With the election campaign about to get under way, minor party leaders are furious at being shut out of one of the biggest possible stages for their policy platforms. Alex Braae reports.
TVNZ’s multi-party election debate is once again the subject of controversy, not because of who will be on the stage, but who won’t.
In an announcement today, TVNZ said that its multi-party debate will include NZ First, the Green Party, and Act – all of whom are currently represented in parliament. But other parties that have turned up in the polls this year will not be invited, including the Māori Party, New Conservatives, and The Opportunities Party.
Māori Party co-leader John Tamihere said plans were being made now to challenge the decision, on the grounds that Māori candidates with a credible path to parliament would be excluded. “Māori are always treated as second class citizens. Brown voices matter.”
Tamihere contended that it was a “straight Bill of Rights Act and Human Rights Act matter,” and that TVNZ had a responsibility “to reflect Māori perspectives, as laid out in ministerial direction.”
Opportunities Party leader Geoff Simmons was equally scathing, describing it as a “kick in the nuts for democracy.”
He said by excluding parties outside of parliament, voters were being denied the opportunity to be exposed to new policies. “Since MMP came in, all new political parties have been offshoots of existing ones. If we want new ideas in Parliament, we need to give a platform to new parties.
“There are ideas out there – plenty of them – but they are not seeing the light of day. That is because they are all being put forward by minor parties.”
New Conservative leader Leighton Baker implied there might be more sinister motives for the exclusion. He said it was “not surprising that some media feel they should control what people hear rather than facilitate the sharing of ideas. Probably why they require government intervention to stay viable.”
In response, TVNZ’s editor of news gathering Phil O’Sullivan said none of those factors applied when it came to the decision for the broadcaster, because above all they needed to apply the criteria fairly.
“We know people are going to be displeased, and that’s always unfortunate in a democracy. The intention of these debates is to try and improve people’s abilities to make sensible decisions in an election. But being fair doesn’t always mean being popular.”
On the specific point about including Māori perspectives, O’Sullivan said the Māori Party itself didn’t meet the criteria. “But that’s not to suggest that stories about the Māori Party aren’t being reflected in One News’ wider election coverage,” he said, noting several recent stories and interviews that had been broadcast on various news programmes. He also pointed to TVNZ’s recently announced Vote Compass site which will include parties polling above 1%.
The TVNZ multi-party debate resulted in somewhat farcical scenes in 2017 because of the inclusion of relative unknown United Future leader Damian Light, on the grounds that former leader Peter Dunne held a seat in parliament which he was weeks away from retiring from.
The inclusion criteria was either polling at or above 3% or a seat in parliament, and these criteria will again be used this year. Last time around, this meant then-TOP leader Gareth Morgan wasn’t invited, despite his party polling better than the Māori Party, Act and United Future, who were all on the stage. Morgan took legal action against the exclusion, which failed.
Previous attempts by parties to use the courts to force their way onto the debate stage had been successful, including Peter Dunne and Progressive Coalition leader Jim Anderton in 2005, and Conservative party leader Colin Craig in 2014.
This time around, Opportunities Party leader Geoff Simmons said the party would not be mounting a legal challenge to its exclusion, but was still in talks with TVNZ.
None of the three largest excluded parties have been polling at a level this year that would have allowed them a place on stage in 2017. However, in the most recent One News Colmar-Brunton poll, the New Conservatives at 1.2% were a relatively small margin behind NZ First, at 2.0%.
The Māori Party and Opportunities Party performed less well in this poll, securing 1.0% and 0.1% respectively. Out of all polls taken this year by Colmar-Brunton, their best results are 1.2% and 0.5% respectively.
There are a wide range of other parties also standing in the election who have appeared in Colmar-Brunton polls this year, including Legalise Cannabis, the One Party, Social Credit and the Outdoors Party.
There will also be an opportunity for other parties to force their way into the debate if they score a 3% result in the next Colmar-Brunton poll, which will be the final poll conducted before the debate. “But it’d be fair to say at this stage, it’s going to be quite difficult for them,” said O’Sullivan, noting that there are currently eight registered parties polling below the threshold.
Advance NZ has also not been invited to participate in the debate, despite party co-leader Jami-Lee Ross being in parliament – though he is listed on the parliamentary website as an independent MP. His co-leader Billy Te Kahika, who joined as part of the merger between Advance NZ and the NZ Public Party, recently got 0.7% in the Colmar-Brunton’s preferred PM stakes.
Incidentally, one of the excluded parties might find a stage on a rival channel. Three’s Newshub Nation will be hosting a ‘power-brokers’ debate, which will be open to all parties that have had seats in parliament over the last two terms, meaning the Māori Party will be invited to participate.