With ACT cutting a deal in Epsom, and Peter Dunne cutting one in Ohariu, MMP's "electorate lifeboat", which sees parties gain list seats in parliament if they gain a single electorate, has come in for a fair amount of flack. And today, Labour leader Phil Goff has reminded us all that he opposes it, and that he wishes MMP to have a strict 5% threshold, with no exception for electorates. I think this is exactly the wrong position to take. Why? Because the "electorate lifeboat" improves proportionality.
Proportionality, remember, was the entire point of MMP. We wanted parties to be represented in direct proportion to the votes cast. The 5% threshold undermines this, but the "electorate lifeboat" provides a way around it. Without it, the Parliaments of 1999, 2002, 2005, and 2008 would have been less proportional, and less representative, thanks to the exclusion of (respectively) of NZFirst, the Progressives, United Future and ACT. That would have been bad for our democracy.
Sometimes the lifeboat gives perverse results, as in 2008 when ACT gained 5 MPs while NZ First gained none despite receiving more party votes (4.07% vs 3.65%). This is obviously unfair. But you don't remove unfairness by increasing it. The appropriate response to this situation is to give parties in NZ First's situation representation, not deny it to both.
Goff's - and Labour's - position is not founded on democratic principles. Instead, it is driven by naked self-interest - most obviously, by a desire to remove ACT from the political equation, but more generally by a lack of concern for the democratic rights of the supporters of small parties. Their position can be summarised as supporting proportionality for big parties, but not for small ones. And that is neither democratic, nor fair.