Thursday, October 5, 2017

We were sold a crock in 1993

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, October 4).

Anyone having second thoughts about MMP?

I’ve argued for years that we swapped one set of flaws for another when we voted in 1993 to change the electoral system. The events of the past 10 days have done nothing to reverse that perception.

An obvious problem with the old first-past-the-post system was that a party could win power even without a majority of votes, since it was the number of parliamentary seats won, rather than total votes, that determined who governed.

Thus National got fewer votes than Labour in 1978 and 1981 yet remained in government – a situation analogous with last year’s presidential election in the United States, in which Hillary Clinton won nearly 3 million more votes than Donald Trump but was unsuccessful because Trump prevailed in a majority of states.

The other main reason for dissatisfaction with our version of FPP was that third parties never got a look in. Even with 21 per cent of the vote, the now-defunct Social Credit party won only two seats in the 92-seat Parliament in 1981. 

But it wasn’t so much dissatisfaction with the undemocratic nature of the FFP system that caused voters to rebel against it in the 1990s. After all, we’d been happy with it for 90 years. Besides, it’s still practised in Britain, Canada and the US.

No, what really enabled agitators for electoral reform to gain traction was the widespread perception that once in power, parties reneged on promises and generally couldn’t be trusted to do what voters had asked for.

The theory was that by denying absolute power to any one party – in effect, requiring parties to negotiate and compromise on key policies – the MMP system would force governments to become more accountable and consensus-driven.

A bonus was that by giving greater power to minor parties, MMP would deliver more diverse representation in Parliament.

At least that was the theory, and to some extent it has been proved right.

Under MMP, we have certainly had far more diverse parliaments.  The two-party duopoly has been broken, opening the way for a much wider range of ideological positions and agendas to be represented in Parliament, from the old-style populist Muldoonism of New Zealand First through to the environmentally driven Greens and the race-based sectional interests of the Maori Party.

But has MMP delivered greater accountability, as its idealistic (and mostly left-wing) promoters promised? Hmmm. That’s another matter entirely.

Here we encounter two problems. The first is that under MMP, 49 of the 121 MPs in Parliament are not directly accountable to voters. They are elected on the all-important party lists and have no constituents to answer to.

Rather, they owe their loyalty to the party organisation, on which they depend for their ranking on the lists and therefore for their career prospects. In other words, it’s system that prioritises loyalty to the party over any obligations to voters. Accountability? Pffft.

But arguably an even bigger flaw is the one that we again see in play following the recent election.

Not for the first time, New Zealand finds itself at the mercy of New Zealand First and its vain and fractious leader, Winston Peters. A man whose party won only 7.5 per cent of the vote on election day will determine who governs us for the next three years.

Whatever this is, it’s not democracy. It’s a travesty, and it’s made worse by Peters’ egotistical posturing.

The New Zealand First leader failed to respond to a phone call on Sunday night from National leader Bill English, whose party won six times more support than his own, Although Peters did return the call the following day, I believe he was letting English know who’s boss.

But even without a rogue politician like Peters in the mix, the system is deeply – perhaps fatally – flawed. Because regardless of the result on election day, all bets are off once the votes are in.

At that stage the public cedes total control to the politicians, who disappear behind closed doors to decide which of the policies they campaigned on can be jettisoned and which bottom lines no longer matter. We, the voters, have no power to influence what concessions will be made in coalition negotiations.

Whatever this is, it’s not democracy. Accountability? Pffft again.

The almost comical paradox is that the MMP system, which supposedly returned power to the people, is virtually guaranteed to produce a result where one or more minor parties end up wielding influence grossly disproportionate to their public support, and where politicians have carte blanche to wheel and deal without reference to the public.

Apologists for MMP (former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer is one) continue to make excuses for its failings and to pretend that it’s fit for purpose.

The politicians have become thoroughly acclimatised to it too and either fail to see, or don’t want to see, its fatal flaws. But I reckon we were sold a crock in 1993, and I want my money back.


Barry said...

Thank you Karl.

Robert Mann said...

After the Royal Commission on the electoral system had recommended MMP (without emphasizing its origin), Richard Northey MP chaired a Parltry Cttee inquiry concluding the Australian STV system is better. Neither of these probes had given due credit to the Tasmanian system which looks to me the best.

MMP has been a regrettable experiment, now visible as a failure. To ask for opinions now, MMP v. FPP, is a waste of time. What we need is an educational campaign to make known the pros & cons of STV & the Tasmanian system, and then a referendum.