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Keith Rankin: A Fraction Too Much Faction?

A Fraction too much Faction?
Keith Rankin, 4 April 2002

Let's imagine the Anderton faction of the Alliance had not found a loophole in their own "electoral integrity" legislation, and, together, had resigned from Parliament.

There would be a by-election in Wigram. Would Jim win it? Not if Labour, the Alliance and the Greens all stand against him, and Act does not. Indeed, I don't see how Jim could win in Wigram even in a general election this year, unless Labour does not stand a candidate.

I am sure Jim is looking for a Dunne deal from Labour this year, just when National plans to deny Peter Dunne such a deal this time. It could backfire for Labour though. If Jim Anderton gets a special deal in Wigram, why not Laila Harre in Te Atatu, the soon-to-be leader of the Alliance? (For that matter why would Labour want to stand candidates against the other Alliance Cabinet Ministers; Sandra Lee and Matt Robson?) Labour could do to be seen to be even-handed in its desire to see the government, of which Ms Harre is an integral part, re-elected.

If Anderton's fellow breakaways in Parliament choose to follow the spirit of the 2001 "Electoral Integrity Act", they would resign and we would have to go to the next 6 names on the 1999 Alliance list. Anderton supporters among those substitute MPs would of course have a moral duty to resign as well. What would happen if all 55 substitutes were deemed to be not loyal to the party on whose list their names once appeared?

In the end, such party wars give MMP a bad name that it doesn't deserve.

Every form of proportional representation (PR) has its advantages and disadvantages. Together they have one huge advantage over every form of skewed representation: the outcome is democratic.

The biggest disadvantage of MMP (vis-à-vis other forms of PR) is that it is explicitly party-based. Adoption of STV on the other hand would have enabled the Electoral Act to continue the old pretence that there are no such things as political parties; only candidates.

This explicit role of parties was never a big problem; until, that is, the 2001 "Electoral Integrity Act".

The actual role of parties has never been well understood. Their purpose is to help us choose the people who will represent us in Parliament. (Just imagine having no parties; having to choose between independent tweedledums and tweedledees.) What those chosen MPs then do should be up to their individual consciences. They will all know that, to be re-elected, either on the party list or in an electorate, they will have to behave in ways that the voters respect.

Loyalty towards those who helped them get into Parliament has always been a value that New Zealand voters uphold. We have also liked MPs who stand up to their party machines on specific issues - MPs like Mike Minogue and Marilyn Waring.

Since 2001, MPs have become the pawns of political parties. That has never been the New Zealand way. This situation really has nothing to do with MMP. Nevertheless it will be attributed to MMP. The real problem is legislation designed to punish the obtusely-independent Alamein Kopu long after she had been forgotten by everyone except Jim Anderton.

Both Alliances will soon be history. Or, if Labour accommodates them in electorates, they will become overhang MPs. While the overhang scenario will shore up the government's majority, it won't go down well with the voting public. Once again, MMP will get the blame.

We have to grow up; to accept that it's OK for political parties to evolve, to fracture, to combine, to do u-turns and all that. It's OK for MPs to disagree with their parties and with each other. It's OK to have an open exchange of ideas. The world did not fall apart in 1999 when the governing coalition was highly fractured. Soon enough, the voters adjudicated.

The present government is successful because its leaders know that the vast majority of political opinion in New Zealand is neither left nor right but centre. There is only room for one party explicitly to the left of Labour and one party explicitly to the right of National. There is no room for a small party in the centre, because Labour is a big party that has made that ground its own.

Centrist government is the true success of MMP. Under the previous FPP electoral system, we could never elect a government of the centre. Now we can.

MMP keeps a centrist government in the centre. Even if we get only two parties in parliament after this year's election, MMP will function as a contestable electoral system. If Labour decides to go walkabout to the left, the English party will readily adopt the vacated centre position. And if Labour goes walkabout to the right, as it did in the 1980s, then a huge swag of votes will go to any credible alternatives that emerge to Labour's left.

Having a centrist government does not prohibit political discourse. Rather it enables that discourse to become less political, more reasoned. The days of the slanging matches between "capitalists" and "socialists" are numbered. A strong centre allows for a symbiosis between the individual and the social aspects of our lives, not for perpetual opposition between the strident advocates of the left and of the right.

Rising from the ashes of the old Alliance, by 2005 or 2008 we could have a political movement (a loose Red-Green Alliance?) on the left that is open to the free exchange and development of fresh ideas, yet willing to fully participate in centrist government. The two roles of idealism and administration are not mutually exclusive. Laila Harre, for example, has proved to be both an effective Cabinet Minister and a woman of principle.

© 2002 Keith Rankin

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