MMP - The Electorate MP Rule
by Keith Rankin
11 November 2008
Once again, MMP has delivered a nicely weighted result. Voters wanted change, and they got change. And once again, the leading single party fell well short of 50% of the vote, placing the new centre-right government on a path that requires National to have friends in the centre as well as on the right.
We like our political deals to be in the front-room, not the back-room; inter-party, not intra-party.
Nevertheless some aspect of MMP always seems to upset some people. Tails (small minority parties) were accused of wagging dogs (big minority parties). List MPs are said to be unaccountable. MPs voted out in their electorates are returned as List MPs.
These shallow observations carry with them the inference that some other voting system might be superior. But any other voting system that may deal to any one of these alleged problems can generally be shown to be manifestly inferior when electoral systems are looked at in their entirety.
Thus, any proposal to change one single aspect of MMP generally creates more problems than it solves. If electorate candidates could not also be list candidates, then each "dog" party would have one group of electorate MPs that are "Government only" and a group of list MPs that would be "Opposition only". A Party like Labour in 2008 always increases its number of list MPs when its total MP count falls.
Tails have never wagged dogs. However, tthe party that represents the median voter has always had a disproportionate amount of power. The pivot is always in the middle. In NZ since 1996 the median or pivot party has usually either been Labour (1999 and 2002) or NZ First (1996 and 2005). Now it is National.
After the election, the fashionable problem has become the "Electorate MP" party qualifying rule. Parties qualify to be represented proportionally if they have an electorate MP or they get 5% of the nationwide vote. There are good reason for both of these rules.
The 5% rule is arguably too harsh. It is a really difficult barrier to entry for a new party. And it's too harsh on parties that have contributed in Government, as the Alliance (in 2002) and more recently NZ First have discovered. 4% might be a better threshold. It would still be hard, however, for a new party to get 4% of the nationwide vote.
There has to be another route that both protects parties such as Act and Green, while also offering a route into Parliament for new parties.
It is the Electorate MP rule that protects those smaller "tail" parties that contribute to government, but subsequently become electorally vulnerable. And it protects parties like Act, which are absolutely essential for the process of differentiating the political right from the political centre.
Further, as MMP matures with the eventual disappearance of parties led by "first-past-thepost discontents" (Winston Peters, Peter Dunne and Jim Anderton), the Electorate MP rule is likely to prove the principal point of entry for new parties. Thus this rule makes the system as a whole stable yet dynamic.
MMP is still in a transition phase. Too often commentators talk about giving an electorate vote to a party, despite the fact that the electorate vote is a personal vote and not a party vote.
Parties must learn to use the electorate vote as a means to accomplishing "front room" deals. MMP is a system through which groups of parties work together, while individual parties retain their important differences. An efficient system of front-room deal-making requires that the parties that belong to a particular bloc minimise the wasted votes for that bloc. Thus an efficient National-led bloc will always ensure that Act has an electorate MP.
Front-room deals may be tacit (as in Epsom), or explicit (as National was in not standing a candidate in Ohariu-Belmont in 1996 and 1999).
Like National, an efficient Labour-led bloc should always act to ensure that the Green Party never meets the same fate that NZ First met in 2008. (It's also a matter of loyalty to the Greens - who remain stubbornly loyal to Labour - as well as a matter of electoral efficiency.)
What can Labour do to help itself and to help its most important friend? Annette King could retire in say 2010. Labour would then not stand a candidate in the Rongotai by-election, asking Labour voters to elect Russell Norman as the "centre-left" candidate. (In the absense of explicit Australian-style preferential voting in electorates - as opposed to the simple plurality system used here - such front-room deal-making is actually a do-it-yourself preferential system.)
There is another reason why the Electoral MP rule is important. In the rule's absense, all electorate MPs who do not represent parties with 5% of the vote would automatically be overhang MPs. Thus, in the newly elected Parliament, there would be 128 rather than 122 MPs if there was no Electoral MP rule for party representation. 111 of those 128 MPs would be National or Labour (87% "dog" MPs representing the 79% of votes cast for the dog parties). 102 National and Labour MPs are quite enough, thankyou.
To conclude, all politics is about deal-making. Front-room deals are much better, for voters, than are backroom deals. The Electorate MP rule will become the principal rule that gives proportional representation (of which MMP is the best form) its systemic stability and dynamism. This should be seen as the principal rule that qualifies a party to be represented proportionally in Parliament.
As MMP matures, the 5% rule (or 4% rule as it might become), while still important, increasingly will be seen to be the less important of the two rules that qualify parties for representation. There must always be some way that a party which has no friends - and which cannot realistically win an electorate seat under the simple plurality system - can get elected.
krankin @ unitec.ac.nz -