Another reason why a “Country Party” is not a good idea

Note: this post originally appeared on ‘Douglas to Dancing’, a blog I maintained from 2007-9 on the ACT New Zealand political party. The blog was an extension of the thesis I wrote about the Act Party in 2007, From Douglas to Dancing: explaining the lack of success of ACT New Zealand and evaluating its future prospects (PDF).

Earlier in the year I covered an op-ed piece by former ACT MP Gerry Eckhoff in which he advocated the establishment of a Country Party to better represent rural interests in New Zealand. He used the example of the Nationals in Australia to support his argument. Well, the results of the recent Australian federal election should provide him with some advice. Australians gave the Nationals just 10 seats, its worst ever result. One of the reasons suggested by the Sydney Morning Herald for the party’s decline in fortunes was that urban lifestylers have encroached into more traditional rural territory, thus diluting the core support for the Nationals. Although New Zealand has a proportional system and this would therefore be less of an issue, in absolute numbers I suggest that core rural supporters would be limited. Farming is a big part of the economy, but because it is so efficiently run (with large farms and relatively few farmers), the absolute number of potential supporters is small.

Neither would the tactic of targeting one or two electorate seats (as ACT has done) work: I don’t think there would be a single electorate in the country which is a truly rural seat. Take Clutha-Southland, for instance: from 2008 it will include the highly urbanised district of Queenstown, hardly fertile ground for down-on-the-farm messages.

The only hope for a new Country Party would be if a large contingent of rural supporters became disgruntled with the New Zealand National Party, thus creating an opening for a new party. But it would have to be more broad-based than the Australian Nationals – perhaps including a rural-recreation faction. In 2002, the Outdoor Recreation party claimed 1.28% of the party vote, a better result than the (admittedly imploding) Alliance.

But as ACT has shown, the problem for small parties is that voters seem prepared to give them their votes in reasonable numbers only when the election is not a close one. In 2005, the collective support for small parties was roughly halved from 2002, in which Labour won in a landslide over a disunited National Party. This contrasts sharply with the German election, a close fought battle also in September 2005. In that case, the major parties were also virtually tied (on 36%) but three small parties still managed to gain over 8% support each – indeed, two of these enjoyed healthy increases. Until party loyalty in New Zealand becomes more cemented, life will continue to remain difficult for small parties in my view.

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2 Responses

  1. Oliver Woods says:

    Insightful post, and I totally agree with you that a Country Party in New Zealand simply wouldn’t work.

    Though I wonder about your comment about cementing party loyalties – do you think that in a contest where party loyalty is relatively weak (compared to where it was in the 1970s for example) a two-party dominant system flourishes?
    I’d actually argue that the success of the Alliance and NZ First was entirely driven by the debasement of traditional National and Labour supporters.

  2. Thanks Oliver for another piece of feedback. What I was trying to get at is that the small parties perform well only when one or both of the major parties is in the doghouse, so to speak. So in 1996, both Labour and National “could not be trusted”, so their vote was capped at no more than about 30%. Both major parties did a little better in 1999, but the Alliance, ACT and the Greens still took a reasonable share of the vote. In 2002, it was National that could not be trusted to govern, so the small parties of the right did well. Finally, in 2005, both Labour and National were seen as plausible parties of government and supporters of the minor parties took flight. Thinking of the German example I cited in my post, I think this might have to do with the way the MMP system was introduced “overnight” in New Zealand. In Germany, the proportional system as we know it today was installed amidst the rubble of WWII – accordingly, the Free Democrats (FDP), or one of the more successful minor parties, cornered a solid support base from the beginning.

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