With the resignation of National Party MP Jonathan Coleman triggering a by-election in the electorate of Northcote, I thought it'd be an interesting exercise to delve into the numbers. The objective is to try and understand a bit more about how Northcote has voted since its creation in 1996, and see whether there is anything from its history that could help determine what might happen this time around.
Northcote is generally considered to be one of New Zealand's three bellweather seat - the other two being Hamilton East and Hamilton West. As you can see from the above chart, that's generally true for Northcote other than 2005, where it voted by 2 percentage points more for National than it did for Labour in its party votes.
While National won Northcote on its creation in 1996, Labour took it in 1999 and held it in 2002. What was very interesting about 1999 was that the Alliance's Grant Gillon won 20.51% of the vote, and combined with votes for candidates from the other minor parties, had more votes than either National Ian Revell or Labour's Ann Hartley could manage. Since that high water mark in 1999 for the minor parties in Northcote, National and Labour have gobbled up the lion's share of the vote.
National took the seat again under resigning MP Jonathan Coleman and turned it into a National stronghold by taking the seat with outright majorities since 2008. At the high point Coleman's lead over the Labour candidates was 29 percentage points in 2011, though in 2017 that had been reduced to 17 percentage points.
Since 2005 on the party vote front, National has consistently over performed in Northcote relative to its performance across the rest of the country. Across 2008-2014 Northcote delivered the majority of its party votes for National. Unlike the candidate vote, on the party vote front the high point for minor parties in Northcote, much as it was the for the country more broadly, the 2002 election. National's recovery in 2005 was the first major hit to minor parties in Northcote, followed by Labour's recovery in 2017.
Interestingly, in Northcote in 2002 minor parties received a larger share of the party vote than either National (who hit their lowest ever result) or even Labour, a feat they repeated in 2014 at least in beating Labour. It's a powerful illustration of how when major parties fall on hard times their supporters flock to minor parties instead in the presumed hope that their particular interests will be better represented in opposition.
When broken down by party over the period, it's interesting to see how National's success saw it cannibalise support for New Zealand First and ACT in Northcote, while Labour's fall from its 2005 high and subsequent rise in 2017 saw the Greens benefit, and to some extent NZ First recover, until 2017 hit them both.
Taking a similar look at the candidate voting illustrates how much of a two horse race Northcote has been since 2002. Whatever Grant Gillon was doing in Northcote, he was doing it very well, because since then nobody has been able to crack double figures in challenging the National/Labour duopoly.
This leaves us with the question - what does this all mean for the Northcote by-election? I think this means that Labour is right in the game and has every chance to win Northcote off National. When Labour is performing strongly in the party vote stakes they can, and they do win Northcote.
How have I reached this conclusion? In Northcote National outperforms its New Zealand-wide party vote result by an average of 3.78 percentage points. On the flip side, Labour in Northcote underperforms by an average of -2.93 percentage points. Minor parties also underperform by an overage of 0.84 percentage points.
With that in mind, and using the latest 1News Colmar Brunton poll from February 2018 as a starting point - with Labour on 48 per cent, National on 43 per cent, and minor parties netting the remaining 9 per cent across the country - I've calculated that things staying broadly true to their historical patterns, that would translate in Northcote to National getting 46.78 per cent, Labour 45.07%, and minor parties 8.15% of the party vote.
Then, allowing for the pattern of how candidates in Northcote have gone relative to the party vote of their party in the electorate, (National overperforms by an average of 5.15 percentage points, Labour overperforms by 2.23 percentage points, and minor parties underperform by 7.43 percentage points), that would see the following results:
- National candidate: 51.93%
- Labour candidate: 47.35%
- Minor parties: 0.73%
(due to rounding this does come out at 100.01% if you add those up)
That gives National a 4.58 percentage point advantage over Labour. If I use a slightly different measure - looking at the relative percentage difference rather than percentage points, it delivers a result still in favour of National, but with a 5.47 percentage point lead.
With that predicted 4.58 - 5.47 percentage point lead in favour of National, it's worth considering a few other factors that will come into play. Labour has an immensely popular leader and Prime Minister in Jacinda Ardern. Where Labour seemed to perform strongly in the 2017 election was the youth age groups, those aged 18-34. Incidentally Northcote experienced a 1.29 percentage point increase in the turnout of those voters in 2017. In terms of usually resident population, Northcote has a median age of 35, that's versus a median age of voters in the 2017 election of 48. Northcote sits within the youngest third of general electorates, and is in company with some relatively strong Labour voting seats. Advantage Labour in terms of age demographics.
Conversely, Northcote sits within the highest third of general electorates for median family income, and that places it in the company of some strongly voting National seats. So advantage National in that regard.
In terms of ethnic breakdown Northcote has below below NZ rates of people identifying as Pākehā (European), Māori, and Pacific Islanders, but it does have more than double the New Zealand rate of people identifying as being from from Asian backgrounds. How this will play out is hard to predict. Under John Key and, to a lesser extent Bill English, National was fairly confident that that Asian-New Zealanders were generally strong National supporters. This was reinforced by Labour playing several xenophobic race cards over the past few years, including the "Chinese sounding surnames" debacle, Andrew Little's attack on Indian and Chinese chefs, and the moves to ban foreign buyers - a policy that's been seen as promoting anti-Chinese sentiment which inevitably impacts Chinese-Kiwis. National should still have an advantage in this regard, but it's notoriously difficult to quantify.
Looking at religious affiliation (though admittedly this isn't a the strongest indicator of voting preferences in New Zealand largely due to Kiwis taking a relatively relaxed approach to religion, as is evidenced by having two openly non-religious Prime Ministers in recent memory, those being John Key and Helen Clark), Northcote has a slightly above average representation on non-religious people and slightly below average numbers of Christians vs New Zealand as a whole. I'll make the point again that this is a hard measure to use to predict voter patterns, especially as while National might generally be the party perceived as attracting Christian voters, Labour also has significant Christian support through its strong support in Pacific Island communities. This isn't so much of a factor in Northcote, but insofar that I'd argue that non-religious people are more likely to vote for Labour (even though I'm personally an exception to my own rule) I feel that potentially Labour might have a slight edge in this regard.
While I've written about Ardern and how she turned out the youth vote for Labour - largely at the expense of the Green Party it seemed at the time - National has a different problem. Simon Bridges, while having been a relatively high profile minister and hence having more of a public profile than most new leaders might have, is still new to the role. He doesn't have the same name recognition that John Key or Bill English had, and as such can't be counted on to bring out voters like Ardern will for Labour. That's not a criticism of Bridges, rather it's the simple reality that he's new to the job of being leader and outside of a general election campaign it's generally hard to get cut-through with voters as an opposition leader.
At the current stage of the electoral cycle, Labour does have an edge over National with regards to deploying their leader as a way to promote their candidate. I don't doubt that Simon Bridges will do as good of a job as any new leader for National could do, but it's important to acknowledge that he's also up against Jacinda Ardern who, along with being the Prime Minister, has already built a formidable media profile that's hard to match in such a short time.
The other thing that should count in Labour's favour is that in a by-election minor parties typically either don't run candidates, or struggle to get any cut through. In Northcote's case, minor party candidates have particularly struggled since the highs of Grant Gillon. In 2008 and 2014 New Zealand First didn't run a candidate in Northcote at all, and neither did the Green Party in 2005. If I were Labour, I'd of already started negotiations with New Zealand First and the Green Party to not run candidates in the Northcote by-election, and I'd offer policy concessions in return. Bumping the Government's working majority up a vote would be worth it.
If Labour were feeling especially devious, they could look at running one of their sitting List MPs in the seat, and pulling off the same trick that Winston Peters did to National in Northland in 2015, allowing Labour to bring in a replacement MP off the list if they won.
That being said, I think Labour's best chance of winning would sit with picking someone who already has proven electoral experience in the area. 2014 Northcote candidate, and sitting Auckland Councillor Richard Hills springs to mind as perhaps Labour's best chance. Hills topped the Kaipātiki Local Board results in the 2016 election, but as he placed second to Chris Darby for the North Shore Ward, was elected as an Auckland Councillor instead. Funnily enough, old Grant Gillion of 1999 fame in Northcote missed out to Hills by 128 votes.
Having already run in the seat in 2014, and subsequently becoming a Councillor for North Shore, I think places Hills in a strong position to help Labour take the seat from National. He also captures much of what the rejuvenated face of Labour looks like, and from what I can tell is a bloody hard working local councillor and all round nice guy. While some might criticise him if he stood for Northcote, having only become a councillor in late 2016, I'd argue that situations like this are just the nature of politics. It's probably a once in a lifetime chance to be able to represent your community at the national level, let alone potentially as a Government MP, and the subsequent by-election on North Shore is simply the cost of democracy, and it's a cost that I don't think anyone can reasonably object to paying. I don't think any reasonable person could criticise Hills for doing this.
Which leaves us with National and who they might run. Newshub's Lloyd Burr has already cheekily suggested that Air New Zealand CEO Christopher Luxon wants to enter politics with the National Party. Luxon is based on the North Shore, though I don't know if he falls within Northcote's boundaries (not that this is necessarily a barrier for someone to become an MP). Luxon also has a significant amount of name recognition through his largely successful time at Air New Zealand. That alone could well be important in helping National fight off what should be a very strong challenge from Labour.
National's other options include trying run their own List MP in the seat - with Paul Goldsmith and Melissa Lee being two possibilities if they relocated from their existing bases in Epsom and Mt Albert respectively - which would mean they could bring in another person off the List as well! Alternatively National might have a stellar local candidate in the wings who we haven't seen just yet.
It's often said that by-elections are Christmas come early for beltway watchers, and the Northcote by-election is shaping up to be just that.
In October 2017 Shane Jones' distinctive Shakespearean voice could be heard booming throughout the land as he crowed triumphantly about his 1 billion trees in the Billion Trees Planting Programme. Less than three months later, not a single tree has been planted and the government is on track to come up 90% short of their target of doubling the rate of planting over 10 years.
The issue isn't so much that there isn't enough land available for Forestry Minister Shane Jones to plant these trees on. Rather it's that neither New Zealand First or Labour bothered to ask the public service during the coalition negotiation process whether it was in fact possible.
The "Billion Trees Planting Programme" has been a bit of a disaster right from the get go. The ambiguously worded coalition agreement between Labour and NZ First had everyone thinking that 100 million new trees would be planted each year by the government. Within days, and after realising they'd massively over promised what they were going to do, the government had to walk back the 1 billion trees figure. They hastily tried to explain that what they really meant all along was that they wanted to double the rate of existing planting across both the forestry and conversation sectors. It was now going to be 500 million additional trees on top of the 500 million trees those sectors were already expected to plant over the next decade.
That was still a big, ambitious goal, but it was half of what the coalition agreement had led everyone to believe was going to happen.
Now it looks like the government is going to struggle to even make 10% of that revised target over that decade. It's hardly surprising, with the government believed to have costed the programme at $2 billion over the 10 years, the economic of it look a little tight.
With the Billion Trees Planting Programme expected to need an additional 500,000 hectares, and forestry land selling in December 2017 for an average of $7,713 per hectare, the value of the land alone for those 500 million trees is around $3.8 billion, well over double the $2 billion figure being floated around. That's also before we take a conservative 2005 figure of each hectare of forestry planted in radiata pine costing around $1500 by its first prune - we're looking at a total cost of $4.6 billion.
Thankfully, the reality is that the government isn't likely to have to shell out $4.6 billion. Instead they're more likely to try and subsidise existing land owners, whether it's forest owners, farmers, DOC, or Iwi. Taking that figure of $1500 per hectare of radiata pine, with the $2 billion the government could effectively offer a subsidy of around $4 per tree, effectively meeting half of the value of the land - providing it's only land suitable for forestry that we're talking about.
That all starts to fall apart if there's not enough spare forestry land available. More broadly around the primary sector, the average land sell price per hectare was $29,000. At a shade under four times the price of forestry land, the cost of the Billion Trees Planting Programme is going to rapidly spiral out of control or, much more likely, the Billion Trees Planting Programme is going to fall flat on its face with landowners unwilling to convert more productive land to tree plantings given the increasing opportunity cost involved. I also doubt the inclusion of agriculture into the ETS will be enough to mitigate this.
New Zealand First should have one priority in 2018 - launch their new website. It's hugely embarrassing for Winston Peters that three months into the new government, the coalition's junior partner still doesn't have a website.
It's almost as if NZ First's website's issues as symptomatic of the problems facing the party so far this year. Already Forestry Minister Shane Jones has been forced to confess that the party didn't due any research into their 1 billion tree policy, with it turning out that there's only enough available land current for around 5 million additional trees to be planted each year. One of NZ First's big signature wins of the coalition agreement and they're going to struggle to deliver even 5% of what they promised.
Likewise Deputy Prime Minister is also coming under pressure with regards to NZ First's changing position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. Despite having a new name - the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership - and a few minor changes to the text, it's largely the same deal that NZ First has adamantly opposed for some time. Even Foreign Minister David Parker has conceded on RNZ's Morning Report that, for a trade agreement made up of thousands of pages, the changes amount to only a "few pages".
Winston Peters' flip flopping isn't surprising, it's politically expediency on his part in order to not cause tension for Labour. The problem is, much of NZ First's support stems from a small group of conservative voters who want a far more protectionist trade policy for New Zealand. One of Winston Peters' biggest challenges this year, especially as the CPTPP goes through Parliament, will be to not haemorrhage too much support as a result of his changing position on the CPTPP.
Other pitfalls lurk ahead for New Zealand First too. The eventual launch of the $1 billion a year Provincial Growth (Regional Development) Fund is going to see Shane Jones come under immense scrutiny. He's already demonstrated a fairly slack approach to the fund, having gloated that he'd been approached by numerous political figures about projects in their regions late last year, which turned out to only be two people when I OIAed it.
Jones has already hinted that the fund will also largely be an exercise in pork barrelling, singling out Northland and the Wairarapa as likely recipient regions, without either of those regions having approached him with ideas. That's not to say that those regions don't need investment, but rather given NZ FIrst's representation in those regions, I'm wagering that Shane Jones is going to get caught out badly on this.
The controversial Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill - the Waka Jumping legislation specified in NZ First's coalition agreement with Labour - likely won't hurt NZ First much, but it will stoke internal pressure within the Green Party, who have historically been strongly opposed to such legislation.
The party will also need to find a way to manage several competing personalities in its caucus. While Ron Mark may currently be deputy leader, it's no secret that Shane Jones fancies that role for himself, with a view to eventually succeeding Winston Peters as leader of the party. Shane Jones will also have the benefit of the Provincial Growth (Regional Development) Fund to build his profile with over the year, while Ron Mark won't get the same opportunities with Defence. There's also the question of where people like Tracey Martin and Clayton Mitchell fit in, with Martin having previously been deputy leader, and Mitchell looking for more rewards for his fundraising abilities for the party.
The End of Life Choice Bill and associated referendum, as well as that for legalising marijuana, will also require NZ First's MPs to navigate potentially controversial waters for its supporters.
The biggest risk to NZ First's year will be during June and July while Winston Peters is acting Prime Minister while Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has her first child. If anything goes wrong during this time (and there's no reason to suspect it will, as during the post-Budget period it'll be Finance Minister Grant Robertson doing most of the heavy lifting for the government) it'll be Winston Peters and NZ First's credibility that takes a hit, not Jacinda Ardern or Labour.
Peters should manage those six weeks well. He's been acting Prime Minister before. But with that expectation that he'll do well, it does create a risk that should it not be all plain sailing, it'll further hurt his party's prospects for 2020.
Just as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is neither democratic, or for the people, so it is the same with Andrew Little's Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill. The Waka Jumping Bill isn't anything to do with the electoral system, or its integrity, rather it's an undemocratic move to abolish one of the key checks on the power of political parties and their leaders.
I suppose the use of the word "integrity" in the title could have been placed there ironically by Little. As the reality is that his bill does undermine the integrity of our Parliamentary system, effectively muzzling the ability of MPs to oppose their parties on issues other than conscious votes.
In the past, most famously with Marilyn Waring, an MP could cross the floor to oppose a policy of their party that they fundamentally disagreed with. They were able to do so safely in the knowledge that doing so wouldn't immediately cost them their seat in Parliament, meaning that their action wouldn't simply be a delaying action until their party was able to replace them. It was on this basis that Marilyn Waring famously informed Robert Muldoon in 1984 that she would cross the floor on the issue of a nuclear free New Zealand, a move that helped push Muldoon into calling the 1984 snap election.
Should Andrew Little's bill come to pass, that type of moment, where an MP has the ability to defy their party on an issue they feel strongly about, will become a thing of the past. If Little's bill had been law in 1984, it's foreseeable that Muldoon and the National Party could have just sacked Waring from Parliament, ensured a pliable replacement was picked in the by-election, and passed the legislation anyway.
Because that's what's fundamentally at stake here. As things stand, there's a balance of power between Parliamentary parties and their MPs. Parties obviously have a range of policies they want to enact should they get into government, they also usually have a broad range of MPs who usually agree with most of those policies, but possibly not all of them.
The ability of an individual MP to vote against their party acts as a counterweight to the bulk of the party simply steamrolling through whatever they want. MPs are only able to act as that counterweight if they're able to remain in Parliament having defied the wishes of their party.
Andrew Little's bill would kill off that ability quite spectacularly.
The "concessions" Little has included in the bill, such as requiring two thirds of a caucus to agree to get rid of the dissenting member, are not concessions at all. Marilyn Waring would have struggled to get two thirds of her colleagues to support her in 1984, and as a result, would have seen her tossed out of Parliament by Muldoon and replaced.
The reality is that Little's bill is kowtowing to Winston Peters. Rather than acting in a collaborative and cooperative manner with his MPs, Peters is hellbent on carrying on in exactly the same way that caused the 1998 split in New Zealand First. Peters' inflexible stance on policy, erratic behaviour, and propensity to play his cards so close to his chest that his caucus and staff don't know what he's planning to do until he actually does it, has frequently put him and his MPs at odds with each other.
As I pointed out earlier, in other parties the check against this type of behaviour from the leader or leadership group, is the threat that should those decisions be ones that an MP couldn't support, then they would be able to cross the floor, and remain in Parliament. That nuclear option for an MP to resort to if their back is against the wall, however drastic it may be, is a fundamental check on political parties.
Andrew Little, Labour, and the Green Party (should they support the passage of this bill), are doing New Zealand's Parliament and democracy a massive disservice by eroding one of the few check on power that we have.
The most competitive market for votes in New Zealand is for those aged between 45-49, with National, Labour, the Greens, and the Māori Party all receiving, on average, similar shares of the party vote in electorates with above average shares of people in this age range.
Spurred on by my other recent work looking at voter turnout by age segments and how representative that made electorates, and how those age segments were more, or less likely to vote (indicatively at least), I thought I'd take the plunge and look at each party individually across all the Electoral Commission's age brackets that they collect data on, to see if it revealed any other insights.
What it's revealed is that while National and NZ First, and Labour, the Greens and the Māori Party might be poles apart in terms of their popularity with voters aged 18-34, such a big gap in voter preference based on age doesn't appear to manifest itself beyond 35 years old, starting to converge from its largest difference at 30-34-years-old, bar for the Green Party, Māori Party, and NZ First.
As I said in the introduction, it's interesting how at the 45-49 mark, National, Labour, the Greens and the Māori Party all converge, with all getting more or less similar party votes from electorates with an above average representation from this age bracket as they did on average across all the General Electorates. Though I'd caution here that as this analysis excludes the Māori Electorates (due to their big youth skew and low deviation among the seven electorates), that the Māori Party figures here should be taken with a grain of salt.
Also keep in mind that as you read through the following graphs, they do have different scales on the Y axis, so movements may be more pronounced in these than they are on the top comparitive graph.
National's worst performing age group appears to be the 30-34 bracket, though it under-performed on average in electorates with above average shares of voters under 44 to varying degrees, with it being weighted towards those electorates with above average shares of those aged 34 and under being the least likely to vote National. National also has the second most narrow deviation range in this analysis, with only The Opportunities Party doing better. National's support is weighted towards those aged 45 and over, and peaks at those aged 65-69. In part, this larger likely support from older voters, who both enrol and vote at higher rates and in greater numbers than other age groups, no doubt contributed significantly to National's end result of 44.4%
As you'll see later, with NZ First doing so well with voters aged 55 and over, National can, in the short term at least, reinforce their vote by targeting NZ First's supporters. Longer term however, National will need to find a way to both preserve their strength in covers aged 50 and over, as well as doing a better job of appealing to younger demographics too.
Labour's graph in many ways is the mirror image of National's, albeit slightly more pronounced in its over and under-performance in the age brackets. The 30-34 age bracket is again interesting, as not only was this where National was most likely to perform worst, it's also where Labour performed best. Where National's deviation was relatively narrow, Labour's is much more pronounced, though it ranks in the middle of the six parties we're looking at in this. While Labour's support amongst youth voters is very strong, to offset the advantage that National gets from older voters, they would need much higher enrolment and turnout rates than they got even this election.
In news that will shock no one, New Zealand First's support overwhelmingly comes from those aged 55 and over, but especially those aged 60 and over. Because of this, NZ First has the largest deviation of any of the six parties in this analysis. NZ First and Winston Peters focus heavily on courting this demographic, so it's no surprise that they rely so heavily on support from them. It also begs the question that once NZ First loses its trump card for reaching them - Winston Peters himself - how are they going to manage going forward, as nobody else in the party seems able to capture that audience in the same way that Winston Peters does.
The Green Party have the second biggest deviation for their support after NZ First, and they're very much the opposite story to them too. Massive support across voters aged 39 and under, but this plummets to their average for those 40-44, before briefly rebounding for those aged 45-49, and not recovering beyond those aged 55 and over. Where the Green Party has an opportunity is to stop that leaching of support between people aged 35 years old and 44 years old, though in doing so they're likely to take voters from Labour.
As I wrote earlier, it's important to take these figures for the Māori Party with a grain of salt. This analysis is based off General Electorate votes, and with the Māori Party support coming from the Māori Electorates, which are much more heavily skewed towards younger voters than the General Electorates are, isn't representative of what's going on. That being said, given the skew in Māori Electorates towards younger voters, it probably suggests that this graph might be even more weighted to young voters. If there is one thing the Māori Party could take from this, and my earlier work, is that there's an opportunity with a big cohort of young Māori voters for them to win over between now and 2020.
The Opportunities Party is a bit of an interesting one in that because their vote was so heavily centralised around the Wellington region, it's likely the main influence on how this graph looks. TOP has done well with those aged between 18-29, and to a lesser extend those aged 30-34, and worst with those aged 40-49. National and TOP's support seems to switch at around age 39/40, while they bisect the rest of the parties between 49 and 54. Again, it's hard to read too much into these figures for TOP other than the fact that their deviation was the smallest among all parties.
As I said in looking at the possible influence of age on party voting preferences, it's very tempting to claim that these graphs show the likelihood of different age brackets voting for different parties - e.g. those aged 18-24 are 8% less likely to vote for National than the average New Zealander, and they're 11% more likely to vote for Labour. I think this data hints at that possibility, but without exit polling - which is illegal in New Zealand - it's impossible to know this for sure.
Where I think this data is very useful is using it to frame your thinking about where the parties position themselves in terms of their core support, and where they see the main battlegrounds are in terms of competing for votes from other parties. From around 30-years-old - where most of the parties graph lines start their journey towards converging on their national average - to the 50-54 bracket - where after that they diverge again, demonstrates I think that for the most part, the parties see voters within that 20 year age group - 30-years-old to 54-years-old - as the swing voters they need to target.
NZ First is the only really noticeable exception to this rule, but that's largely because Winston Peters has progressively clawed out those on NZ Super as his target voter base.
If you think generally about people in that 30 to 54 age range (and I'm talking very generally here) they're buying houses, getting married, having kids, they're likely to hit their career peak around between 40 to 49 (there's some US data around this, and sadly it has women's pay peaking at 40, and men's 49, highlighting again the gender pay gap). Retirement, while we're being constantly reminded about saving for it, is still a long way off, and the more immediate concerns are paying the mortgage or rent, affording school, doctors visits, dealing with health issues that become more and more likely to crop up, having a job, getting pay rises and getting ahead in life, and so on. Most have either finished up their travelling plans, or are about to, and are probably focused more on things like family or careers.
If you keep all this in mind, it starts to give you a bit of a picture of how and why political parties position themselves the way they do. In many respects they have to ensure their base votes for them, but they also have to reach out to that big segment of 30-to-54-year-olds to win their votes too.
The new Labour-led Government is little over 24 hours old and already has a potential conflict brewing between its two minor party partners over the reintroduction of a Work for the Dole scheme.
As I predicted on Tuesday, there are a number of areas where NZ First and the Green Party differ significantly on policy, and I identified the re-introduction of a Work for the Dole scheme as one of those areas. I have to admit, that I'm a little surprised that a potential flash point has been created so early.
While Labour and the Green Party might agree on creating job opportunities for those on a benefit to participate in cleaning up waterways, the Green Party approach is to create the opportunity and allow people to take it if they're willing and able to, not to force them to participate.
NZ First's approach is taken straight out of the play book from the Fourth National Government, where those on benefits were threatened with having their benefits reduced, or cut entirely, if they didn't participate in the euphemistically named "Community Wage" scheme as Work for the Dole was known as.
Given Shane Jones says he's been "encouraged" to look at a Work for the Dole scheme, I have to wonder if NZ First isn't trying to draw a line in the sand early on with the Green Party. It could be likely that they're testing the waters, trying to put the Green Party in what NZ First sees as their place as the most junior partner in the arrangement, and seeing how much they'll bend on this issue.
There's three ways out of this:
- NZ First backs down on creating a Work for the Dole scheme for the Regional Economic Development Fund, which given it's been their policy for almost as long as they've been a party would be an embarrassing start to their time in government.
- The Green Party either backs down or keeps very silent on the issue, effectively abandoning one of their policies and no doubt annoying their supporters given their very strong stance on social development issues in recent months.
- A very uncomfortable compromise is reached where the environmentally orientated, and entirely optional, work scheme that Labour and the Green Party have envisaged is expanded to include projects delivered by the Regional Economic Development Fund. This result won't be entirely satisfactory to NZ First, as they've historically taken a very hard line on wanting non-participation to punished.
Where National will have difficulties in exploiting this tension is that they've historically been supporters of Work for the Dole and its variants. Not that support for a prior policy position has been an obstacle for political parties in the past, such as Labour displayed over its opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other recent free trade agreements.
New Zealand has a mixed bag when it comes to minor parties surviving a full Parliamentary term if they've entered into a coalition or confidence and supply agreement. Since the first of these was signed in 1996, if you exclude agreements with single MP parties, five have failed and five have succeeded. Though the United Future split in 2005 nearly made it to the election, falling about a month short.
Progressives 2002 - 2005
NZ First 2005 - 2008
Māori Party 2011-2014
Māori Party 2014-2017
NZ First 1996 - 1998
Alliance 1999 - 2002
United Future 2002 - 2005
United Future 2005 - 2007
Māori Party 2008 - 2011
That makes for a 50% chance that either NZ First or the Green Party will experience a schism during this Parliamentary term. That being said, We haven't had a minor party combust in Parliament since the 2011 election. This might suggest parties are learning to manage the pressures of these arrangements better, but then again the Māori Party had three MPs in the 50th Parliament and two in the 51st Parliament, which likely lends itself to better stability.
Here's the length that each of the five failed coalition or confidence and supply agreements have lasted.
Given that the Labour and United Future confidence and supply agreement did nearly last the term, if you exclude this from the results, it drops both averages for agreements with the Labour Party and overall agreements to 711 days.
If there is a split, and there's a roughly 50% chance* one of the two parties will splinter, when is it likely to happen? Using the averages in the above table we're looking at a period anytime from 7 October 2019 through to 12 February 2020. Excluding the United Future 2005 split, leaves us squarely on 7 October 2019.
When you think about it, this makes sense as to when a split might occur. It's roughly 12 months out from the next election and both the major and minor parties in the agreement, but especially the minor parties, are beginning to flex their muscles to differentiate themselves from their partner and demonstrate some independence to get attention and show voters why they still matter.
If you want to look at a broader time period on the above numbers, the earliest a split might occur is 24 May 2019, and the latest (excluding the 2002-2005 United Future split which did run for three full years if not the full Parliamentary term) would be 19 February 2020.
It's also likely that by this point, most, if not all, of the undertakings made in the coalition or confidence and supply agreement have been, or are being delivered, and the two parties are having to negotiate on a policy-by-policy basis.
Usually it's taken a specific policy decision or external event to cause underlying tensions to erupt into a schism. In 1998 it was the sale of Wellington airport that triggered NZ First's breakup, for the Alliance in 2002 it was the build up of tension following a string of poor poll numbers and an internal party perception of subservience to Labour, and for the Māori Party in 2011 it was Hone Harawira's objection to National Party policies.
As the issues over the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary this weekend past illustrated, there are differences in policy and ideological approaches between NZ First and the Green Party that Labour is going to be stuck in the middle of trying to bridge. While these will be easy to manage in the early days as each of the minor partners is this agreement focus on getting there policy wins on the board, as we close in on the 2020 election, the pressure on the two minor parties will grow, especially if Labour remains, as I expect they will, very popular under Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
While National will struggle to put pressure on the Greens, they will be able to squeeze NZ First's support by targeting their voters in rural areas and provincial cities. If National is successful in doing that, and they could very well be, then with the added combination of Winston Peters' advancing years NZ First may well be the ones to give out first.
Which is why Winston Peters is pushing so hard for his Waka Jumping Bill. He can see the dangers that lie ahead for his party, and he's trying to nullify them before it's too late.
*In terms of the 50% chance of a split, I've calculated this off the five failed and five successful agreements featuring parties of more than one MP. If you drop the United Future confidence and supply agreement of 2002 - 2005 from this list, as it very did nearly run the full Parliamentary term, you could also argue that the Māori Party agreements from 2011 to 2014 and 2014 to 2017 should be considered as one and the same, largely because there was significant continuity between them.
There's a chasm between New Zealand First and the Green Party, and throughout the 52nd Parliament Labour will be forced to find ways to bridge that gap. While this can be done, it also opens up opportunities for National to apply pressure to, and test the stability of, the coalition arrangement.
Over the long weekend we've already seen one possible area of contention open up around the Kermadecs Sanctuary, with NZ First and the Greens seemingly being promised different things on it by Labour. I've already suggested that this is a perfect opportunity for National to put a Members' Bill in the ballot to create the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary as a way of pitting NZ First and the Greens against each other, and forcing Labour to either take a side or use its financial veto.
All this begs the question - what other opportunities exist to pit the parties against each other and squeeze Labour in the middle of them? Importantly too for National, is where can they use these differences in NZ First's most valuable electorates to win back crucial votes over this term. With the NZ First seats that achieved a higher party vote than their final result, only West-Coast Tasman, East Coast, Rimutaka, and Palmerston North saw National perform lower than they did across the country, and those seats make up more than half of NZ First's support.
This isn't a full list, just some areas that could create tension in the coalition arrangements.
NZ First supports irrigation projects and water storage schemes, the Green Party opposes these on the basis that they support more intensive farming. This in turn flows onto dairy operations, where the Green Party wants a moratorium on dairy conversions while NZ First is pro-dairy.
There's also likely to be some tension around Labour's now discarded water tax, which the Green Party was in favour of but NZ First opposed, and the Green's proposed nitrate levy, which if NZ First acquiesces to will hurt them in provincial New Zealand as National seeks to win back support there.
NZ First and the Green Party have vastly different visions for the New Zealand Defence Force. While NZ First's policy includes such things as restoring offensive capabilities to the airforce, enhancing the offensive capabilities of the navy and army, and ensuring that our armed forces are capable of "expeditionary warfare."
The Green Party's policy, on the other hand, is conspicuous by its lack of any mention of offensive capabilities for the NZDF, instead focusing on peacekeeping, disaster and humanitarian relief, and border control.
There's a clear conflict between their two visions for the NZDF. Labour's current policy supports the 2016 Defence White Paper and its spending, which is closer to NZ First's position. As the purchases required in the White Paper come up for approval, it'll create opportunities to illustrate the divide.
Broadly speaking you can categorise NZ First's justice policies as focusing on harsher punishments for offenders via tougher sentences and the like, the Green Party is much more focused on providing rehabilitation and giving judges more, not fewer options when sentencing offenders. National's opportunity here is to take a middle ground approach, and force NZ First and the Greens into publicly disagreeing with each other on the issue, making Labour pick sides once more.
NZ First wants to see a Work for the Dole scheme re-introduced, the Greens are opposed to it. This has been a long-running policy of NZ First's, so they could well be prodded over selling out their principles in pursuit of government.
The Green Party essentially wants to abolish the Security Intelligence Service and gut our intelligence gathering abilities, (via Waihopai). While NZ First hasn't specified their position on our Intelligence services, given the fairly bellicose tone of their defence policy, I'd be surprised if this is something they'd permit to happen.
While both the Greens and NZ First are broadly in support of beefing up rail services, where NZ First is vulnerable is if large roading infrastructure projects get cancelled in the provinces. With NZ First needing to defend it's position in the provinces this term, the potential cancellation of earmarked roading projects could hurt them.
These are just some high level ideas, and based on a comparison of the two parties' websites, so there'll be plenty more opportunities, especially in the early days, to pit NZ First and the Greens against each other and test how Labour handles being pulled in either direction. National will be watching every media interview, reading every Facebook and Twitter post, checking every article written for quotes, and going through every line of the Hansard, to find even more.
Greyquake, Superquake, Pensionquake, none of those names are as catchy as Youthquake, but unless there's a dramatic turnaround in voting behaviour by younger voters, this election is set to be dominated by those with, at the very least, a sprinkling of salt and pepper in their hair.
You can see in the above graph the difference between 2014's turnout and my projections for 2017's turnout. Assuming all things remain the same from the Electoral Commissions 12 September update of enrolment data, there's going to be a noticeable shift from the youngest half of voters to the oldest half of around 4.69 points.
That might not seem like much in the scheme of things, but in an MMP environment it's a massive shift. The difference between whether a party can feasibly form a government could be decided by as little as half a percent, so to have a shift of several times that towards an older demographic in the pool of electors will undoubtedly make a different.
As I wrote earlier today, the way that enrolments are tracking suggests that for all the efforts to encourage younger voters to participate in the election, nothing is changing. What is happening those is as New Zealand's population ages, the demographic of those enrolled to vote is sharply changing in favour of those aged 55 and over. The top half of enrolled voters goes down to around the 53 mark by my maths so you could stretch it a little further if you liked.
It's also why I suspect NZ First have historically done better on election day than they have in the polls. As far as I'm aware (and please correct me if I'm wrong!) both Colmar Brunton and Reid Research both weight their poll samples to reflect the general population. However the general population, or even the number of eligible voters isn't necessarily the best way to weight your polls.
Instead your polls should be weighted to reflect the voter turnout rates from the previous election (or even averaged off the past two or three just to hedge your bets a little). With older voters making up a far larger block of actual voters, their voices suddenly matter a whole lot more come election time than they do in the general population.
The above graph illustrates this change even better. You can see the massive shift away from youth voters towards those aged 55 and over (though as a mentioned earlier I suspect the tipping point may be around 53 or so). These are voters who probably own houses, probably still have mortgages they're paying off, their kids have probably left home or are about to, and they're planning for retirement.
What does this mean come Election Day? Assuming that voter turnout is similar to 2014 and enrolment rates don't change markedly, it means that NZ First is going to continue on its trend of performing better in the ballot than they do in polls, and a similar effect might help National as they've been focused on eating up some of NZ First's lunch too, especially in regional New Zealand.
It'll be interesting to compare these projects with the actual statistics from the election once they're released.
As is the fashion, I've done a quick guess at how I think tonight's 1News poll will land before the leaders' debate. It's an interesting one as I think Labour's rise will continue, but have tapered off and they won't quite be at 40% yet. National will be down slightly, the Greens will have recovered somewhat, while the Māori Party and ACT sit pretty much at the same level.
I did toy with taking a point off each of National, Labour, and either NZ First or the Greens and giving The Opportunities Party 3%, but I'd like to think that Gareth Morgan's continued verbal and Twitter diarrhoea has driven what little support he had away from the party.
Where it does become interesting is that Labour could form a minority government with NZ First and the Māori Party, relying on confidence and supply from the Greens. This would remove a major impediment to NZ First's negotiations with Labour, and I suspect Peters could work with the Māori Party better than he could the Greens. The Greens are almost certainly going to support this arrangement too as they'd rather have a Labour Government to barter with than a National one.
In theory National could form a government with the Greens, Māori Party, and ACT, but given the ideological differences between National and the Greens (and it does go both ways, not just the Greens), this is extremely unlikely to happen.
The real loser in this is ACT, who in any negotiation between National and NZ First is likely to be cast aside.
What an incredible two weeks in politics it's been! Andrew Little gone as Labour leader, Meteria Turei resigning as Green co-leader, and now polls from Newshub and a leaked UMR poll that show Labour has surged in the polls, and Jacinda Ardern has rocketed right up to be level pegging with Bill English in the preferred Prime Minister stakes.
Obviously Jacinda Ardern has been not just a circuit breaker, but a game-changer for Labour. Her ascension has hit the Greens at the same time that Meteria Turei's leadership was being called into question, and appears to have been a double blow that has caused the Green Party to shed support. At the same time, on the surface of it, it looks like New Zealand First has lost support to Labour too, with National only down 0.8 points in the Newshub poll.
At first glance I, along with many others, assumed that it was Jacinda Ardern taking votes off the Greens and New Zealand First. But the more I've thought about it, I'm not entirely sure that's the case. I can see why Jacinda would reclaim support from the Greens where she'd get back some of the former Labour supporters that Andrew Little had lost to them, but I'm still not quite sure why as much of New Zealand First's support would go her way as initially appears to be the case.
What I've since released is that there's another possibility, that it might be more likely that there's been a significant number of undecided voters in these polls who have come off the fence in support of Jacinda. My understanding is that these polls usually just report on decided voters, leaving undecideds out of the final numbers presented (though I'm not 100 per cent sure this is the case). What might be motivating the movement of these undecideds is that they perceive Jacinda as having the ability to not just to be a very capable leader, but also to transform Labour into a party they can support. They identify with her values, her identity, and her brand, in a way that they just couldn't with Andrew Little.
I've arrived at this conclusion mainly because I can see there being two logical places for Jacinda to get already committed voters from - the Greens and National. The Green voters she'd get back are the disenfranchised Labour supporters who didn't rate Andrew Little, the National voters she'd win are those in the centre ground who turned out to vote for Helen Clark in 1999, 2002, and to a lesser extent in 2005, and who I think Jacinda has a very strong appeal to.
Given that National and Bill English's support hasn't budged much in either of the polls I linked to in the first paragraph, I think New Zealand First might be leaking its support to National. What I think is happening here is that conservatives who have gravitated to Winston Peters over the past year and returning "home" to National in the face of Labour's recovery. Jacinda, meanwhile is broadening Labour's support both at the expense of the Greens and National's centre-block, and bringing in those undecideds I already mentioned, so National's loss of support to Labour is masked to some extent by gaining back voters from New Zealand First.
At this stage it's all instinctual guesswork on my part, but I've asked Newshub's Political Editor Patrick Gower if he can shed any light on the matter, as Newshub's polling data bank doesn't reveal what the undecideds were in each poll. We'll wait to see if more details come out in the coming days.