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Keith Rankin: Rejoinder To Gordon King

by Keith Rankin, 19 August 2001

Re: www.scoop.c o.nz /mason/stories/HL0108/S000090.htm and www.scoop.c o.nz /mason/stories/HL0108/S000103.htm

Gordon King's reply to my column Parliament: Polypoly or Duopoly would have been a useful contribution to the debate about the issues I raised were it not for the blatantly ad hominem opening paragraph.

Mr King is right to say that "free speech is best met by more free speech". My piece was both free and provocative, but, in raising some important issues that needed raising, is no "silly tirade".

He acknowledges that the issue of political versus economic competition is an interesting and important issue. He also acknowledges the deceptive nature of the referendum wording proposed by Stuart Marshall. Marshall's is an anti- MMP referendum posing as a pro-99 MPs referendum. King also concedes that the other Citizens Initiated Referendums that we have had so far have been completely worthless exercises in democracy, on account of either leading or "indecipherable" questions. And he agrees with me that it "is certainly an interesting question as to what action should be taken when democracy is threatened".

King's main criticism of me arises from his misunderstanding the "Hitler" illustration that I used. I was in no way comparing Stuart Marshall, Graeme Hunt or Margaret Robinson with Adolf Hitler. Rather, because Hitler's anti- democratic misdeeds are well known and extreme, they can be usefully used as illustrations, much as writers from 1400 to 1900 tended to allude to Greek and Roman mythology and history to provide examples to illustrate their points.

Because Hitler's misdeeds were grossly anti-democratic, most people would accept that they should not have been perpetrated, even if they had had some form of democratic endorsement.

The anti-democratic misdeeds of the NZ anti-proportional-representation lobby are of a much milder nature. Nevertheless they can be stated to be anti- democratic for at least two reasons. The first reason is that the arguments presented to the 2000/01 Select Committee, and to the 1986 Royal Commission, substantially favour proportional representation as being more democratic than the two-party "first-past-the-post" system that still prevails in elections to Britain's House of Commons. The second reason lies in the reluctance of the anti-MMP lobby to come clean in their public statements about what kind of system of representation they favour over proportional representation.

Hence the "catch-23" principle (the problem arising from the use of democratic methods to remove or diminish democracy) - illustrated with Hitler's burning of the Reichstag example - is applicable to Stuart Marshall's referendum proposal.

To answer some of Mr King's other points. It is true that a 7-party parliament is hardly perfect political competition; superficially it's oligopoly rather than polypoly. It must be noted though that competition is as much about contestability - about minimisation of the barriers to entry - as it is about the actual number of suppliers in the market at a single point in time. With MMP, the entry hurdle for new nationwide parties is 5% nationwide support - higher than for many other proportional systems, but lower than the STV alternative that some people want. Under FPP, the hurdle was really above 20% (although by-elections had created situations in which parties like Social Credit could win and retain seats through tactical voting). In 1984 the New Zealand Party got 12% of the nationwide vote and didn't come close to winning a seat.

In practice, FPP was a non-contestable duopoly. MMP on the other hand is a contestable oligopoly, close enough to being what I called a "political polypoly".

I accept Gordon King's point that the arguments for competition in economic markets does not necessarily translate to political markets. (Without actually saying so, he acknowledged that the inherent privateness of neoclassical economics clashes with the underlying publicness of politics.) Actually, on account of this need for public representation, the need to avoid imperfect competition in politics may well be stronger than the equivalent need in economics. Even some orthodox (synonym "neoclassical"; antonym "heterodox" [not "catholic" nor "protestant"]) economists will concede that the free economic market is often far from "noble".

I think it's somewhat unreasonable to accuse me of having no knowledge of "the vast body of literature that covers the sensible and important debates on our role as consumer and citizen, the nature of democracy …". After all, I was only writing a 900-word column, not a PhD thesis. Of course, like Mr King, I could not possibly have perfect knowledge of all of the literature of political and economic philosophy.

I agree with Mr King that some people do drop names and phrases like "Hitler", "fascism", "Stalinism", "Polish shipyard", "Albania of the south", "basket case" and "banana republic" as a way of avoiding reasoned argument. I would like to assure him and Scoop readers that I did not do this. I am innocent of the "rhetorical fallacy of 'Nazi'".


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