It has been 21 years since the first Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) election. But we do not seem to be learning how to get the best from the system. We are treating it like First-Past-the-Post (FPP). It is time to relax and play to strengths of MMP. 

It is an unfortunate feature of the 2017 coalition negotiations that the country seems to be a mad rush to form a government. "Here we are", lament commentators, "days after the election and we still don't know who is going to run the country!!' (Actually, it is the job of the public service to "mind the store" in the absence of a government in all democratic countries). 

This and other comments along the same lines demonstrate one thing - we still do not understand how Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) works and how to get the best from it. 

For the record, we held our first MMP election in 1996 (21 years ago) following a Royal Commission on our electoral system, a massive country-wide debate and a referendum. 

Voters chose the MMP version of proportional representation because they had grown weary (and wary) of governments being elected by a minority and then embarking on changes that seemed to do more harm than good. They wanted checks and balances on power and a new electoral system was the only tool available at the time. 

Perhaps it was because the change was driven more by despair than a fondness for MMP that not enough attention was paid to how the new system would work. Voters just wanted to send a message to their politicians. Everything else might have been lost in the mix. 

But we do have a new system and it long past the time when we should be making use of its strengths. 

Some of the strengths, like the diversity we now see in Parliament, have been well covered.  But those that stem from the way a government is formed are less understood.

The new electoral system means that more parties can run for Parliament with the hope of being successful. Once they know the level of their support (it has to be above 5% percent of the vote or result in a constituency seat) they can then look around and see who they might work with to form a government. Negotiations can take place and a programme worked out that reflects the views of at least 51% of the electorate. 

All of this seems straightforward except for the fact that we seem determined to keep on treating campaigns and the formation of a government as if it were happening under the old FPP rules. Then it was essentially a two-horse race that would be decided on the night. 

Because FPP thinking prevails, party leaders are constantly asked who they will form a government with during the election. The aim of the questions is to reduce the complexity caused by the number of parties contesting the election to a two-horse race. By doing this we make it impossible for parties to wait until the votes are in to see what shape a government might take. 

The only party leader that has stoutly resisted the clamour for simplicity is Winston Peters, His resistance is expressed in a way that is designed to antagonise (or entertain) just about everybody - but he is right in what we he says. Let the campaign run its course, see what happen, allow negotiations to take place and a government to ask for the blessing of the Governor-Geeral. 

This year Special Votes made it even more important for this process to calmly play out. On the night of the election National was clearly the biggest party but it could not form a government without New Zealand First (or the Greens, but that had already been ruled out). Labour lagged 10 seats behind National, but with the support of the Greens (already guaranteed) and New Zealand First it could also form a government. The only wrinkle was that Labour could not lead a stable government because the three parties only had 61 seats between them.

So waiting for what was an unusally high number of Specials to be counted made sense. As it turned out, a possible National-led coalition ended up with 65 seats while the Labour-led possibility ended up with 63 seats. Game on. 

But it is a very short game. Under pressure to get on with forming a government, Winston Peters said it would be done within five days of knowing the outcome of the Specials. Having been involved in coalition talks on three occasions, I can say that it is very difficult to work out a policy agenda that will last three years in five days. 

And it is not necessary to move at such speed. Taking the time necessary to work out a sensible programme is, in fact, one of the strengths of MMP we should be using. 

Under the old FPP system the election results came in and off went the government. No one took time to talk about the policies that would survive the heat of the campaign and make a positive difference for the country. That is what coalition negotiations should allow to happen. Parties sitting around a table working through policies, contesting assumptions and hammering out what will work. It is hard to see how a final programme can even be fully costed in the time that is being allowed. 

The question we need to be asking ourselves as voters is - what are we trying to achieve here? Do we just want a government or do we want to make use of the slower process MMP forces on us to get a really good government? I hope it is the latter. 

If that is the case then the favourite word of former Prime-Minister John Key comes into play - relax. We should relax during the campaign and after it. Let the strengths of MMP come out in the hope that we will be get a better deal from the government that eventually forms. 

This, is of course, not going to happen. It can't given the timeframe that has been imposed on the negotiations. Nor can it when journalists are chasing every politician through airports asking them to answer questions that have no answer. The pressure is remorseless and politicians know if they delay they will be seen negatively. 

So we will get a govenment within the week and it will be back to business. 

But, here is a suggestion. Let's not wait until the next election to remind ourselves of why we voted for MMP, how it works, what its strengths are and how we might best use it. Perhaps we could introduce some new rules like having Treasury cost all parties policies. We are doing ourselves a disservice by acting as if we never changed the electoral system. We did it for good reasons but we are not getting the payback for should. Twenty-one years is a reasonable period to have learned the ropes. It is also an age when we talk about being mature. We are at that age - it is time to grow up. 




Comments (14)

by Kat on October 09, 2017

Well I will say if you won't, Bill English and all the pro National commentators who coninue to this day to promote the notion that because they are the party with the most votes they should be the government, grow up.

There you go.


by mudfish on October 09, 2017

What are the chances that NZ First could make a deal to support some National policies and some Labour ones, that won't be scuppered by the finance ministers veto? An NZ First agenda, picking and choosing from those that have enough support from other parties to pass, but with some agreed budget limit? Could that happen? Or would that simply not be "strong and stable"?

by Eszett on October 09, 2017

@mudfish, that would mean some sort of deal on confidence and supply with National and NZF would remain on the crossbenches. 

NZF would abstain on confidence and supply votes and National would lead a minority government. 

The rest is then a free-for-all, whoever gets the numbers. 

by mudfish on October 09, 2017

But the free-for-all fails if the financial veto remains, labour gets nothing through despite having the numbers on some issues - unless there's a deal to let some things through in return for supporting some other things. Would we then get the "what's best for the country" NZ First are looking for... or are the two pulling in such different directions you just get incoherence? Some say National and Labour are not that far apart....

by Rich on October 10, 2017

Supporting some policies and not others is the normal situation. The Key government wanted to gut the RMA, but couldn't get the numbers.

I'm not sure why a majority in parliament can't either suspend or amend Standing Orders to remove the financial veto for a measure. The government could then choose to call an early election, true, but they might be blamed for introducing the instability.

by BeShakey on October 10, 2017

@mudfish the financial veto only applies where the bill would have more than a minor impact on the government's finances. There are lots of things parties could get through even with the financial veto

  • abortion law reform
  • ECE qualification requirements
  • banning charter schools
  • rental housing WOF
  • zero carbon emissions target
Of course the government could argue that there will be indirect costs, but that would be quite different to how the veto has been used historically.

I'm not sure what would happen if the government tried to veto a bill for having a positive impact on the coffers, but if they couldn't you can add a bunch of extra measures like a capital gains or inheritance tax.

As Rich pointed out, this is bascially the status quo, except more so in the coming term because (assuming no full coalition) the government and opposition will both be able to pass legislation with NZ First. This will make it really important for the government to control what's on the legislative agenda to avoid getting wedged

by mudfish on October 10, 2017

Thanks, that's helpful. I guess what I was meaning is might NZ First be trying to line up a coherent legislative agenda with both parties at once.

by Jules31 on October 11, 2017

Good piece Mr Maharey

Now think on this Pundits.  If there was a Lab NZFirst Green combination, then only one leader has been in a Govt cabinet.  Only one leader has had experience of being Prime minister.  There would be sense is going for qualifications on the CV for a leader surely?

by Ian MacKay on October 11, 2017
Ian MacKay

Quite right Jules31. We in NZ are so lucky to have fresh faces, and the fresh minds of forward thinking folk uncluttered by the dreadful status quo. Poor old Bill hampered by the way "we do things" in his party and a long dreary record.

Thanks Jules for pointing that out.


by Flat Eric on October 11, 2017
Flat Eric

Well I will say if you won't, Jacinda Adern and all the pro Labour commentators who coninue to this day to promote the notion that because they are the party with the second-most votes they should be the government, grow up.

There you go.

by Kat on October 11, 2017

@Flat Eric

Except you are missing one important fact in that Jacind Ardern and the pro Labour/Green supporters are rightly promoting the reality that under the MMP electoral system we have in place here in little old NZ its about who can form a working govt.

There you go

by Anne on October 11, 2017

@ Flat Eric.

In an MMP political environment it is the size of the left of centre and right of centre blocks that count - not individual parties. National has managed to snatch almost all the 'right' votes for themselves (appropriate) while the Opposition Parties tend to share the rest with each other - or maybe you haven't noticed. The 'right' block have 56 seats in contention while the 'left' block have 54 seats. That of course is without NZ First.  A two seat difference is neither here nor there in this scenario, therefore both blocks have an equally legitimate right to lead a new MMP coalition government.

We left behind your FPP notions 21 years ago FE so how about you pull yourself together and get with the times.


by Ian Tinkler on October 12, 2017
Ian Tinkler

Eric there are plenty of examples under PR with the governement does not involve the largest part. Denamark is an extreme case where the third largest parties governs,_2015


by Dennis Frank on October 13, 2017
Dennis Frank

You're right to identify our collective reaction to the election result as evidence of a general inability to understand MMP, Steve, and our media have performed as part of this problem rather than part of the solution.  With regard to your suggestion that we put a few new rules around it, I'd go for a requirement that parties present designs for a change of government prior to the start of the campaign.

Each design ought to describe their proposed governmental framework, delineating the extent of proposed collaboration between specified parties on specific policy areas.  I'd specify, in legislation to achieve this, that the parties identify their political priorities to voters, and, in particular, relate these to the solution of endemic social and geopolitical problems (such as climate change, and the failure of neoliberalism).

Ian, that's a good point you make, and the link reveals a huge difference in political culture between us & the Danes.  We're still mostly bipolar (folks like myself who have been operating in a multipolar political context since the early seventies remain a small minority).  The election results in Denmark reveal that it is a multipolar country politically, to an extreme extent:  the largest party only got 26% of the vote in the last two elections.  I listed nine political parties that had reached our MMP threshold (5%) in either or both of those elections.

Makes us seem simple-minded, eh?  We only have four that got that level of popular support.  Even our city folk mostly still think like hicks from the sticks.  Perhaps our level of political sophistication is retarded by low population density.  Then again, as Muldoon famously pointed out, kiwis emigrating to Oz raise the average IQ in both countries...

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