In the lead up to last year’s referendum on our voting system, New Zealanders were re-assured that if MMP was preferred, the system would be reviewed and improved. This promise is likely to have persuaded many people who might otherwise have voted for change, to vote for MMP.
A key issue of concern is that all MMP governments are coalitions. This results in broken promises, backroom deals, instability, and unpredictable governance. The lower the party vote threshold, the more the door is opened for radical forces to achieve parliamentary representation and have a direct influence on political decisions - at a cost to the greater good of the country.
The Electoral Commission has completed its MMP review and is about to make a final recommendation to government. With respect to the present five percent party vote threshold, their draft report states, “the Commission’s sense is that 5% is too high and that 3% is the lowest end of an acceptable range. We suggest 4% is preferable… It is in line with comparable democracies such as Norway and Sweden.”
The Electoral Commission didn’t need to look at outcomes from overseas jurisdictions to tell us what the impact of lowering the party vote threshold will be on New Zealand – such comparisons are largely irrelevant as their outcomes are set within their own political environments. Each political environment is unique and after six MMP elections, we can call on our own experience to see the effect MMP has had on New Zealand politics. We know with absolute certainty that here in New Zealand lowering the party vote threshold would enable more extreme minority interest groups to dictate to the larger “broad church” parties like National and Labour – in the way that the Maori and Green parties have.
We clearly saw the tail wagging the dog in 2007 when the resignation of Labour MP Philip Field from the Government of the day forced then Prime Minister Helen Clark to call on the Green Party for coalition support. The “price” of that deal was the very unpopular anti-smacking law.
The tail is also wagging the dog on John Key’s watch. The “price” of National’s 2008 coalition deal with the Maori Party (the parliamentary arm of the Maori sovereignty movement), which won only 2.4 percent of the party vote at that election, was the secret signing up of New Zealand to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (an agreement deemed so radical that former Prime Minister Helen Clark refused to sign), and the repeal of public ownership of New Zealand’s foreshore and seabed to open it up to tribal claims.
More concessions were gained in the 2011 coalition deal with National when the Maori Party negotiated a hand picked panel to review New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements - no doubt to recommend the Treaty of Waitangi be given sovereign status . Let’s not forget that the Maori Party only achieved 1.4 percent of the party vote – it does not even represent a majority of Maori!
Advocates of a lower party vote threshold claim that it would encourage wider representation, which of course it would. But representation is always a matter of degree. New Zealand is not short of political choices at election time. In 2005, there were a total of 19 parties to chose from: 99 MP Party, ACT New Zealand, Alliance, Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, Christian Heritage Party, Democrats for Social Credit, Destiny New Zealand, Direct Democracy Party, Green Party, J. Anderton’s Progressive, Labour Party, Libertarianz, Maori Party, National Party, New Zealand Family Rights Protection Party, New Zealand First Party, OneNZ Party, the Republic of New Zealand Party, United Future.
By 2008 some of the smaller parties had dropped out but some new ones had emerged including the Family Party, the Kiwi Party, the New Zealand Pacific Party, RAM – Residents Action Movement, the Bill and Ben Party, and the Workers Party, to again give voters a choice of 19 parties.
In 2011, when National was strongly contesting a second term, the fact that only 13 parties challenged the election reflects a similar pattern in 2002 when Labour was riding high, when only 14 parties stood.
Many ardent MMP supporters would like to see a free-for-all with no threshold at all for parliamentary representation. In such a situation, 2008 could have resulted in the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, the Kiwi Party, and the Bill and Ben Party holding the balance of power!
As we argued in our submission to the Electoral Commission, without a public safeguard to curb the excessive legislative power that minor coalition parties can exert under MMP – such as a citizens’ right of veto over new legislation – the risk of lowering the party vote and giving fringe and excentric or radical minorities more influence than they already have is too great. To prosper New Zealand needs a strong and cohesive government that acts in the best interests of the wider community, not the forever vocal fringe elements of it.
Dr Muriel Newman is a former MP who runs the New Zealand Centre for Political Research public policy think tank at www.nzcpr.com. This article was first published in the Herald.