Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Royal Commission on the threshold

I've been browsing the report of the Royal Commission on the Electoral System over the last few days, and found something worth noting. As people may recall, the Royal Commission originally recommended that New Zealand's version of MMP use a 4% threshold. They regarded a lower threshold as likely to endanger "effective government" - something that has both been proven false by subsequent developments in our political culture, and which is a highly dubious goal anyway (lest anyone forget, "effective government" gave us the Revolution. Consensus government under MMP stopped it). As for a higher threshold, this is what they said:

[W]e view a 5% threshold as too severe. Under such a proposal a party would need almost 100,000 [now 114,000 - I/S] votes to gain one list seat. In our view this would, in New Zealand, be too great an obstacle to the development of new and emerging political forces.

Naturally, Parliament overwhelmingly opted for a higher threshold, with only 13 MPs out of the 78 present opposing it (Hansard here). Its difficult to see this as anything other than an attempt by the two major parties to prevent the development of those "new and emerging political forces". Back in 1993, they were afraid of political competition - and likely still are.

As we've seen, a proliferation of small parties does not prevent Parliament from functioning. Rather, it ensures that more people are represented. The existence of the threshold undermines this. It also undermines one of the most important processes in a democracy: the rise of new parties to replace the old. Many political scientists are worried that the threshold is a recipe for de facto oligarchy, with new or breakaway parties facing a completely artificial barrier to representation and public visibility. The barriers are not as high as they were in the days of FPP - but when the aim is to ensure that as many viewpoints as possible are represented, they should not be there at all.

As for how to fix this, it would be nice if the government was to pick up the torch of electoral and constitutional reform again - but I don't expect that to happen. Which leaves us with the option of a Member's Bill. Unfortunately, these aren't really the right tool for the job: changes to the electoral system should be floated early and widely debated by the public, not literally drawn out of a hat to be voted on in a fortnight. OTOH, public debates don't come from nowhere, and putting forward such a bill would be a good way to start one.


I agree reducing the 5% threshold is a good idea. As only one party has made 4% but failed to get into parliament (Christian coalition in 1996) it shows there won't be a big increase in mihnor parties if this will happen. It will however help in increase the proportionality of our parliament.

Posted by Anonymous : 2/07/2007 02:39:00 PM

Good post I/S. Going too low would lead to a proliferation of religious parties, gun parties and the like, but 4% should be enough of a hurdle to prevent this.

Could be a nice condition for coalition negotiations next time!

Posted by Anonymous : 2/07/2007 03:43:00 PM

Kiwi Donkey: While I support any move to lower the threshold, I ultimately want to see it reduced to the amount needed to gain one seat. While this would lead to more parties, the brute fact is that supporters of "religious parties, gun parties and the like" have as much of a right to political representation as I do. And disagreeing (however strongly) with their views is no justification to deny this.

In practice, I think a gradual reduction is probably more politically saleable. 5% clearly errects a significant barrier. What if we start by halving it? This would be a definite improvement, and would help people grow more comfortable with the (slightly) greater diversity of voices it would entail, while still being able to be presented as essentially a minor tweak.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 2/07/2007 03:53:00 PM

kiwi_donkey - what's wrong with a proliferation of "religious parties, gun parties and the like"?

Just because you or I might never vote for them doesn't mean they shouldn't get a single seat in Parliament if they can get the support of voters to earn that single seat.

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 2/07/2007 03:57:00 PM

I/s - the percentage of votes in a 120 seat Parliament needed to earn a whole seat is 0.833%, but a party could technically earn a list seat under the Saint-Lague system with less than 0.42%.

Are you suggesting an actual threshold of 0.833% or no threshold at all (such that a party with 0.7% of the vote would probably get a seat?

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 2/07/2007 04:02:00 PM

That's the Israeli system isn't it? Look how unstable their government is. Do we want' that? I'm not sure we can cope with it because (1) we don't have such a highly motivated largely cohesive population, and (2) we aren't on the mediterranean seaboard.

But I'm open to persausion.

Posted by Anonymous : 2/07/2007 04:03:00 PM

And thanks for the Hansard link, I/S - it's very interesting that it wasn't whipped.

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 2/07/2007 04:16:00 PM

Graeme: I'm suggesting 0.833%. But I'll go for any reduction at all on the present threshold.

Kiwi_Donkey: It's also the Dutch system, and (effectively) the Finnish - and it seems to work alright for them. Which goes to show that its not just a question of the electoral system, but also the political culture and what the electorate will put up with.

I think our political culture has evolved more towards the Dutch/Finnish consensus model than the Israeli/Italian one. Pre-MMP fears of permanent instability have proven to be unfounded. But besides that, when push comes to shove, I am also deeply suspicious of people who want "stable government" (it always seems to involve government by established elites rather than democracy). I would rather have proper representation, and accept that the odd bout of instability is the price of ensuring that everyone gets a say, than a system which locks in established power structures and errects barriers to the people democratically overthrowing them.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 2/07/2007 04:35:00 PM

I've done a related post over here

Posted by Swimming : 2/07/2007 07:15:00 PM

Good post I/S. Entirely agree that the threshold needs to be lowered. My preference is to complately remove the threshold and let the people determine the equilibrium after a couple of elections have cleaned out the spanners and weirdo parties.

Also agree that there is little motivation in the House to dilute the two horse race at present. The Nats might be open to a deal removing the Maori Seats and the threshold, thereby permitting the Maori Party to merge their split odds on one roll. With the Maori seats capped for almost a decade, it is the only way the party can grow their vote.

OTOH, Labour and Greens might lower the threshold if, for example, the criteria for going on the unpublished roll is loosened. Doing so would get a lot of left-leaning voters to sign up on the roll, skewing the vote in their favour.

Posted by Will de Cleene : 2/07/2007 08:42:00 PM

A single MP belonging to a microparty has much more influence than an addtional MP for a main party. Anderton is a case in point - if he was a Labour MP he probably wouldn't be a minister - because he has his one-man party he gets a place in cabinet and is able to cast his baleful influence over drugs policy.

Hence, I think the threshold is justified in requiring a party, in order to get representation, to have attracted a share of the electorate that justifies that quantum step.

(I happen to believe that the mechanism whereby a single electorate brings a parties other members in on their coat-tails should be abolished. Or even reversed, so that an MP whose party gets less than 5% (or 4%) of votes isn't elected. Oh, and abolish the dual vote - the party vote should be allocated to the party each voters chosen electorate candidate belongs to).

Posted by Rich : 2/07/2007 09:13:00 PM

but Rich.. my local National Party candidate is a complete tool, without my party vote I could not vote National in good conscience.

Posted by Bloodrage : 2/07/2007 10:45:00 PM

Live in Tauranga do you bloodrage?

That's one of the reasons I'd like to end split voting - encourage the parties to put up reasonable candidates - otherwise I guess Nat voters will vote ACT/UF or NZF depending on inclination.

Posted by Rich : 2/08/2007 09:46:00 AM

Bravo, ~19000 votes (1 rather 1/2) should be enough. Local MPs get in on less.

Rich: we need a split vote to have local MPs, and the trend of us getting multiple local MPs through the list is pretty healthy, IMO.

We also need what are essentially independent MPs to stop the parties being too abusive to their more popular local members.

This nonsense with minor parties tagging onto the independent's tails should logically disappear when the high threshold does. We might get a couple more independent overhangs, but that's fine.

Posted by tussock : 2/08/2007 01:42:00 PM


The appropriate mechanism to affect change would be a private member's bill requiring the govt to hold a referendum.

Posted by Icehawk : 2/09/2007 09:54:00 AM