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Keith Rankin Column: MMP Commonsense

Keith Rankin's Thursday Column
MMP Commonsense
7 October 1999

The coming election gives us renewed opportunity to interpret everything that politicians say and do with cynicism. It would be nice if we can rise above such a self-imposed stupor. We did it with APEC.

One of the issues most amenable to cynical interpretation is that of "deals" whereby a party stands down its candidate in favour of the candidate of that party's prospective coalition partner. Another issue that is food for cynics is the mandate of Mauri Pacific.

We continue to treat the electorate vote as if it is really important, forgetting that it is the party vote that the national election is contested on. The electorate vote is, in most cases, a purely local affair.

We have forgotten that one of the single biggest problems with first-past-the-post voting (FPP, or FR "front runner" as Brian Easton more accurately calls it in his book The Whimpering of the State). By retaining FPP voting in electorates, we have retained the problem of electorate MPs not being elected in the normal sense of the word "elect". Democracy is based on majority decisions. Yet most electorate (and mayoral) elections are won by a candidate who fails to gain 50% of the electorate vote. (Just imagine if votes were won by a piece of legislation that commanded only 40% of MPs' support?) That is the inevitable consequence of non-transferable voting in a single-vote multiple-candidate poll.

There are two ways to make an electorate vote democratic. One is to use preferential (ie transferable) voting as they do in Australia. That ensures that coalition partners - eg Liberal and National - can run candidates against each other without splitting the coalition vote. The winner in Australian electorates always receives the endorsement of 50% of electorate voters, even if some of those endorsements are "second or third preferences".

The second way is for the "also ran" candidates to not run, leaving the electorate vote to be a straight contest between the two leading candidates. In France they have a second ballot, which is contested by just the two leading candidates from the first ballot. New Zealand adopted the two-ballot system in 1908 and 1911. It was abandoned because Prime Minister Massey believed that his Reform Party would be more likely to stay in power if his MPs could be re-elected with minority endorsement.

We are finding that a de facto second ballot system is evolving, at least for the strategic electorates like Wellington Central. The system is much like the systems used by Labour and National to choose their party leaders. It is more democratic than the single-ballot multiple-candidate polls that we are usually presented with.

The best possible contest in Wellington Central will be a straight run off between left and right; between Richard Prebble and either Marion Hobbs or Philidda Bunckle. There is no point in the left committing suicide in Wellington (or Coromandel) out of some misguided sense of democratic purity. Labour would never choose their leader in the under-democratic way that we choose electorate MPs.

Electorates become strategic when they enable political parties to escape the 5% threshold for party list allocations. At first sight this 2%/5% rule seems tailor-made for conspiratorial deals. But these deals are no more than common sense accommodations that make the outcomes more democratic.

More importantly, the "deals" signal to the voting public which parties will form coalitions. And they signal to the public the ability of parties to get on with each other; a real skill in any genuinely democratic system. Thus, National and Act (and United) have already demonstrated that they would like to form a coalition government and that they can work with each other. They are very positive signals for the right.

On the other hand we are getting some pretty negative signals from the left (and from New Zealand First). Labour in general has a "control freak" reputation, while Jim Anderton and Winston Peters both have strong personal reputations as control freaks. It is this anti-democratic personality defect that seems to be causing the left to risk electoral suicide (or "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory").

It must be obvious to anyone with at least half a brain that, if the left stand three candidates in Coromandel, then the left will fail to win that seat, and the Green Party will disappear from Parliament. The result of the elimination of the Greens is very likely to be either a National-led government, or Labour finding itself having to negotiate with either Winston Peters or Jenny Shipley to support a minority Labour Government. (We might end up with a de facto 'grand coalition'.)

It's worse than that for the left. By so far refusing to make Coromandel a straight runoff between the two leading candidates (MPs Murray Maclean and Jeanette Fitzsimons), the left parties are revealing that they may be unable to work together in coalition. Voters may prefer a centre-right coalition if they see such a government as being better behaved, and more sensitive to the public mood, than a centre-left coalition. After all, Labour in the 1980s was anything but sensitive to public opinion.

The Green Party has considerable potential to win party votes from across the political divide, for the general benefit of the left. In 1990, when the Green votes were wasted (thanks to FPP), the Greens took votes off National in affluent electorates. Labour and the Alliance would be very foolish to take the view that they are going to be able to form a government without the support of the Greens.

In addition to being disappointed about the appearance of cynicism towards electorate "deals", I am concerned about the cynicism towards Tau Henare and Mauri Pacific. It looks like Henare will pay the price for "disloyalty" to his former leader, Winston Peters. The irony is that Henare's actions in not collapsing the Shipley government saved Winston from electoral oblivion.

While Henare was not intending to be loyal to Peters, he couldn't have been more loyal if he had tried. Henare gave Peters the opportunity to sit in parliament as an opposition leader. If Henare and the others who separated from the Peters half of New Zealand First had stuck with Peters, then Peters would have had to stick with Shipley, or face an election at the worst possible time.

I think that we have a duty to Henare to recognise that the fracture of a party (and especially a party that accepted the responsibility of government and which faced a level of media pressure which made its survival virtually impossible) is different to MPs leaving a party. Mauri Pacific remains as much a part of the 1997 NZ First party as does the group of MPs who stayed with Peters. Henare continues to have as much of a mandate, in the life of this parliament, as does Peters

Perhaps we should develop a greater sense of political empathy. Let's assume that Tau Henare wanted to do the best for Maori (and I am sure that that is why he is a politician). What else could he have done in 1998? He had the choice of holding a strategic position in government or instantly abandoning his political career, and the programmes that he was implementing through Te Puni Kokiri. His choice was obvious. I hope our political historians will give him credit for his courage. It remains too early to judge his achievements.

© 1999 Keith Rankin

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