It has been fascinating to observe the speed with which New Zealanders have put winning the seventh Rugby World Cup behind them and turned their attention to the country’s 50th parliamentary elections.
As a political scientist, I personally applauded the prime minister’s decision to forego the usual petty politicking that surrounds the choice of an election date and, instead, announce the date of the election 10 months in advance. At the same time I wondered whether the five-week period between the final of the Rugby World Cup on 23 October and the general election on 26 November would provide enough time for people to switch focus. I am happy to say that the answer appears to be yes.
Less than a week after the final rugby referee’s whistle had been blown, the minor party leaders held their first televised debate, and the following evening the two prime ministerial contenders – Phil Goff and John Key – squared off on Television One. Radio programmes have been replete with political interviews, and referendum ‘specials’ have already been broadcast on radio and television, as well as published in a host of newspapers.
I’m delighted to say that Te Ara, too, is playing its part in putting the election into perspective.
Seven entries in Te Ara’s Government and Nation theme have been deliberately fast-tracked through the editorial production-line and are now available for all to see on New Zealand’s online encyclopedia.
Each of the entries is of relevance to elections in New Zealand, and every one of them has been written by an expert in the field. In alphabetical order, the entries are:
- Electoral systems
- Labour Party
- Māori representation
- National Party
- Political parties
- Premiers and prime ministers
The entries have been written by well-known historians (such as John E. Martin and Gavin McLean), political analysts (such as Colin James and Rawiri Taonui) and political scientists (such as Peter Aimer, Jennifer Curtin and Raymond Miller).
Each of the entries in this ‘election special’ will provide anyone reading them with a great deal of authoritative information about the history and politics of New Zealand.
What is more, a tool that has been specially created for Te Ara is now available online for the very first time. It charts the numbers of seats held by political parties (as well as by independent MPs) in the House of Representatives after every election from 1890 through to and including 2008 (and, yes, the results of the 2011 election will be added once they’re known).
As one of the co-editors of Te Ara’s Government and Nation theme, I cannot give enough thanks to Heath Sadlier and his creative design team for the work that has been done to bring this idea to fruition. To see the explanatory and teaching power of the chart, go – for example – to the chart headed Parties making up Parliament, 1949–1984 and click on the election years from 1960 through to 1975.
You will get a clear picture of the glacial decline in National’s share of the seats in the House of Representatives in the three general elections that followed the party’s election victory in 1960, and you will then see how the party’s dramatic loss of office in 1972 was literally mirrored in its return to power in 1975.
Likewise, the chart labelled Distribution of parties in Parliament, 1996–2008 shows the changing patterns of representation in the House of Representatives and the consequent coalitions during the MMP (mixed-member proportional representation) era in New Zealand.
We don’t know what’s going to happen when New Zealand’s 50th parliamentary elections are held in three-and-a-half weeks’ time. After nearly half a century of studying elections in New Zealand and overseas, I have learnt that one must frequently expect the unexpected.
As a result, I am going to be paying particular attention to a line in one of the entries in Te Ara’s election package. It’s in the Premiers and prime ministers entry, and it reads: ‘Thirty-eight prime ministers have led New Zealand since the country was granted internal self-government by Britain in 1856.’
Will that line have to be altered as a result of how we vote on Saturday, 26 November?