After 21 years and eight general elections, New Zealanders are finally starting to ask some hard questions about MMP.
The current political lacuna demonstrates all that’s worst about the electoral system we adopted in 1993 and put into effect in 1996. The problem is not that everything has come to a standstill while National, Labour and New Zealand First complete the negotiations which will determine who governs us. Other countries routinely experience long periods in political limbo without appearing to suffer great harm.
Neither should we be either surprised or even troubled by the fact that Winston Peters, having declared that everything would be sorted by tomorrow, has now reneged on that assurance. This is par for the course from Peters, who promotes himself as the only honest man in New Zealand politics but has never hesitated to shift his ground or even execute a U-turn when it was expedient to do so.
Peters is, however, central to the reasons why we should be having second thoughts about a political system that enables a man whose party got barely 7 per cent of the votes to determine who the next government will be. Under any circumstances this would be a travesty, but it’s made worse by Peters’ grotesque posturing.
Bizarrely, he behaves as if New Zealanders gave him a mandate on election day. We did no such thing, of course. The power Peters is exercising at this moment (and so obviously relishing) has nothing to do with the popular will. It was placed in his hands through a quirk of a system that makes a mockery of democracy. A more humble party leader might acknowledge this by pulling his head in, but this is Peters we’re talking about.
In any half-rational political system, it would be the parties which between them won more than 81 percent of the vote, not Peters with his measly share, that determined the course of negotiations. A minor player such as New Zealand First, if it had genuine respect for democracy, would accept that its negotiating strength should be proportionate with its level of popular support. But again, this is Peters we’re talking about. And sadly he’s encouraged in his delusions by both the media, which can’t resist stroking his ego (for example, by calling him the kingmaker), and by the major parties, whose attempts to appease Peters come perilously close to grovelling.
Pardon the expression, but this is all arse-about-face. It’s demeaning to democracy. We’ve heard a lot over the years about the tail-wagging-the-dog scenario under MMP. Well, here it is writ large, and unfolding before our very eyes.
It’s a situation rich in irony. We voted for the introduction of MMP primarily to punish our politicians and bring them to heal. We were fed up with their broken promises. We wanted to make them more accountable.
Only now are New Zealanders realising that we achieved the exact reverse. Voters have no control whatsoever over whatever’s going on right now behind closed doors at Parliament. In effect, we have placed still more power in the hands of the political elites. This is the antithesis of what the promoters of MMP promised (and perhaps naively believed themselves).
It has also dawned on us that there’s a bit a constitutional vacuum around MMP, which means that the politicians are free to play by whatever rules suit them. For example, there’s no obligation on minor parties to negotiate first with whichever party won the biggest share of the vote.
And note the almost paranoiac emphasis on secrecy and confidentiality that surrounds the negotiations, even to the point of parliamentary security officials initially trying to prevent reporters seeing who was on the negotiating teams. So much for transparency. The last thing the politicians want is for the people who elected them to know what decisions are being made on their behalf. They couldn’t be more brazen about the fact that the public is locked out of the game. We’re not even impotent spectators. It’s particularly ironic that Peters, who has presented himself throughout his political career as a man of the people, a party leader who refuses to play by the rules of the self-serving political establishment, should be at the very centre of all this.