Time for a save MMP campaign?

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).

New Zealand must be the only country in the world which has a government coalition partner (the Progressive Party) with absolutely no popular support. From the 1000 voters polled in the latest Herald-DigiPoll, not one named the Progressives as the preferred recipient of their party vote. Please don’t get me wrong: this certainly isn’t intended as a criticism of Jim Anderton’s party per se. ACT itself had just 0.4% – “translated” (as Guyon Espiner would say), this means just 4 voters of the thousand polled selected ACT.

Noting this, the post I could write now is that Douglas’s return is not having the desired effect. But the problem is a macro, not micro one. Small parties, whatever the colour, are faring poorly. Put together, the two major parties in New Zealand now have 89.3% of the party vote, according to the Herald poll. This leaves just 10.7% to be divvied up amongst all the other parties. Flashback to the 1996 General Election: then, Labour and National captured just 62.1% of the party vote. Small parties now have just a quarter of the vote they did a decade ago to share amongst themselves.

Is this the fault of the small parties? To some extent, certainly. The loophole in NZ’s version of proportional representation which allows parties to circumvent the 5% threshold if they have an MP win a constituency seat has led to parties becoming personality-driven, rather than seeking to develop new cleavages amongst voters. Small parties have largely not adapted since 1996: Winston Peters is still Winston Peters, saying the same old things. Not surprisingly, New Zealand First’s utterances against immigration seem tired now after fifteen years of reciting them. There is still a constituency for his party’s messages, but it is a shrinking one. The same might be said of ACT, which as a party driven by ideology cannot adapt its policies beyond making cosmetic changes to the packaging (the dressing up of education vouchers as “scholarships” is but this year’s incarnation). Put it this way: would the Jim Bolger National Party, saying the same things it did in 1996, still appeal in 2008?

But blaming the small parties for their own misfortune is too simple. In fact, there is a massive structural problem at work. From the beginning, MMP has always been treated as some “funny-money” system by the news media and by many voters themselves. I am sick of hearing people who say that “List MPs aren’t elected MPs”. They are. Now recall the silly (but much heralded) petition in 1999 to reduce the number of MPs to 99 – by slashing the number of List MPs to such an extent that the proportional system would no longer function properly. Then there is Bernard Hickey, who now seems to have joined the ranks of the self-important “commentators” who live in Auckland and can get to TVNZ’s studios on a Sunday morning for Agenda. Quizzing Sir Roger on Agenda some weeks ago, Hickey pronounced that New Zealand’s productivity gap could be explained by the introduction of MMP in 1996, after which he said productivity growth had begun to decline (see the piece on his own blog).

Hello? MMP is proportional representation, the fairest and moreover, most common form of democracy around the world. If political system had anything to do with wealth, why have countries such as Switzerland, Norway, Sweden and Germany continued to outstrip New Zealand in terms of productivity and above all GDP per capita? The Swiss example might be particularly illuminating for Mr Hickey – few systems could be as regulated as the Alpine republic’s version of proportional representation, working as it does on a complex formula designed to carefully distribute power amongst the Cantons and the four main ethnic groups. Hickey’s citing of MMP as the fault for NZ’s economic lag behind the rest of the world is as spurious as saying that the rise of the internet from the mid-1990s must have stinted productivity growth. It is simply a spurious and unfounded correlation.

Then there is the news media’s habit of focusing almost exclusively on the main parties. How can small parties hope to perform when they are seldom treated as genuine alternatives for voters? The simple fact that they are called “minor” parties illustrates the contempt in which they are held. In other proportional representation countries, such as Germany, parties are never referred to in this way, but are instead given reasonable opportunity to put their views across to voters. Not so for the NZ media, which in reporting of political polls often do not even mention the plight of parties other than Labour or National. This is the “Presidentialisation” of politics: the “battle” between Helen Clark and John Key is the only theme up for discussion.

However, I wonder if New Zealand’s current small parties have reached the end of the line. In Germany (on whose system New Zealand’s MMP is based), it took around 15 years after the introduction of a revised proportional system (following World War II) for a permanent third party to become established. This was the Free Democrats (FDP) – the party with which ACT likes to compare itself. It took another 20 years after this for the Green Party to become Germany’s fourth party, in the 1980s. And another 20 years after that for Germany to become a five party system, with the entry of Die Linke (“The Left”) in 2005 and it subsequent consolidation of support.

What the German example shows is that the small parties which have lasted have been driven by support for substantive themes and not merely personalities: a free-market economy (FDP), the environment (Greens) or an expansion of the welfare state (Die Linke). Although its place in Parliament is far from secure, perhaps the Greens will become New Zealand’s only viable third party, for now, while the others will fall by the wayside. Of course, ACT itself ought to have a chance, stressing as it does its adherence to ideology. But ACT is too rooted in time and space: in its present form it will never shake off the 1980s – and the return of Douglas to the party seems to indicate that it may not want to. This image problem is without question ACT’s chief problem, as I have noted time and time again.

But none of this should mean we, as voters, should give up on supporting all the small parties currently, or not currently, in Parliament. Why bother having a proportional system of representation if a de facto two party system is simply going to take hold? My argument for greater support of small parties is similar to the argument put forward for free speech. You may not necessarily agree with what the small parties say, but you should defend their right to say it.

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