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Real Issues No. 317

Real Issues No. 317 - MMP Maxim Institute - real issues - No. 317 4 September 2008 www.maxim.org.nz

'MMP and the Constitution: 15 years past; 15 years forward'


NZ Votes 2008 political debate - Auckland Summer Internship applications now open! The launch of nzvotes.org 'Read to your kids'


2008 marks the fifth election under a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system. It is also the fifteenth anniversary of the public referendum where New Zealanders rejected wholesale the old First-Past-the-Post (FPP) electoral system and adopted MMP instead. The anniversary was an opportunity for academics and politicians who have studied the implications of MMP for New Zealand politics to come together last week at a major conference in Wellington -- 'MMP and the Constitution: 15 years past; 15 years forward.'

With National Party leader John Key making a referendum on the electoral system one of his top ten policy priorities if he leads the next government, it is important for everyone to understand the implications of MMP.

One of the papers presented at the conference, by Law Professor Philip Joseph, discussed how 'MMP politics have changed the way we do the business of government.' One of the major changes which Joseph notes is the distinction between direct and indirect election of governments. Many of us are accustomed to the idea that the government is determined on election night, by one party winning a majority of votes. This was true under FPP, for when either the leader of National or Labour conceded, voters were certain that one party would claim either the mandate for change, or promise three more years of the status quo. As New Zealanders have learnt under MMP the election is not about deciding which party will govern. As Joseph suggested, voters 'elect their Parliaments but not their governments.'

MMP politics gives political parties the power to decide who will govern, as witnessed by the protracted negotiations between New Zealand First, National and Labour after the 1996 election; Helen Clark campaigning on a joint Labour-Progressive-Greens ticket at the 2005 election; and Winston Peters' promise in 2005 to side with the party which wins the most votes at the election. This means there can be a disconnection between the government which voters think they are voting for at the ballot box and the government which is actually formed. For example, no-one would have predicted that both Winston Peters and Peter Dunne would become Ministers in the Labour-led Government in 2005. The episodes indicate that the business of government is fluid and often pragmatic under MMP. Pre-determined coalition arrangements, while meant to provide a measure of certainty to voters, are not necessarily possible once the election has determined the number of seats each party has in Parliament, and the scope which the parties have to form a government. One's enemies can quickly become one's friends, as the government is often put in the position of seeking support to pass legislation, or to ensure that it can claim the confidence of the House.

A second major change Joseph highlighted is that minority coalition government is a firmly established norm of our political system. Four out of five of the coalition governments so far have not held a majority of the seats in Parliament. This has meant that legislation is much more contestable than under FPP. It has promoted a different style of government where consultation is required by government Ministers at the initial stages of crafting legislation. Further, there are no longer government majorities on Select Committees and significant amendments are often made to legislation by Select Committees. This has imposed more checks and balances on parliamentary process. Nonetheless, as noted by other participants at the conference this has not impeded various governments from pursuing their legislative agenda, and in the case of the Electoral Finance Act, making significant changes to the legislation in the final stage of the Committee of the Whole House.

The latest Cabinet Manual has endorsed the constitutional innovation which occurred after the last election when Peters and Dunne became Ministers while still being able to criticise the Government on policies outside of their portfolios. For example, Peters was able to criticise the China-New Zealand free trade agreement in April, because it was technically outside his obligation to support the Government's foreign policy as Foreign Minister. This represents a dramatic break with past conventions of collective ministerial responsibility, which required unanimity of decision-making. The change to convention has set a new precedent for government formation and one which is likely to remain a practice in the future.

As noted by Professor Jonathan Boston in another paper, this has created a way for minor parties to participate in government, while retaining a measure of distinctiveness vital to their viability as independent parties. 'Agree to disagree' clauses, introduced by the Labour-Alliance coalition agreement in 1999, have also provided space for differentiation between different parties in government.

These sorts of unusual responses have helped to throw the procedures and ground rules of the Westminster government into starker relief. The system has been flexible enough to accommodate the challenges of the different forms of minority government thrown at it. For example, the way Cabinet operates has hardly changed, apart from the departure from collective responsibility. Further, when governments were formed by Parliaments elected under FPP they had a clear mandate from the electorate, and party whips would keep MPs in line. Now the government has to work hard at maintaining the confidence of the House, whereas in the past it could almost be assumed.

As indicated, these changes have consolidated political parties as the primary unit of representation in Parliament. However, there is still a number of other difficulties with the system which pose problems of legitimacy. Firstly, the one seat threshold rule distorts the proportionality of Parliament. When a candidate wins an electorate seat and the party registers less than five percent of the total party vote, the party is still entitled to a proportionate top-up of MPs. Rodney Hide's win in Epsom at the 2005 election gave the ACT Party two MPs, even though it won only 1.5 percent of the party vote. Secondly, the issue of the Maori seats may change what constitutes a majority. This is because of the potential over-hang. At the 2005 election, the Maori Party won 2.1 percent of the party vote and four electorates. Thus, it has four MPs. However, polling for the coming election indicates it may win more electorates from among the seven Maori seats, even though its party vote is likely to be about the same. Since the number of Maori seats will keep growing as the size of the Maori roll increases, it is likely that over time the difference between the number of MPs elected from the party vote and the electorate vote will grow. That would contribute to a considerable over-hang in Parliament of perhaps as many as six extra MPs. This would make it harder for a government trying to form a majority.

New Zealand's experience of MMP has therefore shown that proportional representation has produced a number of changes to the way the business of government is carried out in the context of a Westminster system of government. The various coalition and support arrangements have produced reasonably durable governments so far. Yet, the system poses problems of legitimacy with its mixture of list and constituency representation and dual thresholds. This distorts representation and can lead to a top-heavy Parliament. The fact remains that voters can no longer be certain that the government they think they are voting for on election day is the one that will be formed.


With an election just around the corner, Maxim Institute is launching the first of its 2008 NZ Votes political debates. Fifteen NZ Votes debates will happen across the country, providing an invaluable opportunity for voters to hear MPs and candidates debate their party policies.

Come along and to find out more about how the electoral system works and hear from the candidates themselves, what they stand for and why.

The first of our 2008 NZ Votes debates will be held on Tuesday, 16 September, 7.30pm - 9.30pm at Greenlane Christian Centre, 17 Marewa Rd, Greenlane, Auckland. Entry is free, although donations are appreciated. This launch of the 2008 NZ Votes political debates looks set to be a success with a number of high profile MPs already confirmed, including Keith Locke, Hon Phil Goff, Dr Richard Worth OBE and Judy Turner.

Find out more about NZ Votes http://www.nzvotes.org/


The application process for Maxim Institute's Summer Internship programme 2008 / 2009 is now open. The Summer Internship is residential and runs from 24 November 2008 - 13 February 2009. The interns will study a range of topics including jurisprudence, civil society, theology, economic policy, philosophy and politics, while gaining professional experience working directly with the Institute's research, policy, communications and events departments.

Find out more or request an application form http://www.maxim.org.nz/index.cfm/About_us/Send_Email?id=34


Maxim Institute has re-launched its election website www.nzvotes.org. Due to a large number of excellent new election resource websites that have launched this election we have changed the format of nzvotes.org. nzvotes.org will now act as a portal to election resources. If you want to know where to find the information you need to vote well, then visit www.nzvotes.org.


A new initiative has been launched this week by the Villa Education Trust encouraging parents to read to their children. In association with Harper Collins, the programme offers discounts on books and in return for a registration fee families are sent a booklet full of ideas about how to make reading fun and a list of books to choose a complimentary copy from. Books store our cultural memory, they tell the story of who we are and help us to understand the events that have shaped us.

Find out more about 'Read to your kids' http://www.readtoyourkids.co.nz/


'Under MMP, the people surrendered the right of choosing their Prime Minister and government. The people elect their representatives from the political parties and leave it to the parties to determine the make-up of government.'

Professor Philip Joseph, Canterbury University

A registered charitable trust, funded by donations, Maxim Institute values your interest and support.

Click here to find out how you can support Maxim Institute (http://www.maxim.org.nz/index.cfm/About_us/Support_us)

Maxim Institute's regular email publication, Real Issues, provides thought-provoking analysis of developments in policy and culture in New Zealand and around the world.

Maxim Institute. 49 Cape Horn Road, Hillsborough, Auckland, New Zealand.


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