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It was the best of times; it was the worst of times

opinion

By Therese Arseneau

Published: 2:13PM Friday April 11, 2008

As election year politicking kicks off in earnest, ONE News political commentator Therese Arseneau, takes a closer look at how the smaller parties are positioned and asks whether the transition from first-past-the-post (FPP) to MMP is still ongoing.


It was the best of times; it was the worst of times
In late March, TVNZ 7 launched with the Kingmakers' Debate - featuring the leaders of five of Parliament's 'smaller' parties. The debate showcased these parties in a good light. Most importantly, it provided a platform for the leaders to discuss their parties' policies more fully.

VIDEO: Watch the Kingmaker Debate (2:02:18) 
 
Such opportunities for the smaller parties are rare.

A study by Chris Rudd and Scott Connew from the University of Otago found newspaper coverage of the smaller parties during the 2005 election campaign was, overwhelmingly, focused on the political 'game' rather than on substantive policy issues. Out of a total of 212 stories dealing with the smaller parties, 19% were about policy. The other 81% were about the game or strategy:  who is winning, who will cross the threshold, who is the preferred coalition partner. Rudd and Connew found 22 front page or lead stories about the smaller parties; but not a single one focused on policy.

Granted, some coverage of strategic game analysis is important. Most voters want to know, before election day, a party's preferred coalition partner. Similarly, voters want to know whether a small party is likely to cross the threshold. This information affects voting decisions and is used by voters to maximise the effect of their two votes. 

But a better understanding of issues is also crucial to making an informed voting choice. Studies confirm that voters are crying out for more coverage of policy during election campaigns. This is particularly important for smaller, more ideological parties since policy is normally their raison d'être. The Kingmakers' Debate helped to redress this imbalance.

The Herald-Digipoll released the day before the debate, however, painted a rather grim picture for the smaller parties. If this snapshot of decided voters was the actual election poll, what sort of Parliament would it produce? The Greens would be absent. New Zealand First would not cross the 5% party-vote threshold.  Winston Peters, if he won an electorate seat, would be the lone New Zealand First MP. Ditto for Rodney Hide, Peter Dunne and Jim Anderton. In this scenario, the Maori Party would be the only small party likely to win more than one seat. But it would be a very distant third behind National and Labour.  

It is the incredible strength of the two major parties in this and all other polls that is troubling for the smaller parties. More importantly, most polls now have National in a position to govern alone - no 'kingmaker' required. But these are only opinion polls, and the election is still months away. 

Come election day, National is unlikely to be in a position to govern alone. The last time a party received a majority of votes was 56 years ago, in the last true two-party election. No party has come even close in the multi-party MMP era; Labour came closest in 2002 with 41%. And, according to the 2005 New Zealand Election Study (NZES), voters prefer coalition government.

Even election year polls must be viewed for what they are - a snapshot of opinions past and not a predictor of votes in the future. There is truth in the old adage: the only poll that matters is the election poll itself. 

Chances are many voters have not yet decided which party will receive their vote. Voters have become more volatile, making their voting decisions during the campaign. The 2005 NZES found 42% of voters surveyed decided their party vote during the election campaign; and more than half of these decided in the last week of the campaign. In 2002, 61% of voters decided during the campaign; and again over half of these decided in the last week.  

Election campaigns matter. What happens during a campaign impacts the outcome. 

Moreover, the smaller parties do not feature prominently on the public's or media's radar screens between elections. Their support usually grows during an election campaign. In April 1999, seven months before the election, Labour and National were polling at 82% in the Colmar-Brunton poll. On election day they received 69% of the vote. In April 2002, support for the two major parties was 84% but dropped to 62% at the election in July. New Zealand often looks more two-party between elections and more multi-party on election day. 

The 2005 election was a notable exception. In April 2005 National and Labour combined were polling at 83%, and won 80% of the party vote at the election. Was this an aberration?

This two-party dominance was at least partially due to the promises made by Winston Peters and Peter Dunne to negotiate in the first instance with the party that won the most seats. This led to a two-horse race. Plus it was a divisive campaign, especially in terms of race policy and tax cuts. This further polarised voters into two camps. According to Dunne, the blame for the two-party dominance rested squarely with the media: it ignored the smaller parties and focused excessively on the Clark/Brash show down.

These explanations suggest the cause was specific to the 2005 election. But there may be more at play here. The 2005 NZES found most New Zealanders believe there are too many parties in Parliament. Some of our current parliamentary parties (United Future, the Progressives, and perhaps even New Zealand First) may simply be FPP relics - parties based around a sitting FPP-era MP and apt to disappear when that MP retires or is defeated.

This raises questions about the long term viability of some small parties. It also suggests our transition from FPP to MMP is not yet complete. 

Dr. Therese Arseneau is a Senior Fellow in the School of Political Science and Communications at the University of Canterbury. In the lead-up to this year's election, she will be writing a regular column for onenews.co.nz, examining New Zealand's political landscape.