Monday, July 14, 2008

MMP and government longevity

08Wire's My Left Brain today considers the prospects for Labour getting a fourth term, and argues that analogies with New Zealand's previous electoral history are bunk due to the change in electoral system. Instead, we should be looking at MMP jurisdictions in Europe:

08wire looked at eleven European countries with large district magnitude PR. They are Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, and Spain. We don’t care about France, Ireland, and the UK because they don’t have the right kind of electoral system. We don’t care about Switzerland because they had a fifty year unanimous executive pact, meaning (uniquely among democracies) they all agreed to never change government. And we don’t care about Luxembourg or Lichtenstein or Andorra or Monaco because nobody else does either.

Since world war two, the average government in these countries has lasted 8.2 years. That’s just the average, and 46% of all governments have lasted at least nine years.

Now that is out of **all** governments, including the one-year “technical administrations” they have periodically in Italy to avoid complete fiascoes, and the one-term wonders where the electorate realises its mistake almost immediately. If we restrict our analysis to governments that have been re-elected at least once (which is a better parallel for the current NZ government), the average goes up to 11.9 years. The average! In New Zealand, that’s four terms. Still think four terms is almost unthinkable in an MMP environment?

It sounds compelling, but there's a slight flaw which makes the comparison less applicable: almost every single country in their sample has a four-year Parliamentary term (the sole exception, Italy, has a five-year term on paper, and a five minute one in practice). So, looked at in that context, the average government in those countries has lasted two terms, and excluding the short-term administrations (a dodgy move which biases the sample) pushes that up to three terms. Not so compelling now, is it?

More important IMHO is the influence of political culture. All these countries have well-established propotional representation systems, large centre blocs which can cooperate with both the left and the right, and a political culture which favours consensus and cooperation, making it easy for governments to find coalition partners and stay in power (Italy again is the exception which proves the rule - their MMP culture has gone the other way, producing short-lived governments and spectacular changes in allegiance whenever someone is charged with corruption). But New Zealand's MMP culture is still evolving. While we've had a lot of movement towards a politics of cooperation and consensus under Labour (which is strongly contrasted with a dictatorial "fuck you" attitude towards other parties from National), we also lack those strong centre blocs that lead to long-lasting European governments. In a sense, our Parliament isn't fragmented enough, a legacy of FPP and the undemocratic 5% threshold (and at this stage its worth pointing out that those European Parliaments tend to have lower thresholds than us; Germany has 5%, a few have 4%, many have 2%, while some have no threshold at all). It'll probably take another decade at least before we can really see what MMP has done to our political culture, but in the meantime, we should probably be a bit cautious about direct comparisons with the longevity of European MMP governments.

And all of that said, I still agree with 08Wire's conclusion: MMP has changed the rules of the game, and while National is polling high at the moment, it needs to maintain an enormous lead on election day in order to avoid losing out in coalition negations (and to them, any cooperation with another party is losing). And with Winston looking like he's back in the game and a post-90's aversion to majority government, that task looks very difficult indeed.