If our voting system was more like Canada's and the United Kingdom's, we could change our governments more easily. Ummm ... right?

There's a certain irony in the fact that as New Zealand gears up to "kick the tyres" of MMP - a move seemingly fueled by longing backwards glances at that halcyon era when gods walked amongst us and governments could truly govern - the First-Past-the-Post bastions of Canada and the United Kingdom look set to wallow in "hung parliament" uncertainty.

I may be gloating prematurely, of course; the most recent UK opinion polls still leave open the prospect of a narrow Tory majority in the Commons. But it seems a strong plurality of UK voters are resigned to the prospect that no one party will gain the 324 seats needed to govern on its own.

However, even the prospect of a hung parliament has been enough to spook the financial markets. Whether its actually coming to pass drives the pound down much further is questionable - the currency traders may have factored the risk into current valuations. Nevertheless, the political "certainty" so beloved by business seems in short supply in the UK just at the moment.

Canada, on the other hand, has been firmly stuck in minority party government territory for the past 6 years. The consequence, as fellow punditeer Jane Young has written about on several occasions, is that the federal government only can limp on from year to year by playing a constant game of bluff and counter bluff with the three opposition parties over the threat of an election.

So even though the Conservative government is proclaiming its desire to cut $1.7 billion in spending at the next budget, whether it gets to deliver its proposals to Parliament depends on it first avoiding the opposition parties in the House finding it in contempt for refusing to hand over documents relating to possible Canadian complicity in torture by Afghani security forces. Such are the tribulations involved in Steven Harper trying to be the iron leader of the nation without having the votes to back him up.

Viewing all this from the vantage of fourteen years of MMP-era negotiated government is enough to generate dangerous levels of smug in the atmosphere. Why, one can't help but wonder, do these nations so desperately cling to the desire for a one party majority government when multi-party governing arrangements can be made to work so well? After all, with the collapse of class-based party identification across the Western world and the fracturing of political allegiances, the notion that governance can be reduced to an "either/or" proposition is, well, just a bit silly.

After a bit of fumbling over NZ First's rigid coalition contract following the 1996 election, political actors in New Zealand seem to have got it about right in terms of getting on with the job. The main governing party gets most of its core policy through the House by dealing with a variety of loosely tethered, alternative support options. Minor support parties get a few policy victories along the way. Everyone with a share of government would like to get their way more often (while the opposition parties would like to see none of them get their way at all), but the nature of democratic politics is that no-one wins everything.

As I've noted before, I honestly can't see what problem there is with any of this, such that we need to have a referendum on whether to dump it for something else. And when you look to the UK and Canada at the moment, you might wonder why anyone would think a different voting system would work any better.

Of course, it seems that for New Zealanders the shortcomings of First-Past-the-Post voting are so damning that not even those pushing to end MMP think it could get put back in place. (Aside from Rodney Hide, that is.) But let's face up to what the "supplementary member" alternative to MMP really is all about. It's a way to generate single party majorities inside Parliament out of a society in which majority support for any party's political platform is singularly lacking - even taking into account National's current state of polling nirvana.

It seems to me that the desire to do this stems from either a frustration that the dumb mass will not support the ideas that you think are so evidently true, or a near pathological dislike of the fact that some ideas you think manifestly wrong have traction in the parliamentary arena. In other words, its a gaming of the rules to get an outcome you can't get people to support otherwise.

Which is fine, I guess. But just so long as we all know what it is that is being done.

Comments (1)

by Claire Browning on May 06, 2010
Claire Browning

a move seemingly fueled by longing backwards glances at that halcyon era when gods walked amongst us and governments could truly govern ...

You mean, like this? I'm sorry, but it was too much of a gem not to share ...

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