Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Don't raise the threshold - lower it

Writing in the Herald this morning, Philip Temple argues that it is time to fine-tune MMP. He first argues that it is too easy for small parties to gain representation, and that therefore the one electorate rule (which allows parties to dodge the threshold if they win a single electorate seat) should be removed or increased to two electorates. But this has things exactly backwards. The problem with the threshold is not that it is too low, but that it is too high.

The very basis of MMP (and any other proportional representation system) is representation; parties should be represented according to their level of support in the community. An arbitrary cutoff is prima facie incompatible with this, and needs strong justification. And sorry, but in NZ "keeping the extremists out" just doesn't cut it; we just don't have enough of them for that to even be credible. And even if we did, the answer is to defeat their arguments, not deny them representation. That is difficult to do with a party that uses organised political violence, as the Nazis did - but then the thing to target is political violence, not abuse democracy by denying people their say.

While I loathe Christian Heritage and Destiny as much as the next person, if I deserve representation in Parliament, then so do all the people I disagree with. It is as simple as that, and we should be bending over backwards to ensure that people are represented - not denying them arbitrarily by a mechanism that smacks of a big-party jackup.

(And because someone is bound to mention it: go and look at the Nazi party's election results and then try telling me with a straight face that a 5% threshold would have kept out of power a party that repeatedly got more than 30% of the vote...)

By keeping smaller parties out of Parliament, the threshold is also a barrier to the marketplace of ideas. New parties cannot get established, while older ones' fortunes are artificially boosted by the threshold's self-fulfilling prophecy. This is not good for democracy in the long run. If we want our democracy to remain healthy, if we want our political meme pool to maintain the sort of diversity that allows voters to make real choices, then the threshold needs to be lowered, not raised.

Finally, Temple's reason for raising the barriers to small parties is that this would allow our Parliament to shift towards the "real MMP model" of two main parties supported by "two or three" smaller ones, rather than our untidy clutter of majors, minors, and minnows. To which the response is that the structure of our Parliament should be decided by the voters, not by political scientists. Rather than trying to change the political system to ensure someone's idealisation of the perfect arrangement of parties in Parliament, we should instead establish a level playing field between parties and let their fortunes rise and fall in accordance with the wishes of the electorate. And the way to do that is by lowering the threshold, not by raising it.

(If you're looking for arguments about the Maori seats, see here)


Right on, and it pays to think about the number of people who would be denied representation (around 100,000 at 5%) not the anonymous percentage.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/21/2005 01:00:00 PM

It always seemed to me that the appropriate threshold should be one 120th of the vote (i.e. one seat).

Posted by Unknown : 9/21/2005 02:00:00 PM

Two word argument - Peter Dunne!

There is a disproportionate amount of influence gained by a party with a handful of MPs - particularly if they are prepared to be unreasonable and feel they have doting constituents prepared to back them whatever.

I think a 5% threshold is fine - people who voted for the Alliance, Destiny or Direct Democracy were not "disenfranchised" - they got a vote, but not enough people shared their views to allow them influence in making up the government.

I'd favour keeping 5% but losing the electorate rule.

Incidentally, I don't see this as about blocking potential Nazis - it's more about giving parties *influence* roughly proportional to their vote - FPP gives smaller parties too little - PR without a threshold too much.

Posted by Rich : 9/21/2005 03:00:00 PM

Rich, I don't see the "disproportinate" that would come from a one-seat threshold. Parties with just one or two seats would have exactly that much influence, not more or less.

Posted by Unknown : 9/21/2005 03:17:00 PM

The small party voters have a disportiante say as it is. Maori party supporters get 1 MP for every 10,000 votes but it's lot higher for the major parties. With the small amount of votes per seat these parties hold the balance of power which is an extremely powerful position.

The way around this of course is a grand coalition of labor and national. Which would far worse for democracy but may come about if things get too fragmented. Political systems are designed to balance the interests of the majority and minority. The Maori seats are an example of this as is MMP itself.

Posted by Stephanie : 9/21/2005 04:04:00 PM

Rich: The situation you fear can occur under the present system, and arguably has with Winston. And it's a problem with political culture and peculiar electoral circumstances, rather than the size of the parties involved. We've also seen the solution to it in this Parliamentary term: where there are multiple possibilities for a majority available, the demands of parties are constrained by the possibility that people can go somewhere else (and indeed we saw exactly that with the Prisoners' and Victims' Claims Bill: United upped its demands at the last minute, so Labour went to the Greens instead).

We are seeing a generally more cooperative political culture, but institutionally, a lower threshold will also mean more parties, which will provide more possibile combinations for a majority, and therefore a greater check on the power of any one group.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 9/21/2005 04:08:00 PM

Does STV improve the situation? Are you still disenfranchised if it's only your second or third choice that gets over the threshold?

Posted by Anonymous : 9/21/2005 04:39:00 PM

The way it's done in nations without a threshold is to increase the first divisor to 1.4 (so that you need 70% of what it takes to get a seat rather than 50%, or about 11750 votes in NZ).

That's about what would win you a close electorate (and as we've seen with Rodney Hyde in Epsom, you don't actually need that much real support to get that many electorate votes).

Really, Labour could easily give the Greens a safe seat, and even the Alliance in '02 if they thought it was going to be this close, just like National voters did for ACT, so the threashold isn't really keeping parties out, it's just distorting voting patterns away from what people really want.

Without it, we'd have had the Christian Heratige Party, Future NZ (before they joined with United NZ), Outdoor Recreation NZ, the ALCP, and even the Alliance post-split. ACT would've almost certainly held a couple more of National's seats this election. Destiny might make it on specials this time, though they'd have likely had more votes if people really thaught they could get in.
None of those seem like greatly threatening groups to me.

As for disproportionate influence; it's nonsense. The only way one MP can swing a vote is if he has the support of 59 or 60 other MPs. If there's more small parties, there's more room for the big boys to play them off against each other and dilute their influence.

Oh, and Stef, Maori seats only have about a 40% voting rate, which is why the numbers look low for their MPs; seats are allocated by potential voters, not how many actually register or vote.

If the Maori seats had the same turnout as the general electorats, Labour would have had an extra two or three seats, and likely had a majority goverenment with Jim and the Greens.

Posted by tussock : 9/21/2005 05:06:00 PM

Gamester has it right - and it's so obviously right you have to wonder why we don't already have it. Why do we have a 5% threshold? There's a natural threshold of 0.83% that would do just fine. Get that, and you should get an MP. True, it would encourage more vanity publications like the Progressives and UF, but how much influence can a party representing a fraction of 1% of the population expect to exert?

Posted by Anonymous : 9/21/2005 05:22:00 PM

> If the Maori seats had the same turnout as the general electorats, Labour would have had an extra two or three seats

This involves allocating the votes of people who did not vote according to their ethnicity - a VERY dangerous thing to be doing.

Posted by Genius : 9/21/2005 06:30:00 PM

> but how much influence can a party representing a fraction of 1% of the population expect to exert?

In theory - equal power to one with 49.9% of the vote - if it is required to form a government.
Al you need is for them not to care about the next election or to have very loyal minority suport and a bit of good luck.

Posted by Genius : 9/21/2005 06:50:00 PM

by the way I think the nazi party thing implies the opposite of what you want it to prove. the arguement is that an extreme party will get a foot hold / undue influence / platform to promote itself.
the first election result for the nazi party was 2.6% and 12 seats - is that not a classic example of an extreme party not meeting a 5% threashold butusing it as a platform?
maybe there were other factors that mean that they did not need to win any seats to get publicity (probably) but just making the note...

Posted by Genius : 9/21/2005 06:56:00 PM

Genius: I wasn't suggesting that one should count the votes of people who didn't turn out, simply noting an approximation of what might have happened if they had. Someone in Labour really needs to mobilise that potential next election.

Also, a party with 1 seat (like Jim) cannot change policy further than the main opposition party would choose to.
We saw quite a bit of Labour and National voting together over the last term to stop the minors getting any say on "important" legislation.

Posted by tussock : 9/21/2005 11:19:00 PM

On Hitler's rise to power: he gained the first seats in parliment by being famous. He'd tried to overthrow the government in 1924 and made an extremely popular nationalist based defence against the charges, which all got huge coverage.
That got his book selling, which made him very rich, money which he used to get violent mobs running around making trouble for everyone who disagreed with them.
In 1930 the depression had struck, and his "it's everyone elses fault" message finally caught on, getting 18.2% of the vote.

Posted by tussock : 9/22/2005 12:34:00 AM

one 120th of the vote to get you a seat wouldn't work cause you need to minus the electorate seats.

so one 120-(number of electorate seats) would be the magic percentage.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/22/2005 01:51:00 PM

If there was no threshold, then a party that ran in no electorates would get their first MP at 1/120 or so of the party vote - the electorates make no difference.

Interestingly, the votes in the last election would give *exactly* the same seat distribution with no thresholds (Destiny got < 0.8%, as did all the other micro-parties - though arguably this would change if they were seen as electable).

I tried to model what would happen with no electorate rule (e.g. an electorate but <5% gets the MP elected but not his chums) but have work to do instead!

Posted by Rich : 9/22/2005 02:13:00 PM

Rich: NZ uses Sainte Lague to allocate seats, not D'Hondt.

It means your number of seats can be rounded up as easily as rounded down, and the smallest parties tend to get an advantage in the rounding.

If you have 0.5 seats worth of vote, you get one seat. Scandanavian countries with no threshold change the first divisor to 1.4 so you need over 0.7/120 of the vote rather than over 0.5/120 to get your first seat.
Other places allow groups falling below the threshold to form a coalition to get over it.

IMO the rounding effect is far too random. It's possible for a set of left wing parties to all get rounded down, while right wing parties all get rounded up. That's partly what's happened this time, though it will probably balance out with the specials; assuming the Nats loose a seat.

Ideally one would allow parties to reallocate their "wasted" vote to other parties with similar ideals, so Labour could pass their .4 of a seat to a left wing party rather than having the rounding system pass it to National or ACT. Ditto with anyone who doesn't make the 5% (seeing as how we're stuck with the stupid threshold); I'd imagine Destiny would throw their half a seat weight over to United Future.

Posted by tussock : 9/22/2005 04:26:00 PM