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Professor James Allan

The Wonders of MMP

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I spent 11 wonderful years living and working in New Zealand, from 1993 to 2004.  During that whole time one of my pet peeves was the MMP voting system, one of the world’s most proportional systems and the one the Americans imposed on the Germans after World War II. 

Almost half the MPs come into Parliament solely because of their place on a list drawn up by the party, and not because of any voter preferences. Plus, as with proportional voting systems generally, small parties gain significantly disproportionate power. 

Worst of all, instead of coalition building happening before elections within the ranks of the main centre-right and centre-left parties (with the compromises then presented to the voters as in Canada, Australia and the US), you get the coalition building happening after elections without any voter input whatsoever. 

Let me just say that I railed against all this innumerable times, to no effect at all. And that brings me to Winston Peters and the recent general election.

The National Party won 44.5 per cent of the party vote, Labor 37, NZ First 7 and the Greens a little over 6 per cent. Put differently, the incumbent National Party won more votes than Labor plus the Greens or Labor plus NZ First. 

We then had weeks and weeks of Winston Peters – whose party attracted less than one-sixth the votes of National – deciding who would form government and on what basis.  And remember, the main complaint against majoritarian voting systems such as Australia’s or Canada’s or Britain’s is that political parties that win under half the popular vote get to call the shots.  True.  With MMP, by contrast, it is Mr Peters.  Think of this as the 7 per cent solution to the 44 per cent problem.

Notice, as well, that the justification Peters gave for his decision to install what is in effect a Labor-Greens-NZ First government is that the ‘voters had voted for change’. 

Of course a moment’s thought reveals just how vacuous such a supposed justification really is – how many NZ First voters do you think wanted the Greens running the country or wanted a 37 year old Prime Minister?     

Under MMP it is virtually impossible for any party to win over half the vote, governing parties included, so if Peter’s point were taken literally it would mean that every election could be characterised as a vote for change. 

If you add up all the votes of all the other parties, that would be the implication nine times out of 10.  But of course this was not really meant to be taken seriously.  It was just a fig leaf to provide Peters with a bit of cover.

Here, however, is the point.  Nothing that transpired after voting night, not a single thing, was in any way at all contrary to the spirit of what you expect with proportional voting systems. 

This MMP soap opera is what New Zealand wanted for itself, and Winston Peters merely gave it to the country good and hard.  In that sense none of this is Winston’s fault. 

You might think he was crazy to put in office a woman who said, and appears to believe, that ‘capitalism has failed New Zealanders’ – good luck pointing to any other economic system yet devised that delivers even half the wealth and prosperity. 

You might think it was something other than a concern for the national interest that saw Peters opt for the former President of the International Union of Socialist Youth, the former policy advisor to Tony Blair (so many of whose policies were ill-conceived and not exactly admired or copied today), the woman who describes capitalism as a ‘blatant failure’ (leaving no words to describe today’s Venezuela or the former Soviet Union).

But that is precisely what MMP gives to Winston, as he rightly claimed.  And the fact Peters promised his voters that he would get rid of the Maori seats and would pare back job-enervating carbon emissions targets only to toss those promises in the post-election ‘too hard’ rubbish bin, well that’s precisely what MMP is all about.  Like it or lump it.

There is, though, someone whom I believe does share some of the blame for this election fiasco.  That someone is former Prime Minister John Key.  Recall that it was Key who hardly campaigned at all during the last referendum on MMP, back at a time when he was immensely popular and could well have had a big influence on the result. 

Could he have spent some of his political capital to push for Australian style preferential voting (of the sort recommended by the UK’s Jenkin’s Report) or indeed for any of a number of other alternatives all better then MMP? 

You bet he could have.  But he chose to put less political capital and effort into attempting to change MMP than he did into trying to shift flags.  In that sense it was Mr. Key who helped give us the limelight loving riddle, wrapped in the National Party loathing mystery, inside the sell-out of his main pledges enigma that is Winston Peters.

I was right 24 years ago and I’m still right.  MMP stinks.  But that’s not Winston Peters fault.

This article is published through the kind permission of the author. It was first published in the National Business Review.