Thursday, November 24, 2011

Guest column: MMP: Just better

By John Parkinson

It has been 18 years since New Zealanders last voted in a First-past-the-post election. Not an eternity, but a long enough time for memories to have faded of why the country changed system in the first place.

The reasons were simple. The first was nine years of Muldoon governments that became seen as increasingly authoritarian, increasingly out of touch, yet which won two elections with a minority of the votes (possible under FPP, not possible under MMP so long as coalition plans are reasonably well-signalled in advance). That was followed by six years of Labour governments that were seen to betray everything that Labour governments were supposed to stand for.

In that environment, New Zealanders wanted two things: a system that put strict limits on the ability of politicians to do what they like; and one that ensures that parliament is broadly representative of the range of their views and experiences.

Proportional systems achieve the first thing by means of the second. Because parliament represents a broader range of views and experiences, it is much harder for a single set of view - a single party - to dominate the others. They have to reach out; they have to form alliances and coalitions; they have to argue for their points of view.

That worries some people. Those who value stable government made all sorts of dire predictions about the ghastly fate that awaited, pointing to Italy with its cavalcade of Prime Ministers. Has that happened in New Zealand? No. Not one government has failed to serve out its term, not even the Shipley minority government. Is first-past-the-post a guarantee that stable government emerges? No. Just look at Britain, with its present coalition of the unwilling.

Did the new system magically take the politics out of politics? No, of course not. Did it stop governments from upsetting some of the people all of the time? No, nor could it. But it did introduce dramatically more diversity into the House; and it thus forced politicians to build more coalitions of support in order to get their ideas through, and forced them to change ideas that could not attract enough support.

Check almost every claim about MMP made in 1992 and 1993 and you will find similar patterns. The world did not end. But nor did we enter some parliamentary Wonderland, strewn with rose petals and the sweet scent of reason. What New Zealand did get is a system that on all objective measures is fairer, more accountable, more deliberative. Not perfect, just better.