Should NZ First be in Parliament?
Keith Rankin, 1 February 2001
With the Select Committee on MMP soon to present its findings, there is a sense that there will be no recommendations for major changes to our new electoral system, but possibly some 'token' concessions to appease those who, for many very different reasons, are not 100% satisfied with our present arrangements.
From some of the articles I have read - including one by psephologists Peter Aimer and Jack Vowles and another on behalf of the Christian Heritage Party - the most likely sacrificial token is the rule that a political party that gains an electorate seat is entitled to its fair proportion of MPs even if it doesn't achieve the 5% threshold. (To be fair to the Christians, they advocate a reduction of the 5% threshold to 4%.)
This 'electorate member' provision in not well understood, mainly because it was rarely discussed in the MMP referendum campaign (which focussed too much on less important aspects of MMP) and also because it is a complicating factor in what is otherwise a straight-forward proportional system. Never an issue in the 1996 election campaign, the rule suddenly became important in 1999. Electorates contested by the leaders of some smaller parties were given special attention by both major parties.
The only party so far to gain list MPs on account of the 'electorate member' rule has been New Zealand First, in 1999. (The Greens in 1999 got over 5% so did not need an electorate seat.) So it is particularly pertinent to consider whether the removal of the 'electorate member' rule would be fair to parties in the situation that NZ First faced. Perhaps, most importantly, we should consider the possible fate of NZ First had the National - NZ First coalition government not broken up in 1998. The Alliance, of course, is in the same position in 2001 as NZ First was in then.
But before considering that issue, we should note that one other party has been affected by the rule. United, by virtue of its leader's success in Ohariu-Belmont, qualified for one seat in a 120-seat Parliament. In the absence of the rule, United would have qualified for no seats, so Peter Dunne would have been, in effect, an Independent in a 121-seat Parliament.
The United situation raises two issues. The first is that, in the absence of the 'electorate member' rule, our Parliament would frequently - perhaps normally - have 121 or 122 members. That would upset those who genuinely believe that, with 120 MPs, we are over-represented.
Second, let's imagine that National had stood a candidate in Ohariu- Belmont, that Peter Dunne would not have won Ohariu-Belmont had National stood a candidate, and that the 'electorate member' rule did not exist. National would have got say 40 seats (33.3% of 120), regardless of whether the National or Labour candidate won Ohariu-Belmont. Now imagine National withdrawing its candidate and Peter Dunne winning. (National's share of the party vote would of course be unchanged). National would now have, in effect, 41 seats out of 121 (33.9%). The upshot is that the 'electorate member' rule negates this opportunities that National and Labour have to boost their presence in Parliament with nominally independent MPs who are in reality beholden to them.
In the 1999 campaign, the 'electorate member' rule was misleadingly presented as a means by which an electorate victory to someone like Jeanette Fitzsimons could get a whole cohort of "unelected" Green Party members into Parliament. The correct interpretation is that the 5% threshold rule prevents a number of "elected" candidates from small parties from taking their place in Parliament. The 'electorate member' rule overrides this 5% disqualification rule. Nobody gets in through the 'electorate member' rule unless they were voted for in the usual way. For example, United got so few votes that no other United candidates were able to join their leader in Parliament. NZ First got 4% of the vote, hence 5 seats.
The 'electorate member' rule favours established small parties over new small parties. And that's the way it should be. The high 5% hurdle was imposed to limit the numbers to new parties entering Parliament, and not to hasten the exit of established parties.
The reality of coalition government is that the smaller partner finds it very hard to maintain its popular support. The spoils of success go in the main to the dominant partner, while the blame for failings and perceived failings falls disproportionately on the smaller coalition partner. The 'electorate member' rule significantly increases the survival chances of a smaller party that may have acted for the national good (or at least its perception of the national good) at the expense of its own poll ratings. After all, we expect parties in government to act in a non-party-political way.
The 5% disqualification rule - even a 4% disqualification rule - is unfairly tough on small coalition partners or government-supporting parties. The 'electorate member' rule offsets this potential source of instability, substantially reducing the chance of such a party being removed entirely from Parliament. NZ First did attempt to play a constructive role, and was unfairly blamed for much that should have been laid at National's door.
The 'electorate member' rule certainly played a part in allowing NZ First to retain its presence in Parliament. But it was another rule that played the bigger part: "first-past-the-post". Winston Peters was hardly "elected" as MP of Tauranga. He only got 33% of the vote. The biggest flaw with our electoral legislation is in fact the retention of first-past-the-post voting. A suitable token change would be, for the electorate vote, to replace first- past-the-post with preferential voting.
It is likely that the 'electorate member' rule will save the Alliance in 2002. But what if it's abolished. How should government supporters vote? I believe that, if the 'electorate member' rule is abolished, then a new type of tactical voting will emerge. Core Labour supporters will vote tactically for the Alliance in order to prevent the government founding on account of the 5% threshold rule disqualifying a significant proportion of government votes.
The 'electorate member' rule, by ameliorating the 5% disqualification rule, enables smaller parties with something to offer to survive long enough to rebound. (I cannot see NZ First surviving though, despite its leader's political tenacity.) Otherwise such parties are dismissed too abruptly. Or they survive indefinitely courtesy of tactical voting.
The 'electorate member' rule, combined with the 5% disqualification rule, enables political parties to evolve at about the right pace for a modern society. A new party is likely to enter Parliament every decade or so, while junior coalition partners have a chance to survive problems that beset governments they were once a part of.