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May 6, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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Seats for Sale

How much does a seat in Parliament cost?
It’s an important question, as a decent chunk of the money spent is tax money allocated to parties in election year. Funnily enough, the answer seems to have a lot to do with the political landscape in the given year. Take a look at these tables, compiled of data from elections.org.nz; they have all the numbers you need.

Think back to ’96, when Labour was resurrected from the defections and irrelevancy of the early ’90s. Winston Peters kept everyone waiting for weeks trying to decide which party to enter into a coalition with. He picked National, they became the government, and what a mess that was. The coalition collapsed after a New Zealand First schism, and National barely hung on after the Jenny Shipley leadership coup.
In 1999 and 2002, Labour were wildly popular by comparison, and the cheapness of their seats reflected this. Also, National’s total spending dropped off considerably, suggesting the corporate backers were hesitant to back such a doomed ship. This wasn’t the case in 2005, when Brash was in charge of National; he made Labour pay dearly for their win, with both parties tripling their total spending.
The writing was on the wall for Labour though—they had to swallow the dead rat this time and get Winston into their government. They became so unpopular on their own that all John Key had to do was grin lots to win in 2008, which is again reflected in the numbers.
The trends shown by the minor parties are much harder to pin down, in part because of the wide range of electoral aims and cash to spend. For a party that trumpets spending cuts and efficiency as primary goals, ACT spends a ludicrous amount per seat, and this is unlikely to change now that big-money Brash is back.
The costs of winning a seat also tend to blow out completely when a party becomes a one-man band, in the case of the Progressives or United. The Maori Party can get away with not spending much as they have so far only been competitive in the Maori electorates; they are barely even campaigning for a party vote. The Greens, meanwhile, have never really been able to translate spending more into more seats, possibly because of the somewhat niche nature of green politics.
Lastly, NZ First have had good years and bad years, with ’99 and ’02 being especially lean campaigns. A possible reason for this is leader Winston Peters’ preferred style of electioneering, which is much more based around speaking to crowds than running expensive media campaigns. It will be interesting to see if Hone Harawira’s new Mana Party picks up this mantle, as they are unlikely to find many wealthy backers.

So what does it all mean? Clearly, winning an election is about more than simply outspending your rivals—though there are examples of this tactic working, such as when the Progressives beat the Alliance on the left wing in 2002. However, there are a lot more factors at play. Had Labour outspent National in 2008 they’d probably still have lost, and in 2002 no amount of money could have salvaged National’s chances. So, to answer the original question, how much does a seat cost? It depends, but if your seats cost less than your rivals, you must be doing something right. *

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