It is time to review MMP and its unfair outcomes

Dr Muriel Newman

The 446,287 special votes cast during last month’s election have now been counted.

According to the Electoral Commission, the final election tally gives National 44.4% of the party vote and 56 seats, Labour 36.9% and 46 seats, New Zealand First 7.2% and 9 seats, the Greens 6.3% and 8 seats, and ACT 0.5% and one seat.

In other words, as a result of the special votes, National has lost two seats from the provisional total on election night, while Labour and the Greens have gained one seat each.

FPTP and MMP

In terms of potential future coalition deals, in a Parliament where 61 seats are needed to govern, the National Party and New Zealand First would have 65 seats between them, while Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First would have 63 seats.

Under New Zealand’s previous First Past the Post voting system the party with the most electorates would have won the right to govern. Had the 2017 election been held under FPP, in all likelihood National, which won 41 electorates compared with Labour’s 29, would have gone on to form a government – albeit with only 44% of the popular vote.

Critics argued, however, that such minority governments were unfair to the majority who did not vote for the winning party.

This, and other factors, gave rise to the review that resulted in a change to the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system.

Fast forward 21 years, through seven previous MMP elections, to 2017 and we now have the bizarre situation where the most popular party – and by a clear margin – could be locked out of government entirely.

Unfair moves

So, even though the National Party gained ten more seats at the election than Labour, if New Zealand First decides to team up with Labour and the Greens in a ruling coalition, the 1,152,075 people who voted for National – out of the total of 2,630,173 votes cast – would have no representation at all in the new Government.

In other words, while MMP has delivered proportional representation, it has not delivered proportional power. In fact, we have seen this many times before, when small parties can, and do, hold the country to ransom, wielding influence that is far greater than their proportion of the vote.

And while critics are currently expressing strong warnings about the power that New Zealand First now has, we should not forget that in the last three Parliaments, the Maori Party was able to impose its radical separatist agenda onto the country – even though in the 2014 election it gained only 1.3% of the total party vote.

Controlling rogue politicians

As NZCPR Guest Commentator, freelance journalist Karl du Fresne said, not only was MMP sold to New Zealanders on the understanding that it would keep extremism out of Parliament – which it has clearly failed to do – but it has also enabled coalition parties to dodge some of their more difficult election pledges:

“Adopted in 1996 and modelled on the electoral system created in post-war Germany to ensure that no extremist party could again win total power as the Nazis did, MMP was promoted to Kiwi voters as a means of reasserting control over rogue politicians. In fact, it turned out to be every bit as flawed as the first-past-the-post system it replaced.

“Under MMP, voters are shut out of the game the moment the votes are in. Unless one party has an absolute majority, which hasn’t happened in any of the eight elections since MMP was introduced, the politicians then disappear behind closed doors to do whatever furtive horse-trading is necessary to cut a deal.

“At that point, all bets are off. Every policy dangled in front of voters during the election campaign is effectively up for negotiation. What were solemnly declared on the campaign trail to be bottom lines become wondrously elastic or evaporate altogether. Voters have no influence over this process and can only await the outcome.”

The election result has some claiming it’s time for another review of MMP.

Dr Muriel Newman is Director of the New Zealand Centre for Political Research, a web-based free weekly Newsletter, NZCPR Weekly. The above article is an edited version that appeared in her weekly edition dated October 8, 2017 and has been reproduced here with her permission. For full text, please visit http://www.nzcpr.com/

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