Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Majority vs plurality

What to make of the One News - Colmar Brunton poll showing that 79% of voters believe that the party with the most votes should get to form the government? The most charitable explanation is that there is a significant ambiguity between plurality and majority, which the public and the pollsters didn't go to too much trouble to resolve. The less charitable is that 79% of voters are simply constitutionally illiterate. What matters in our constitutional system - and has always mattered since the beginning of "responsible government" in the nineteenth century - is that the government has a majority in the House on confidence and supply. Where that majority comes from or how it is made up doesn't feature into it; all that matters is that it is a majority.

In the past, those majorities have been produced by an unfair voting system. Now, under MMP, there's a more direct relationship: give or take overhangs and the (shrinking) "wasted vote", a majority in the House rests directly on the support of a majority of voters. Which is as it should be. In a democracy, the government should have majority support - simply being the largest discrete faction doesn't cut it. Majorities composed of many subgroups may present interesting management problems, but they are no more or less legitimate than any other arrangement. What matters is the numbers, not the composition.

This may see the party which wins the most votes on election night excluded from government by a coalition of smaller parties. Big deal. It's the majority support that matters, not how well you did individually. And its not as if New Zealand hasn't seen such arrangements before; in the 1928 election, United (as the rump of the Liberals were calling themselves then) won 30,000 fewer votes (5% of the total) than Reform, but was able to form a government with the support of the Labour Party. But 50 years of two party rule under FPP seems to have erased that from our memory.

By pushing the idea that the largest party should automatically form the government, National and its cheerleaders are seeking to overturn the principle of majority rule. Instead, their "principle" (espoused only for reasons of tactical convenience) is that the plurality should rule, and bugger the majority. And that is a deeply undemocratic idea.