Wednesday, August 27, 2008

MMP symposium: the evening

This evening I attended the New Zealand Centre for Public Law / Institute for Policy Studies / Birkbeck, University of London's Centre for New Zealand Studies' symposium on MMP and the Constitution: 15 years past; 15 years forward. Here's a rundown of the evening session. As usual, any errors are due to my poor memory and worse handwriting.

The evening session had the theme of "evaluating the New Zealand experience".

Dr Ryan Malone (Law Commission) spoke on the effect of MMP on the Parliamentary process [PDF]. Under FPP, Parliament was effectively in the grip of an executive dictatorship, with majority government and Cabinet collective responsibility combining to allow small cliques to utterly control the policy and legislative process by leveraging dominance of Cabinet to control caucus, and then the House. MMP has decisively undermined this. Proportional allocation of select committee memberships has meant that most committees are now far more independent than they used to be, while the need to build legislative majorities around each issue has meant that the government has much less control of its own legislation. On some occasions, legislation has been delayed while a committee subjects it to further scrutiny; on others, opposition parties have effectively built majorities of their own to force amendments to government bills at the committee stage. Hostility to urgency has meant the government can no longer rush things through. The upshot is fewer bills, passed with much more care and negotiation than before.

Associate Professor Andrew Geddis (University of Otago) gave a short talk on the effect of MMP on political parties [PDF]. He focused on changes to the legal framework governing parties, and concluded that while those changes had been significant, they were not tied to MMP, but rather a recognition of the growing importance of parties in our democracy.

Professor Jonathan Boston (VUW) spoke on the effect of MMP on the executive [PDF], focusing on the progressive shift towards looser forms of government as a response to the small parties' "unity-distinctiveness dilemma" (how to form an effective government while retaining your identity as a party). A key part of this has been the erosion of the doctrine of Cabinet collective responsibility in favour of the current "selective collective responsibility" seen in recent confidence and supply agreements. Our current arrangements, where parties have Ministers outside Cabinet who are bound by collective responsibility only within their portfolios, are apparently unique in the world; other countries have been able to manage governments under MMP without needing such loose arrangements (but then, they haven't had to contend with Winston Peters). But while unusual, these arrangements haven't undermined the effectiveness of the government, and have broad cross-party acceptance. It is likely they will continue well into the future.

After supper, there was a very interesting talk by Professor Andre Kaiser (University of Cologne) on MMP, Minority Governments and Parliamentary Opposition [PDF]. This sought to answer two questions: why has New Zealand tended towards minority government over the past decade, and what implications does it have for the Parliamentary opposition. New Zealand is an outlier again here, with most MMP systems producing majority coalitions due to vote-splitting and pre-election deals. But rather than being a feature of our electoral system, instead it seems to be a feature of our parties. Kaiser analysed the parties' positions (from their election manifestos) on economic and non-economic issues, finding on the former that most small parties were solidly on the left, while on the latter Labour was solidly in the middle, with potential partners to either side of it. This puts them in a superior bargaining position in coalition negotiations, while National seems constrained to working with ACT. More importantly, the large divisions among non-government parties limits coordination among "the opposition", resulting in a split between a powerless real opposition (National and ACT) and other parties who can wield real influence over policy and legislation and thus achieve some of their goals without ever being part of the government. This creates incentives for both sides to pursue such loose arrangements, and Kaiser thinks they will continue (though its worth noting that his dataset only goes up to 2002 and does not include United Future; his conclusion certainly reflects the 2002 arrangements where Labour could get its agenda through by finding a partner on the left or right as necessary, but I'm not sure that it looks so good with the current setup where majorities are hard to come by).

It's a fascinating paper, and well worth reading.

Finally, Associate professor Raymond Miller (from the "exotic location" of Auckland) dug into the New Zealand Election Study to examine the public's reaction to MMP and coalition government [PDF]. Lots of crunchy data in here about how attitudes vary with party affiliation, age, gender and ethnicity. Two key points I noticed: firstly, support for MMP is strongly correlated with age, with younger voters strongly favouring MMP and coalition government (though also with a high proportion of don't knows reflecting their lack of experience with any other system). By 2011, 36% of the electorate will have grown up under MMP and will be reluctant to change. Meanwhile, the elderly supporters of FPP will be dying off. So this really is National's last chance to turn back the clock on democracy and go back to the "good old days" of the elective dictatorship. Which in turn makes it vitally important to saddle them with a coalition partner who will veto any attempt. Secondly, divisions over MMP and coalition government reflect deeper divisions on the purpose of an electoral system and of government itself - whether it is supposed to elect a stable government which can "make tough decisions" (a traditional authoritarian position), or give us a government that keeps its promises and does what people want (a modern, democratic one). On that front, you'd hope that FPP proponents would be persuaded by the stability of our MMP governments - only one (1996) has had a messy coalition breakup, and only one (1999) has failed to go full term (though that was by choice rather than necessity). OTOH, given that its really all about the older generations refusal to accept change coupled with a naked play for electoral advantage, I'm not sure how much empirical evidence actually matters to them...

More to come tomorrow, assuming I can wake up for it.