Now that the outcome of the 2017 Election is known, it’s a good time to reflect on what could work better in our parliamentary democracy.
A small share of National supporters, plus some nitwit political columnists, are grumpy about the fact that National won the most votes of any individual party but nonetheless finds itself out of government. Those complaints are baseless: In a parliamentary system, you can form a government if and only if you can get a majority of MPs to support you – regardless of how the vote breaks down between different parties. That’s always been the rule, and changing it would mean fundamentally undermining parliamentary democracy.
As an example, look at Australia: Labor is the largest single party in the lower house, but a coalition between three centre-right parties (Liberal, LNP, and National) comprises the Government. This is a legitimate way to govern – just as a Labour / New Zealand First government with confidence and supply from the Greens is legitimate.
However, that’s not to say that our MMP system couldn’t be improved. As Stephen Beban noted in an article on The Spinoff, the number of parties in Parliament is now at the lowest level since MMP started. In 2005 and 2011, a total of eight parties were represented in Parliament, compared with five today. This means that the number of distinct viewpoints represented in Parliament has declined:
Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) has been used in New Zealand since 1996. This electoral system was adopted by voters in a 1993 referendum in order to create more representative parliaments. MMP made our politics a multi-party system – as can be seen in Chris McDowall’s visual history of the New Zealand parliament. However, with just five parties in Parliament, the 2017 election produced the fewest winning ‘third parties’ ever:
The total party vote for third parties has fluctuated over time, yet it has always been a significant share. Over the eight elections we’ve had under MMP, an average of one in four voters have cast a vote for a party other than National or Labour. And just under 1 in 10 voters have supported parties that received less than 5% of the vote (although some of these parties did win an electorate seat, thus gaining entry to Parliament).
This wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t prohibitively difficult to start up a new party and reach Parliament. Since MMP started in 1996, there have been a total of eight minor parties represented in Parliament. Seven were founded or co-founded by dissident MPs that had split off from an existing parliamentary party, either Labour or National.
The only exception to this pattern is the Green Party, which drew upon a deep tradition of environmental and social activism stretching back to the Values Party and the anti-nuclear and environmental movements of the 1970s.
The lack of more parties in Parliament isn’t due to a lack of effort. In the last few elections, we’ve seen strong but ultimately futile attempts by three new parties:
- The Internet-Mana Party in 2014, a radical left-wing party
- The Conservative Party in 2011 and 2014, a Christian conservative party
- The Opportunities Party in 2017, which pitched itself as a party for socially conscious technocrats.
To be clear, I had major problems with all three parties. Regardless of their political alignment, they were all started by wealthy middle-aged egotists who decided to spend up large to force themselves into our political landscape. Men like that make a major negative contribution to American and Australian politics and I would rather avoid the same thing here.
Nonetheless, these parties’ experience highlights the barriers to political competition.
It’s possible that this is a transitory stage, and that as MMP continues to mature we will see more parties emerge. As Peter McKenzie highlighted in a Newsroom article, that’s what’s happened in the long-running German MMP system:
There are five countries in the world using MMP. The most famous is Germany, which has used MMP for 68 years (it was introduced in 1949). Usefully, Germany also held its parliamentary election last weekend at almost the same time as us. The result was a German Parliament with six unique parties – one party on 32.9 percent, one on 20 percent, and four others between 12 percent and eight percent.
In other words, this year an MMP system which has existed three times as long as ours gave a result only somewhat more diverse than our system. Our system has five Parliamentary parties, they have six. The only major difference is that their vote share was more evenly distributed than ours.
Even more interesting is comparing the 1972 German election (when it had been using MMP for 23 years) to the 2017 NZ election (with 21 years of MMP under our belt). Given how long it takes for a population to adjust to using a new electoral system, this reveals more about our relative performance. In 1972, the German Parliament had three separate parties. The Social Democratic Party won 45.8 percent, the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union alliance won 44.9 percent, and the Free Democratic Party won 8.9 percent. With that in mind, our 2017 result is a triumph, with two substantial minor parties (NZ First and the Greens) to 1972 Germany’s one, and one small minor party (ACT) to Germany’s zero.
Hopefully McKenzie is correct. But if he’s not, achieving a diverse and competitive Parliament will require us to tweak the MMP system to bring down the seemingly prohibitive barriers to entering Parliament.
The Electoral Commission’s 2012 MMP Review would be a good place to start. The two key recommendations from the review were as follows:
- The one electorate seat threshold should be abolished (and if it is, the provision for overhang seats should also be abolished)
- The party vote threshold should be lowered from 5% to 4% (with the Commission required by law to review how the 4% threshold is working)
If implemented, this would make it easier for new parties to start up and enter Parliament without the tacit support of an existing party. Personally, I’d prefer to go a bit further and reduce the threshold to 3%, which would give parties a minimum of three/four MPs. But regardless, the MMP Review gave a clear steer to lower the barrier.
The National Party opposed implementing the Electoral Commission’s recommendations and hence they weren’t implemented. (Labour and the Greens supported the recommendations, while NZ First opposed lowering the threshold.) If National hasn’t changed their view, that means that no changes can be progressed, as there’s a convention that changes to electoral law require a referendum or a 75% majority in Parliament.
At the time, opposing changes to party vote thresholds and the electorate lifeboat for small parties created short-term political advantages for National. But the ground has shifted under them: In three terms in office, they have cannibalised their natural support parties – ACT has been reduced to a desiccated husk on political life-support in Epsom, while United Future and the Maori Party have left Parliament. This led to a bad negotiating position with New Zealand First and the belated realisation that they should have built bridges with the Green Party.
If either the Conservative Party or TOP had made it into Parliament – which would have been possible with a lower threshold – National could easily still be in office. They certainly would have had a better negotiating position. So if National wants to do something constructive in opposition that would both improve our parliamentary democracy and improve their options for governing in the future, they should get to work building cross-party consensus for implementing the Electoral Commission’s recommendations from the 2012 MMP Review.
[Side note: The prospect of having the Conservatives, IMP, or TOP in Parliament isn’t that appealing. However, I suspect that the current 5% party vote threshold affects the types of parties that start up. It’s a high bar, so you need serious resources and a certain degree of deluded optimism to even try. A lower threshold would make it easier for groups of people who aren’t as rich or egotistical to make a solid run at it.]
How do you think we should improve MMP?