly prefer TOP’s policies to anyone else’s policies.
If you think TOP’s policies are so much better than the policies of any other party that you’d do more good by giving a symbolic vote of support to TOP’s policies than by helping your second-favourite party maximise their representation, then by all means vote TOP.
Or if you want to do a protest vote against the six parties that actually will get representation, by all means vote TOP.
Or if (for whatever reason) you can’t morally justify voting for any of the six parties that will actually get representation, by all means vote TOP.
Or if you believe it’s your civic duty to vote for your favourite party, strategy be damned (and if your favourite party is TOP), by all means vote TOP.
I’m sure there are plenty of reasons you might want to vote TOP. But if you think they have a realistic chance of getting into Parliament, you’ve left evidence behind. TOP-esque policies are more likely to actually be implemented in the next three years by the Greens, which is one reason I’ve party voted Green.
As for you, you should do what you want with your vote, even if it’s a principled unstrategic vote or a protest vote. I just don’t want people voting under false misconceptions. I wrote this blog because I believe “TOP have a realistic chance of winning representation this election” is a false misconception, according to the evidence available to us.
Question: So what should TOP do if they want to get into Parliament?
Short answer: Campaign for electoral reform and be more tactical next time.
Long answer: Here I’m switching into my opinion on effective strategy rather than sticking to the evidence. But for what it’s worth, here’s my opinion:
TOP should devote their considerable resources for the next 3/6/9/12/15 years to campaigning to make our electoral system more democratic. For example, by campaigning to lower the blatantly anti-democratic 5% threshold and/or introduce instant run-off voting for local seats and sub-threshold party votes. This would remove the spectre of “vote wastage” that places a near-insurmountable burden on new and small parties like TOP. It would be good for them and good for us. And it worked for Rod Donald with campaigning for MMP.
Next election, if TOP want to run again, they should do extensive research working out which local seat would be most open to electing Gareth Morgan as their local candidate. And they should stand him there. They should door-knock this electorate like crazy, poll it heavily, and widely publicise any positive poll result all around the country to build the impression that they’re a safe party vote, due to coat-tailing. By doing this they could help make it a reality.