Peters: “Order Not Chaos – The Politics of MMP”
14 April 2008
Rotary Club of Taupo
Yacht Club, Ferry Road
“Order Not Chaos – The Politics of MMP”
Embargoed against delivery
Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you tonight.
Your invitation said tonight’s topic could be anything – a dangerous proposition for a politician – so let us a take a safe path and talk politics.
What we really need to address is MMP politics.
You see all of the hyperbole which surrounded the events of the past two week were based on one thing – the fact that some so called experts have not come to grips with MMP.
It’s not the politicians who don’t understand. Bar a few obvious exceptions, most politicians now actually get MMP and understand its potential.
That is why in the same week you can have both Helen Clark and John Key support me as Foreign Minister, despite having differing views.
They understand, like we do in New Zealand First, that MMP means you won’t agree on everything, but that is not the end of the political world.
Indeed the days of the dull homogenised party hack MP, who only came in two styles and who didn’t think for himself or herself are over.
Democracy has manifested itself in several forms of governance with differing dimensions. But the one dimension which is universal to all effective democracies, is different points of view and a real contest of ideas in the public and political arena.
But the critical point is that these differences do not prevent us from working constructively together on issues on which we agree.
You all know the background to the changes in our voting system.
Since the 1950s voters were increasingly disillusioned with the old two-party system.
Criticism of the voting system intensified after the 1978 and 1981 elections when Labour won more votes than National but National won more seats.
More voters began to look to alternative parties.
Social Credit, the leading 'third' party since 1954, won 16 per cent of the overall vote in 1978 but only one seat out of the 92 in Parliament.
Three years later, in 1981, nearly 21 percent of electors voted for Social Credit, but the party gained just two seats.
In the 1984 election the New Zealand Party won 12 percent of the vote but no seats.
Following Labour's victory in the 1984 election, a Royal Commission on the Electoral System was set up and the following year recommended New Zealand adopt the German-style MMP system.
Under this each elector would get two votes, one for an electorate MP and one for a party. The size of Parliament would increase to 120 MPs.
In 1993 we voted for MMP and in 1996 New Zealand elected its first MMP government.
The date of 1984 is doubly important though.
As well as the year of an election for New Zealand it was also the title of a book – written by George Orwell.
The book 1984 was about life in a dictatorship as lived by a character called Winston Smith.
He was a worker at the Ministry of Truth and his downfall came about when he ran foul of the Government.
In that book Orwell created the phrase “Big brother is watching you” and other catchy quotes like:
“War is peace”,
“Freedom is slavery”,
and “Ignorance is Strength.”
You might well ask what these slogans have in common with New Zealand in 1984.
Well, we believe that 1984 was the date New Zealand started an economic and social revolution – and equally meaningless and contradictory slogans were created.
“No gain without pain”
“Work Smarter Not Harder”
“We’re reducing staff to increase service”
And “Agriculture is a sunset industry”
Thousands of people were made redundant as these slogans were chanted by spin doctors and the mindless media.
We sure suffered the pain – but where was the gain?
Hundreds of industries were closed down as our trade doors were thrown open and we got virtually nothing in return.
We led the world in opening up the economy and appointed a Reserve Bank governor who choked the life out of the economy with crippling interest rates and an overpriced currency.
Sadly we haven’t learnt the lessons from the past on that front.
Those of us who questioned the wisdom of this were accused of being Luddites and glibly informed that this was going to make things better for all of us.
But between 1984 and 1996 New Zealanders were hammered with slogans as taxpayer owned assets were flogged off at bargain basement prices.
Many of these assets ended up in foreign hands, leaving us all the poorer.
These policies were pursued by both Labour and National.
The two old political parties had one thing in common.
They had election manifestos for the voters and hidden agendas for their mates.
Remember, in 1990 a certain political leader pledged to New Zealanders that the superannuation surtax would be scrapped, “no ifs no buts no maybes”.
The promise was abandoned after the election.
But even worse the surtax was increased, at its meanest impost 92%.
It was against that background that New Zealanders voted for MMP.
The voters had reached the end of their tether with politicians cynically breaking promises.
At about that same time a certain protesting MP, also called Winston, was kicked out of the National Party, but was returned to Parliament as an independent and set up his own political party.
It was called New Zealand First and we were in the first MMP government of 1996.
We have to say that we achieved some things – like getting the super surtax removed, free healthcare for children and other benefits now entrenched.
But National MPs, at the time led by a certain Mrs Shipley, found it hard to swallow the thought of sharing government – so the coalition folded.
They simply didn’t grasp that the winner takes all mentality of First Past the Post was over and that they must now share the table with those with different views.
In many ways MMP meant that the silent majority which had sat muted by the old system now had a voice – and a strong one at that.
Nine years later New Zealand First was in a similar position due to the numbers in Parliament.
It was a case of once bitten twice shy.
We did not want to go into government, but we wanted a stable political system and some gains for sector groups we felt were being disadvantaged.
Our agreement of confidence and supply with Labour gives us room to disagree.
There is no threat of political instability.
And we still say good morning to all the other MPs in Parliament.
The most important aspect of MMP is that it means all issues are now thoroughly debated and all legislation has to be examined closely.
Differing and opposing views have to be taken into account.
And there is another important difference now – it is called transparency.
In the old days of First Past the Post voters were kept in the dark and governments did as they liked via secret Cabinet decisions.
Evil deeds were always done behind closed doors.
All that has changed.
You see every single policy achievement New Zealand First has made under its supply and confidence agreement is consistent with the policies we campaigned on in 2005.
No surprises – no hidden agendas, just keeping our word using the influence we were dealt on election day.
Some may say we haven’t delivered on all the promises in our manifesto – but you can’t expect to win a Formula One race with a standard sedan.
In short you can only do what your number of party votes enables you to do.
The only trouble is that we have the “first past the post media” trying to explain MMP politics.
They just don’t get it.
Unfortunately they still see the world through FPP glasses and cannot see how people with differing views can work together for the good of the country.
Apparently there was a constitutional crisis in New Zealand last week but fortunately it was confined to a word processor in the Parliamentary press gallery.
There is no doubt that under MMP the House of Representatives is far more representative than it has ever been.
And under our confidence and supply agreement, we are bound to say that we do not always agree with the government.
But the government stands firm.
You might liken it to a rugby team in a tight spot.
The fullback yells “kick it” but the halfback passes it.
Nobody spits their mouth guard and goes to play for the opposing team!
Nobody gets a yellow card – or a red card for that matter because you are not engaged in foul or illegal play.
We have made it plain that after the 2008 election we will speak first to the party that gains the most votes.
We will do what the voters tell us.
We could work with either Helen Clark or John Key.
But, we do have a proviso about National because of our past experience.
Like all New Zealanders we want to know exactly where National stands on all the main issues, long before the election campaign.
We don’t go along with um argh, we’ll think about it and we will tell you later.
To be fair, this might not be John Key’s doing.
As an inexperienced leader he is probably relying heavily on his team of minders and advisors.
And before we could go with National, we would make every single MP in the National caucus sign up to whatever agreement was reached.
That includes all the right wingers and Act look-alikes that lurk in the shadows.
We know that there have been some in Labour who were hesitant at first about working with us – but who have now come to see the value of an alternative viewpoint.
Some probably still harbour reservations.
But they have learnt how MMP works and the real question which remains is – has National?
New Zealand First was formed because on some important issues the two old parties had stopped listening to ordinary New Zealanders.
MMP became our electoral system for the very same reason.
The irony is that many of the same issues which drove the formation of New Zealand First are as important today as they were 15 years ago.
And again it seems that many voters will look to the party of MMP – New Zealand First – for their solutions.
So as long as there are New Zealanders needing a strong voice and as long as the system allows us to, New Zealand First is up to the task of representing them.
That after all is what MMP is all about.
So when it comes to getting your knowledge of MMP and how its works – take it from those of us who are actually on the ground that it can and does work.
Don’t be seduced by the media’s lack of perspective – or their bias and prejudice against alternative ideas.
As the bard was wont to say – “The empty vessel makes the greatest sound”.
The key for us is to resolve not to let them drown out the real voice of the people, and to make sure they never do.