Mind the gap in gen­der vot­ing

Kapi-Mana News - - OPINION / NEWS -

At times, Min­is­ter of So­cial De­vel­op­ment Paula Bennett serves as a use­ful di­ver­sion fig­ure for her col­leagues, by draw­ing away the me­dia flak when the gov­ern­ment comes un­der fire else­where.

A few months ago for in­stance, when Na­tional was in deep trou­ble over school class sizes, Bennett burst into the news bul­letins to de­flect the me­dia into de­bat­ing whether the courts re­ally should be em­pow­ered to force ben­e­fi­cia­ries not to have any more chil­dren.

Last week, how­ever, it was Bennett her­self who was trig­ger­ing a small avalanche of bad news sto­ries.

Bennett has not only flatly re­fused to apol­o­gise for us­ing pri­vate in­for­ma­tion to dis­credit a ben­e­fi­ciary critic of the gov­ern­ment’s wel­fare poli­cies but also in­di­cated that she might do it again. Later in Par­lia­ment, Bennett re­sponded so flip­pantly to ques­tions about the ex­tent of child poverty in New Zealand that Speaker Lock­wood Smith was fi­nally moved to give her a stern telling off, say­ing she was be­hav­ing worse than a three-year-old child.

Bennett is be­com­ing a li­a­bil­ity, es­pe­cially as the cen­tre- right strug­gles to keep women vot­ers on side with the re­form poli­cies that are cen­tral to the Key gov­ern­ment’s sec­ond term agenda. The gen­der vot­ing gap could well in­crease, given the likely im­pact of the re­cently re­leased MMP re­view pa­per. The main rec­om­men­da­tions from the re­view were that the en­try thresh­old for par­ties to Par­lia­ment should be low­ered to 4 per cent. It also ad­vo­cated scrap­ping the pro­vi­sion that al­lows par­ties that win an elec­torate seat to bring oth­ers into Par­lia­ment on their coat-tails.

The re­view got a mixed re­cep­tion. Some claimed that the panel had blown a rare op­por­tu­nity to make Par­lia­ment more rep­re­sen­ta­tive. Given the rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity of our par­lia­men­tary cul­ture over the last five MMP elec­tions, the thresh­old could (ar­guably) have been re­duced to 3 per cent, or lower. The pro­pos­als will now be open for a pe­riod of fur­ther pub­lic com­ment, un­til fi­nal de­ci­sions are made on which re­forms will be adopted.

In ef­fect, all the ar­gu­ments about ‘what might have been’ are now his­tory, and the more in­ter­est­ing spec­u­la­tion has been about what im­pact the pro­pos­als are likely to have on the 2014 elec­tion out­come.

Cer­tainly, the pro­posed changes to MMP would help re­solve Na­tional’s chronic lack of mean­ing­ful coali­tion part­ners. Un­der the sug­gested rules, Na­tional could af­ford to lose the Act Party and United First, and run its own can­di­dates strongly in Ep­som and Ohariu. More to the point, a 4 per cent MMP thresh­old would al­most see Colin Craig’s Con­ser­va­tive Party in Par­lia­ment, given that the Con­ser­va­tives scored a healthy 2.65 per cent last year. Win­ston Peters could also con­ceiv­ably gain more in 2014 within a cen­tre-right coali­tion – in­clud­ing scor­ing a knight­hood for him­self – than he would as the third wheel in a Labour-Greens gov­ern­ment. By some es­ti­mates, Na­tional could af­ford to drop as low as 40 per cent in the polls and still form the next gov­ern­ment.

True, it would be a so­cially con­ser­va­tive coali­tion, with Colin Craig and his Chris­tian col­leagues in tow. Mean­ing, the women al­ready alien­ated by the an­tics of Paula Bennett might well find some ad­di­tional rea­sons to vote with the cen­tre left, come 2014. The usual gen­der gap among vot­ers ap­pears set to widen.

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