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Keith Rankin: March Party Madness

Last weekend, the Act party exposed itself to potentially terminal ridicule by continuing to suggest that kiwis should be domesticated, farmed and eaten. While Act's spokesman tells us that no domesticated species ever became extinct, we see on television mass funeral pyres of domesticated animals in Britain.

While they may be trying to make a serious point about profit and property rights - a point that has little to do with kiwis - Act's political nous appears to be close to zero. A clear case of foot-in-mouth disease. Unless, that is, that Act (or some key people in Act) are preparing to do a Bob Jones; to scuttle their party. Certainly I feel uncomfortable with the FPP counter-revolutionary Peter Shirtcliffe identifying with a party whose existence depends crucially on the retention of MMP.

At the same time, Winston Peters is pushing a hare-brained proposal to prevent the results of pre-election political polls from being available to the public. Peters believes that the publication of poll data encourages tactical voting, that tactical voting is bad, and that his NZ First party was in 1999 a victim of tactical voting. He's right on the first count. It's just that tactical voting is not always or even typically a bad thing.

In essence, tactical voting means voting against the party (or candidate) we dislike the most, whereas non-tactical voting means voting for the party or candidate we dislike the least. Under FPP, almost all voting in the electorates which mattered was tactical. In the other electorates - the "safe" seats - voting was a meaningless exercise that had no effect on the local or national election result.

Under MMP, tactical voting in the party vote relates to the 5% threshold. In the electorate vote it relates to candidates who are likely to be the only electorate MP of their party. In other words, tactical voting exists as a means of ensuring that a party qualifies for representation - or is not disqualified from representation - in Parliament.

Tactical voting is important because voters do not just vote for a Parliament, they are generally more concerned to vote for a Government. Tactical voting exists where the two are in conflict, and publicly-published pre-election polls do facilitate the election of a Government.

In 1999 the Government was in effect a minority National/Act coalition. Almost certainly a number of National supporters voted for Act, to ensure that Act votes would not be wasted votes. They voted for Act because that was the most effective way to vote against a Labour-led government.

In 2002, many Labour supporters will vote Alliance for the same reason, except that they'll be voting against the return of a National/Act government. Shoring up the Alliance will be their way of maximising the likelihood that the Labour-Alliance government will be returned. Put another way, such tactical voting will ensure that there will be no wasted left-wing votes.

In 1999, there was no tactical reason to vote NZ First. But there was no non-tactical reason either, other than a sense of loyalty to Peters who had seemed like some to be the Messiah in the mid-1990s but came across only as an obstructionist in 1999.

In 1999, there was a late vote for the Green Party. Certainly that vote would not have been nearly as high had people not had access to poll data. But it is hard to argue that the Green vote was tactical. If it was against any party, it was against every established party. The surge in Green support came mainly from young people who would not have otherwise have voted. Thus the polls facilitated rather than inhibited the democratic process.

Pre-election polls are an essential feature of modern democracy. If reported correctly, they do give an accurate picture of political support as it firms towards the election date. They tell where the real contests are. They tell us in advance which candidates and which parties will be "also- rans".

It is that information about firming support that voters require if they are to vote for a government. Voters use this information to ensure that no party required to form the government of their choice will be eliminated from Parliament. If the government loses in 2002 because the Alliance only gets 4.99% of the vote, and not because of a swing to the right, then democracy will not be the winner on the night. Such an unwanted outcome is much more likely in the absence of pre-election polls.

The only fluke in 1999 was Winston Peters' own election in Tauranga; a genuine 3-candidate contest in which the result was determined not by Peters' support but by the distribution of the votes for other candidates, including the also-rans.

The March party madness extends to the re-emergence of the so-called Electoral Integrity Bill (otherwise known as the "anti-defection bill"), through which Labour is still fighting its battle with Peter Dunne, the Alliance is still fighting its battle with Alamein Kopu, and Winston Peters continues to fight against Neil Kirton. Do we really need this stuff? This is a new century. We have new battles to fight.

It gets worse. For example we find out that Margaret Robertson's real agenda is to re-impose the FPP electoral system upon us, with the help of Peter Shirtcliffe and the hapless Act party. And we hear once again, in a survey instigated by the parliamentary committee investigating MMP, that most people don't understand the "mechanics" of MMP. But we never hear the extent to which people understand - or even claim to understand - the mechanics of FPP or STV or SM any other conceivable method of voting. Or whether a majority of people in any country at any time have ever understood the mechanics of their country's electoral system. Hands up the last person who ever heard a coherent argument in favour of FPP on talk-back radio. Or read such an argument in the letters to the editor.

Another example of March madness is our failure of our politicians to acknowledge that the 1989 Reserve Bank Act is now defunct. Dr Brash cut interest rates (a sensible but unorthodox way of cutting inflation) at a time in which annual inflation (4%) is running above the mandated 3% upper limit (and in which some food prices are up 23%). The exchange rate (TWI) appreciated markedly in response to the reduced 'official cash rate', reversing the 3% depreciation of the previous 10 days

All in all, kiwi farming (ie the farming of kiwis) is starting to sound almost intelligent. We just need to tell Act's Aussie guest that kiwis are more closely related to emu than to turkeys. Act - and Winston - are the turkeys this month.

©2001 Keith Rankin

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