Some further thoughts on MMP

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).

I’ve had some feedback on my comments on MMP, including a comment on an earlier post suggesting an STV system replace MMP. But these comments reflect the prejudice against MMP:

This I believe would result in a more diverse parliament, with still MP’s such as Jeanette Fitzimmons being elected, and the same for Hide, & perhaps 1 or 2 other ACT MP’s, and even Winston would be represented, but their power would be limited to how many candidates they can get elected by electorates, rather than quirks of the MMP system.

Let me emphasise: MMP is not a funny money system. Proportional representation, of which is MMP is a form*, is used by most countries in Europe and any “quirks” it may have are far outweighed by the massive “quirk” in FPP which makes it almost impossible for a genuine third party to prosper and have any chance of participating in a coalition government (witness the situation of the Liberal Democrats in the UK). The theory behind proportional representation is simple: add up all the minorities which are split up by electorates and you have a substantial block of voters whose opinions should be represented. I admit that I’m not an expert on STV, but I don’t see how it could do things any better than MMP or FPP for that matter. This being the case, I’m happy with MMP.

This doesn’t mean that there can’t be alterations to the system, however, without a referendum being needed. As I said in my earlier post, I think the waiver of the 5% threshold providing a party’s candidate wins an electorate seat has been counterproductive, leading to small parties becoming personality-driven and not carving out substantive, issue-based cleavages. New Zealand’s “5% threshold waiver” (for want of a better term) has become a poisoned chalice: the small parties probably wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for their strong leaders such as Winston Peters, Peter Dunne and indeed Rodney Hide. But conversely, the rule has only encouraged them to build support around the leader, rather than a more durable (in terms of decades), issue-based agenda.

For instance, imagine how long the Greens would have lasted if it had been called the “Anti-GE Party” instead and had acted accordingly. It might have done very well in 2002, when the issue had salience (remember “Corngate”?), but after that the party would have shrunk to a small band of ardent supporters. By promoting itself as the Greens, the party has given itself leverage to pick up on whatever environmental issue is flavour of the month – anti-GE sentiment in 2002, climate change in 2008.

Admittedly, you might say the other small parties have been generic enough too in their names: New Zealand First, for example, not the “Anti-Immigration and Old People’s Party”. But the connotations are so strong with most of these parties to these issues and usually with the party’s foundations in the 1990s that they have engendered a similar fixing in time and space as the fictitional “Anti-GE Party” might have done. ACT will forever be linked with the 1980s and Sir Roger Douglas. It may not want to be anything else, but there will always be a limited amount of supporters for this.

As I said in my post a fortnight ago, it doesn’t make rational sense for ACT, a party of MMP, to campaign for a referendum to alter the voting system. I know Douglas and co. are fans of “big change” but you have to be careful of what you wish for. From ACT’s perspective, ACT with a 50% majority would be nirvana (this is what Douglas originally predicted on founding the party), but it would never happen. In 2005, many ACT supporters saw National with a majority under Don Brash to be almost as good a deal. But ACT supporters should imagine what a Labour government would do with an absolute majority? It won’t happen in 2008, but it could happen a decade or so down the track, once voters’ fascination with Key has warn off, especially if FPP came back. In that case, ACT would be left right out in the cold – no representation and no favourable government.

While there has been talk around that we could go to STV or something else other than FPP (I think this is also what Key suggested), in reality supporters of a referendum want to go back to FPP. It would not be worth going through the instability and confusion (not least of all for the foreign investors on whom NZ depends) of changing the system for anything but a direct opposite. The idea of returning to FPP is understandable, to a degree. There is comfort in the familiar and 140 years of FPP system does not go away overnight. Currently small parties have reached a nadir. MMP is probably at its lowest point. So why not knock MMP out while the chance exists? This is clearly what Key would like after the election, especially if he gets the majority for which he is obviously hoping.

But I think MMP has not had anything like a fair test. FPP had 140 years before it was booted out. Now, I’m not saying that MMP deserves 100+ years before a referendum, but it still needs a chance to mature and 10 years is simply not long enough for the party system to mature. To prove this, look at the German model. From the first post-war parliament in 1949 until 1983, the Free Democrats (FDP) were the only third party in the Bundestag, along with the Social Democrats (SPD, equivalent to Labour) and Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU, equivalent to National). Since 1983 the Greens have also been represented and in recent years a new left-wing party (Die Linke) has emerged, to create a 5 party system. This may change, of course, but after 20 or 50 years in the Bundestag respectively it is hard to imagine (although nothing is impossible) either the Greens or FDP losing representation. In both cases, the parties are indeed fairly secure, with the Greens and FDP achieving 8.1% and 9.8% support respectively at the most recent federal election in 2005.

In NZ currently I think only the Greens could be said to be a stable force in parliament, a party which has carved out a genuine niche – like the FDP did in the early years in Germany. The other parties have not evolved or carved out substantial niches. Obviously New Zealand First and United Future will be out once their leaders go; add to that the Progressives once Anderton retires. ACT has carved out a niche of sorts (mainly Douglas fans) and unlike New Zealand First or United Future has proved longevity with the leadership change to Hide. But it is a precarious niche and at 1.2% or so, not yet a substantive one.

Like the Greens with environmental issues, ACT does have a strong fertile ground with the free market – but its problem is that it is perceived as a “1980s free market” party, which voters do not, on the whole, want to go back to. Who knows, ACT may evolve and become the fourth substantive parliamentary force, especially once United Future and New Zealand First disappear, as they must because of the inevitable retirement of their leaders. But it may be another new party altogether which finds a unique cleavage in society at some stage in the future.

*Correction from the original post – see comments to this post

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