New Zealand: a Brash ACT and two Māori parties

Musical chairs in the political arena.

Don Brash, who led the National Party until shortly after defeat in the 2005 general election, has returned to the political fray.  At the ripe age of 70, the politician and ex-Reserve Bank Governor has harnessed the parliamentary numbers needed to take the leadership of the Coalition-partnering ACT Party from Rodney Hide, MP for the Auckland constituency of Epsom.  Initially, Brash will lead from outside parliament ahead of scheduled elections in November.  

Almost simultaneously, a renegade ex-Māori Party MP, Hone Harawira, has formed another party to fight the Māori roll.  The newly-formed Mana Party has enticed three notable female Māori activists to contest three of the seven other Māori seats.

The MMP voting system in use in New Zealand encourages small parties to spring up.  They do so with monotonous regularity.  Many collapse quickly.  However, centre-right liberal ACT has existed since 1993 and has in the past won as many as nine seats.  Currently it holds five. But with them languishing at between 1-2% in opinion polls, and needing to pass the 5% threshold (or win an electorate seat), they face electoral oblivion.  Brash is betting that he can raise the party's standing and win far more than the threshold demands.  It appears he may be correct in his assessment.  How much support he'd have to shave off the conservative National Party to do that is questionable.  It won't hurt National too much as it's riding high in opinion polls.  

Prior to the Brash takeover, One News Colmar Brunton on April 10 had National on 54% of the Electorate Vote, some twenty points ahead of second-placed Labour.  ACT trailed in fifth on 1%.  In the Party Vote (and in NZ voters cast two votes: one for a constituency MP, another for a party list), the margin was less but still wide with National on 52%, Labour at 36%, with ACT steady on a paltry 1%.

The Māori Party ranked fourth in both Electorate and Party aspects in the poll by One News Colmar Brunton, registering 1% and 2% respectively.  However, the Māori Party doesn't contest seats on the general roll, only on the Māori roll, so can afford lower percentages than ACT which fights most seats.  

Mana - a complex word and evidently hard to translate exactly, but relates to Māori values and practices - has been used before by another political group, the now deregistered Māori Mana Movement.  But the Mana Party will fight in straight contests against the Māori Party (formed in 2004) in Māori seats.  Mana might fight all seven and they could split the anti-Labour vote in those seats. Before 2004 the Labour Party was the political home of most Māori voters.  It's a risk, and the Labour Party will be delighted most likely.  The Māori Party is a partner in the present National-led Coalition government in Wellington, so any reduction in their seats could impact on coalition-forming mathematics.

Many pundits foresee a Brash-led ACT gaining a great swathe of seats and a post election National-led Coalition veering sharply right.  Brash is a determined character, with strong one-nation leanings.  He holds the view that, regardless of race, all should be treated equally under the law.  Yet there are fears Brash will shift ACT sharply right. 

Māori seats may be abolished as a result.  National proposes to do away with them in any event by 2014, a move which would co-incide with a return to a first-past-the-post voting system, most like.  One wonders how long the Mana Party will exist under such circumstances, whatever Hone Harawira's political skills.

ACT likewise, unless it can win a number of electorate seats.

Brash has said the ACT brand is severely damaged.  It has been, by internal wrangling, dismissals, revelations about past illegalities and recent expenses scandals.  He might want to change its name.  Had he been unsuccessful in his pusch, it was reported that he planned to start an 'Economic Reform Party'.  What would members and supporters be called, Economic Reformers?  Rather cumbersome.

Rebranding can be expensive, as any corporate makeover design consultancy would tell you.  And it's very hard to get right.  That's why Shell keeps its shell, albeit occasionally modified.  Get it wrong and the media are scathing.  Like the UK LibDems with their yellow bird-in-flight logo:  supposed to represent freedom and democracy but mocked by Margaret Thatcher as being as "dead as John Cleese's parrot".  Or, the British Conservatives with their tree motif: likened to broccoli by an ex-party chairman.  

But ACT is tarnished and an apt name-change accompanied by a logo modernisation might work wonders, if the name rings true and the symbol attractive and memorable.  Brash is reported to have business money backing him.  He'll need it.  ACT candidate in Epsom in November is likely to be John Banks, an ex-Auckland Mayor and former National minister.  Brash is aiming for 15 percent nationally in the upcoming general election and a cabinet seat as Finance Minister.  Previous ACT Deputy Leader, ousted by Hide, is Heather Roy - now touted as the new Leader of ACT in the current parliament.

Update April 30:  Mana has officially launched with Hone Harawira calling for an imminent by-election in his Te Tai Tokerau electorate.  It's clearer now that the new party is aiming for a broad left cross-race stance, appealing to both pakeha (or non-Māori) and Māori support.  Left-wing ex-Green MP Sue Bradford was among those pakeha present at the launch party.  Given that under Phil Goff's leadership, the Labour Party has shifted centre-left, there's a gap on the Left which Mana hopes to fill.  National under PM John Key has taken over the entire centre ground and Labour is now squeezed.  There are only six months remaining before the election, and it might be in Key's interests to keep to the existing timetable rather than call a snap poll.  This would give Mana time to develop momentum and put more pressure on Labour.  

The prospect after November 26 for the Wellington NZ House of Representatives of 120 seats (plus 'overhang' to provide proportionality, of which there are 2 in the parliament of 2008-11):
  • National 54 (down 4)
  • Labour 40 (down 3)
  • ACT 12 (up 7)
  • Green 9 (same)
  • Māori Party 4 (down 1)
  • Mana Party 2 (new party)
  • United Future 1 (same)
Failing to pass 5% threshold or to win an electorate (constituency):
  • New Zealand First 0 (same)
  • Progressives 0 (down 1)

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