October 15, 2011
A tale of two elections
New Zealand is ramping up to an election. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that the National party will win; the only question is whether National will win enough votes to govern alone, or whether they’ll need the support of a minor party. This is somewhat reminiscent of the situation in the last UK election, in which the question was not whether the Tories would get the most votes, but whether there would be a hung parliament. But it’s interesting to compare attitudes in the two countries.
In the UK, absolute majorities are the norm. The voting system is designed to produce absolute majorities from voting pluralities, and a referendum on a change that would have mitigated this was recently defeated. Voters are taught that governments need to be ‘strong’ so that they can enact all their policies.
In short, for one party to have an absolute majority to do with as it wishes is regarded as essential to effective government.
By contrast, I asked a friend what he thought of the possibility of National winning an absolute majority. He wasn’t keen on the possibility. Part of this was specific to National’s style of government – their routine use of urgency – but part of it also seemed to be a feeling that parties should not go unchecked. No party should be free to just do what it wants without building at least some measure of consensus. (To be clear, the friend in question is not anti-National. I don’t know his voting intentions, but I’m pretty sure he won’t be shedding any tears over National getting a second term. His concern was specifically about National winning an absolute majority.)
In short, for one party to have an absolute majority to do with as it wishes is regarded as not only inessential to effective government, but actively worrying in terms of keeping government in check.
It’s obviously invalid to extrapolate from one conversation with one person, and it’s certainly true that there are many people in New Zealand who do long for the jackboot of unchecked government (as long as it is their party wearing it, of course). Still, I’d like to think it illustrates how Kiwis have in the last 15 years come to take consensus for granted as an expected and desirable outcome of an election, in contrast to Britons actively preferring absolutism.
Of course, the MMP referendum could be about to prove me wrong…