Monday, July 27, 2020

This is dangerous for our democracy

I hardly ever comment on polls, because horse-race politics is superficial and boring and most changes are statistically meaningless and so unworthy of attention (let alone the excitement they provoke amongst mathematically illiterate political journalists desperate to fill airtime). But we've now had two polls in a row showing Labour receiving significantly more than 50% of the vote. If these polls are remotely accurate and nothing changes, this would allow Labour to govern alone. And as an MMP-era voter, I find that deeply unsettling, a return to the unbridled power of first-past-the post (and all the arrogance it implied).

Coalition government is a valuable check and balance in our MMP-era constitution. It ensures that policy has to be scrutinised by outside eyes before passage. Its endorsement by an outside (if allied) party adds legitimacy, while also hopefully improving quality. And of course there's the ultimate check and balance: having someone to pull the plug if the government goes off the rails. No MMP coalition partner has had to do that yet, but anyone who remembers Robert Muldoon and Roger Douglas should acknowledge its basic necessity. Majority government removes both those safeguards.

In 2002, we had a similar situation: a dominant government polling over 50% and a hapless opposition. Back then, voters responded by fleeing to the minor parties, who saw their fortunes increase significantly. And the result was a government which lacked a majority, but could do whatever it wanted by choosing the appropriate partner (or, more usually, two or even all three of them). But since then, our minor parties have suffered an ecological collapse. United Future is gone, and NZ First looks likely to follow. On current polling, we look likely to have a four-party Parliament after September - the smallest ever in the MMP era. And while the number of registered parties has picked up a little since last election - we will have 18, once the current three in train are processed - apart from the Māori Party there's nothing there that looks remotely likely to replace the ones we've lost. While fundamentalist christians, racists and conspiracy theorists love to start political parties, voters don't like to vote for them. Those with coherent ideologies seem too narrow to get the 5% necessary to enter Parliament, and are denied the access to capture public attention anyway (both Labour and National not wanting a return of the worm). Basicly, our political system is becoming narrower, while barriers to political competition remain high or are getting higher. And this is not healthy.

And yet, a majority of voters say they want coalition governments, and even major party voters don't want unbridled power (except National of course). In which case, maybe they should actually vote for that?