So the Greens co-leader James Shaw recently made a mistake. In his role as Associate Finance Minister approving funding for “shovel-ready” projects, he fought hard for a private “Green school” to get funding to expand their buildings and, therefore, their student capacity. There are many problems with what he did: forgetting to oppose private schools as per Green policy; supporting an approach to environmentalism based on individual education of wealthy elites’ children, rather than systemic change; finally showing some spine around the cabinet table and for this; being so out of touch with his party’s kaupapa and membership that he actually thought his actions would be seen as a “win” for the Greens. It was a big mistake and it doesn’t say anything good about Shaw’s political judgment.
But here’s what happened next: the Greens’ membership, supporters, and former MPs flipped out. They rightly criticised what Shaw did, instead of sycophantically defending his actions because he’s the party leader. And Shaw called an emergency meeting with members, admitted it was a mistake, apologised unreservedly, and tried to do whatever he could do to reverse his actions.
Meanwhile, Grant Robertson, Shaw’s fellow Wellington Central-based MP and carpool buddy*, was working on an announcement of his own. Robertson is also effectively the second most important leader of his party, and he’s also a Finance Minister… and not just an associate one, but the proper one.
Robertson’s announcement was that his party, Labour, are finally going to increase tax on the rich. First, they’ve brought in a new top income tax rate of 39% on income above $180,000. And second… there is no second. That’s it. In this country of notoriously low taxes on the rich, in the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, their revenue policy is: Bringing back the Helen Clark/Michael Cullen top income tax rate of 39c, but to qualify for that top tax rate you have to earn as much as someone working 183 hours and 10 minutes per week on the minimum wage. No wealth taxes, just a small income tax change that even right-wingers think is too low. Australia, the UK, and other OECD countries have higher income tax on the rich, lower taxes on the poor, and of course capital gains taxes, even before the COVID recession… but Labour’s pathetic approach is literally lower taxes on the rich than what Don Brash proposed as National leader in 2005.
So what happened next after Robertson’s announcement? Well, there was dismay and anger from the left and from the centre (this example from No Right Turn is characteristically concise and well-reasoned: If not now, when?). But did Labour’s membership and supporters revolt? Did Robertson, like Shaw, call an emergency members’ meeting, apologise profusely for his massive misjudgment, and do everything in his power to rectify his mistake? Nope. None of that. The leader of the country’s biggest union, the PSA, even welcomed the announcement. The policy stands, and will probably become government policy after the election, unless polls change and the Greens get some leverage. Yet another opportunity for Ardern’s and Robertson’s promised “transformational change” has been wasted.
And therein lies the difference between the Green and Labour parties.
* “carpool buddy”: My partner saw Robertson giving someone a ride in his Labour car during the 2017 election campaign, and she’s like 76% sure it was Shaw.
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. ↑
“National and the Greens should work together” sentiment seems to have reached an all-time high. This is not because the two parties have moved closer together in policy or philosophy. It’s because after the election, this is the only way—short of a Nat-Lab grand coalition—to lock Winston Peters out of any role in government.1
I can’t be bothered to list examples because I’m sure you’ve all seen or heard people calling for a blue-green government arrangement (or “teal deal” if you will). Perhaps you’ve even suggested it yourself.2
What I want to talk about is the suggestion that usually comes after “National and the Greens should work together”. This is how former National PM Jim Bolger puts it:
“the Greens might be quietly reflecting on whether they, unique in the world of Green parties, should only link themselves to left-wing politics, whereas the environment is neither left wing or right wing, frankly. The environment is the environment; it’s Mother Earth we’re talking about.”
The idea is that the Greens would be more effective in pushing environmental policy if they stuck to that, and got rid of their insistence on left-wing socio-economic policy. This way, it is suggested, they would have a better chance of being able to find room for compromise and cooperation with National. Other Green parties in countries like Germany have been willing to form coalition governments with right-wing parties.
The Greens’ usual response is to give reasons why environmental justice and socio-economic justice (or environmental sustainability and socio-economic sustainability) are inextricably linked. Ever since they were the Values Party they’ve pushed both, and they don’t intend to stop now.
Another response could be to say that New Zealand is not Germany. Germany has a democratic socialist party called The Left which pushes left-wing policy even if the centre-left parties (the Greens and the SDP) don’t—even if they form grand coalitions with the centre-right. In New Zealand, the Alliance and Mana have disappeared as left voices in Parliament. Moreover, Labour kickstarted neo-liberalism and haven’t really repented from it. Until Labour make a significant change from Clark/Blair-esque compromise to Corbyn-esque social democracy, the Greens are the only party significantly trying to push New Zealand in a leftward direction.
However, both of these responses to the challenge accept the terms of the challenge (like Labour accepted the terms of National’s “dead cat” “fiscal hole” challenge). These responses accept the assumption that it’s the Greens’ left-wing socio-economic stance that blocks them from working with National, and that they’d be able to find common ground on the environment.
However, I don’t think this is correct. Certainly the Greens’ socio-economic stances—making welfare more of a livable UBI and less of a punitive control mechanism; raising tax on the rich and introducing it for property investors; returning the minimum wage to 2/3 of the average wage; reducing imprisonment—are all basically the opposite of what the Key-English government have done. However, I think Bill English is actually more likely to accept these policies than to accept Greens’ environmental policies. If Bill could be convinced these socio-economic policies are good “social investment”, he could get behind them. Of course, he won’t. (This is largely because National’s vision of “social investment” is so limited by a pathologically individualist mindset, and so tantamount to Minority Report in its instinct to control the risk factors rather than healing the determinants.) But it’s not outside the realms of possibility.
The Greens’ environmental policies, on the other hand, would require National to actually seriously challenge farm owners, drilling/mining companies, and other capitalists. Currently the costs of these capitalists’ activities are largely falling on the environment, and therefore on the present and future public. The Greens want to stop these business activities destroying our shared home by preventing and internalising these external costs. They’ll ban some unjustifiably polluting business activities, such as drilling or mining or exploring for more fossil fuels at a time when even burning the fossil fuels already dug up will make the Paris target impossible. They’ll tax other business activities for their pollution—making those who produce the costs pay the costs, instead of externalising them. And they’ll use the tax revenue to clean up the damage and to subsidise farmers and other businesses moving to more sustainable ways of doing business.
Do you really see National doing that? The party whose base is farm owners and other capitalists? The party that think climate change is only an issue for “elites”, and that it’s not a “pressing concern”, and that we should adapt to climate change rather than mitigating it? The party who scaremongered on a small water tax for some big farms that are currently destroying the quality of Aotearoa’s awa and wai?3
So how should the Greens respond to this “helpful suggestion” to the Greens—and this implicit congratulation of National for their supposed hypothetical willingness to “green up”?
Well, I wonder if they should make an offer to National this election: If you let us have our way with the environment, we’ll give you confidence and supply to do everything else you want to do as the Government for the next three years. We’d pass a zero carbon act and introduce the Greens’ policies for actually getting to zero carbon. We’d follow the Greens’ ideas to clean up our rivers instead of pretending National and the “hard-working farmers“4 already have the issue under control. We’d build sustainable transport instead of roads, roads, and more roads.
National would refuse this offer. And then maybe people would stop trying to make the teal deal happen. Or at least realise it’s not Green stubbornness stopping it happening. It’s National’s near-total lack of concern for the environment.
- Special votes are extremely unlikely to change the basic possibilities. ↑
- Someone who can always be bothered finding, listing and summarising examples is my hero Bryce Edwards who has subsequently done one of his legendary political round-ups on the teal deal. ↑
- These points I’m making are not new—here‘s basically the same point made three years ago on the No Right Turn blog. ↑
- It was shrewd of National to portray criticism of National’s record on rivers as criticism of farmers who are working hard to clean up rivers, because it’s deeply ingrained in the NZ psyche to pretend we’re really farmers at heart. We all lie about being the rural type. ↑