Thursday, October 12, 2006

Ten years of MMP

Ten years ago today, on October 12, 1996, New Zealand had its first MMP election. Since then Parliament has been more representative, both in terms of the parties represented in it and the faces of those representatives; more effective, particularly through the select committee process; and more trusted by the New Zealand public (the time series on "public perception of politicians and the political process" in Appendix D of the Justice and Electoral Committee's report on the Electoral (Reduction in Number of Members of Parliament) Amendment Bill [PDF] speaks for itself). We have also seen a significant decrease in the power of the executive compared to the legislature. As Helen Clark points out in her retrospective piece this morning,

Gone are the days when a small group within the Cabinet of a governing party could drive through radical change virtually unimpeded.

And of course there's the fact that now our governments actually have to win the support of a majority of the population, either directly at the ballot box or indirectly through coalition negotiations, rather than being able to rule with a bare plurality (and not even that, in 1978 and 1981). This counts for a lot, and has dramatically improved the legitimacy of our governing institutions.

Clark also notes that under MMP, "successful governing parties... are those which are able to work collaboratively with others". It is telling that opposition to MMP is centered on the National Party - a party which has demonstrated that it cannot play well with others, and which clearly sees MMP's weakening of the "executive dictatorship" as an impediment to its policy programme. Fortunately, the large number of new MPs entering Parliament at the last election may see them gradually adapting to the new political environment, rather than attempting to return to the unrepresentative government we had in the past.

MMP is still not perfect. As I've argued before, the 5% threshold is an arbitrary and undemocratic distortion which undermines proportionality, encourages large parties to try and eliminate smaller ones, and unfairly denies representation to smaller parties. It should be removed. A second problem is that unlike other parts of the Electoral Act, the MMP system itself is not entrenched, allowing politicians to meddle with it (possibly for their own electoral advantage). This needs to be corrected. But the general system itself is sound, and after ten years, I'm very happy with the way it has developed. MMP has been a positive influence on our politics; long may it continue!


And it doesn't give small parties disproportionate influence either. Did the Alliance have much influence? United Future? post 2005 NZ First? If anything minor parties have been marginalised by their major partners.

I'm sick of hearing that claim. As far as I can tell it has no basis in fact.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/12/2006 07:31:00 PM

Long may it continue? Why do you appear to have so much vested interest in representive and parliamentary institutions I/S? If you were true to your word about your committment to democracy, why do you not discuss how we might move toward particpatory politics and economics?

Is it because you do all right under the status quo, and don't see any need to rock the boat?

Posted by Anonymous : 10/12/2006 09:15:00 PM

George: unfortunately, to parties used to a duopoly on power, any influence by anyone else is "disproportionate".

Anthony: There's no one perfect way to run a government. There are however plenty of acceptable ones. And as political systems go, our present one is pretty good. I'd rather then focus my efforts on carving out and protecting individual freedom within that system (by for example entrenching the BORA), and on encouraging people to participate so that it is a more responsive and better representative system, than on fundamental change.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 10/12/2006 10:18:00 PM


Dare I ask what you mean by participatory economics?

Posted by Duncan Bayne : 10/13/2006 08:51:00 AM

I/S, it's revealing that you respond to my comment about partipatory politics and economics, by saying there's no one perfect way to run a government. Why the conflation of "democracy" with "government"? It brings to mind that other assumption, that democracy cannot exist without the "free market". The unquestionable doctrine of the day.

If you're so committed to democracy, why not enter the discussion about it's arguably most substantive form? This is a blog is it not? You discuss many things that are not confined to the narrow focus of individual freedom with the current system. Why not discuss partipatory politics/economics?

For what it's worth I'd encourage to take a look into Michael Albert's writing especially. Discussing particpatory politics/economics and focusing on individual freedom are not mutually exclusive you know. In fact the opposite is true.

Duncan, here's a link:

Posted by Anonymous : 10/13/2006 10:50:00 AM

MMP is loathed by the techoncratic elites, their plutocrat backers and their wannabe cheerleaders. That tells me all I need to know about how democratic it is, Long live MMP!

Posted by Sanctuary : 10/13/2006 11:36:00 AM

Anthony: If you're so committed to democracy, why not enter the discussion about it's arguably most substantive form?

Because to be honest, I have better things to do with my time right now, and other interests at the top of my priority queue (and a long, long, long list of things clamouring to even join it). If you want to see something discussed, my best advice is to start your own blog and discuss it there. Alternatively, I may be interested in a guest column if I think it suits this blog.

As for democracy and government, the cruel fact is that if government didn't exist, we'd have to invent it (see Hobbes for the full argument), and in any case it isn't going to go away any time soon. My interest is in ensuring that we have the best and least restrictive government possible, which resolves our inevitable clashes of interests in a benign way. Democracy is an excellent way of doing this (it also accords well with the fundamentally individualistic axioms which underlay post-Enlightenment political theory).

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 10/13/2006 02:32:00 PM

Sorry for coming late to this, but in the various "anniversary commentaries" I've seen, there's been little mention of what might have happened in post-1993 elections if FPP had been retained. Now obviously this is speculation to some extent, as we can't just assume the same voting patterns (presumably without MMP fewer people would have voted for the minor parties). But even if National had won in 1996 (debatable), there's little doubt that Labour would have won overall majorities in 1999 and 2002, and probably pretty big ones.

Those who bemoan the absence of "strong" government taking unpopular decisions are often the same people who dislike Clark's "Helengrad". They might want to ponder on what Labour would have done with that unbridled power. As a leftish Labour voter, I'd have been happy - but I doubt they would.

Simon G

Posted by Anonymous : 10/16/2006 08:54:00 PM

On the alleged disproportionate influence of small parties, which I, like George, am tired of, it is not even true in Israel. If not in Israel, certainly not in NZ (or just about anywhere else).

But I am curious, I/S, why does the 5% threshold make the problem of larger parties seeking to eliminate the smaller ones worse?

Posted by Anonymous : 10/19/2006 10:02:00 AM

Matthew: Because 5% is a lot of votes, and their effective disappearance from the race through a narrow miss can significantly affect the outcome. The scale of the effect encourages parties to try and disenfranchise voters to alter the possible coalitions.

A lower threshold does not entirely eliminate this tactic, but makes it far less effective, and therefore IMHO less likely.

(Possibly it could be thought of as an artefact of our political demographics. We have parties who perpetually hover around 5%, giving permanent insecurity and being an obvious target).

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 10/19/2006 11:42:00 AM

OK, I see your point, I/S. I would take it to be not so much that big parties are more likely to seek to undermine the smaller at one threshold rather than another, but that the insecurity of an arbitrary threshold creates strategic-voting incentives. That is, if one party (which could even be another smaller party) can convince voters that one of the parties could just miss 5%, then it can create a fear of the "wasted vote" among the supporters of that party. We saw such tactics in the 2005 campaign by Labor, National, and even UF (which was guaranteed to be in parliament by Dunne's safe constituency--er, electorate).

I am curious to know what you (and readers) think about the one-electorate rule for waiving the threshold. That seems to me nothing more than a way to "grandfather" in some oldtimers like Dunne and Peters (of course, the latter was finally defeated in his electorate in '05).

If I were a New Zealander, I think I would want to get rid of that clause in exchange for a lower party-vote threshold (say around 3%).

It is hard to imagine a total abolition of the threshold being politically feasible, whether or not it might be desirable.

Finally (and sorry for going on and on!), that you have some parties that hover around 5% could be endogenous. I mean, if the threshold were 3% or 7%, would strategic considerations result in parties right around that level instead?

Thanks for the exchanges.

--Matthew Shugart

[Some hours after I first tried to post the above, it had not appeared, so I tried again. Apologies if it winds up appearing twice.]

Posted by MSS : 10/20/2006 10:29:00 AM

Matthew: That's pretty much it, though I'd also say that the higher the threshold, the bigger the incentive. Taking out 4.5% of the opposing bloc's vote (and thereby effectively "gaining" a chunk of it, even though that isn't what really happens) has a much more significant effect than knocking out 1.2%.

The one-electorate rule is what saved us from this in 2005, and ensured that every party which got more than 1% of the vote received seats. It does have a distortionary effect (see for example every previous election, where parties went unrepresented despite receiving a similar or even higher proportion of the vote than Peter Dunne's vehicle d'jour), but its certainly not any form of "grandfathering". The MMP system was proposed by the Royal Commission on the Electoral System in 1986, before Winston and Dunne's parties were even imagined. Winston has split off from national before it was adopted in 1993, but at that stage his party was getting well over 5%. More generally, New Zealanders have an unfortunate obsession with geographic representation, and therefore with electorate MPs (some even think that List MPs aren't "real" MPs because they don't have an electorate, which is bollocks; their "electorate" is the whole country). I wouldn't mind a move to a pure PR system, but abolishing electorates is even less likely than lowering the threshold. OTOH, all it will take is for one party to mis significantly and for the "wasted vote" to climb again (its down to 1%), and there will probably be significant public pressure.

You're probably right about threshold effects; there will always be some parties that hover around them (for example, we seem to have a couple of 1% parties, which would be constantly worrying about making it over a 1-seat threshold). But this is far less distorting of proportionality than disenfranchising up to 5% of the population in one go.

(Blogger was playing up last night; I spent a good hour wrestling with it to get my submission on the Treaty Principles Deletion Bill posted).

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 10/20/2006 10:48:00 AM

This thread has gone cold now, but I wanted to check back in and say that I appreciate your remarks about the system. It helps me think through some of these really fine details about small parties and electorate effects, and I generally agree that the one-electorate rule "saved" the 2005 outcome.

It would be better, though, I think to have a lower threshold. It seems on this we agree!

Posted by MSS : 10/31/2006 01:27:00 PM