Who likes MMP now?

Roger Partridge
The National Business Review
6 October, 2017

For those of us who think elections should be about policies and not about politics, MMP presents a special kind of purgatory.

It is one day short of a fortnight since the election but are we any closer to knowing the result? And this despite Bill English’s National Party winning a higher share of the votes in the preliminary results than John Key achieved in 2008.

Indeed, National under Mr English gained a higher share of the preliminary vote than any party in the MMP era other than National under Mr Key himself. At 46% of the vote, National’s polling would have produced a landslide victory under first past the post. Yet nearly two weeks later, the chances of predicting who will be the next prime minister are no better than a coin toss.

And it is not just the result that is uncertain. We have no idea what policies our politicians will prescribe – if and when a coalition government is formed. Will we get National’s roads or the Greens' light rail? Do we face the prospect of Labour’s fuel tax or National’s income tax cuts? Is immigration to be slashed, reduced just a little or left more-or-less the same?

We have no idea. The only thing that is certain is that the next government’s policy prescription will be different from those offered to us by any of the parties pre-election.

Coalitions are all about compromise. We may have been offered apples and oranges during the campaign. Under MMP we will be served fruit salad. And it will be the politicians, not the voters, who decide what goes into the mix.

Worst feature

But perhaps the worst feature of MMP is the power it can hand to the parties in the middle. We saw it with the price the Maori Party extracted for allowing Nick Smith’s Resource Management Act amendment legislation to pass through Parliament.

The Mana Whakahono-a-Rohe: Iwi Participation Arrangements were ill-conceived, and they will prove costly and unworkable. But under MMP, the National-led coalition needed the Maori Party’s votes. Divisive and deeply unpopular policy was the price we all paid.

But if some were concerned about the power of the minor parties in the last coalition, it is a whole new ball game this time around. In this election, 93% of voters chose parties other than Winston Peters’ – yet he looks set to choose the next prime minister.

Readers of this column will know my colleague, Oliver Hartwich, has argued that at least part of the problem lies with our politicians. They play MMP as if it were it was first-past-the-post (or so he claims). Old alliances control who will go with whom, leaving the swinging Mr Peters in the saddle. One might argue the only politician who really "gets" MMP is Mr Peters.

And to a point Dr Hartwich is right. We have heard this week the Greens could not contemplate a coalition with National. Where Germany’s Greens are happy to form a coalition with either the centre-right or the centre-left, in New Zealand green policies come in only one flavour. A Blue/Green coalition would simply involve an unacceptable compromise for the Greens’ voters.

But is that not true of the voters of every party on almost every conceivable coalition outcome?

Price of coalition

Labour voters hardly signed up for New Zealand First’s immigration policy, yet that is surely something its leader will require as the price of a Red/Black/Green coalition. And National’s voters will struggle to stomach Mr Peters’ anti-foreign investment, statist economic plans.

Of course, it is said politics is about the art of compromise. But there is something intensely distasteful about a political system that rewards those willing to sell out. Under MMP, political parties cannot afford to be too principled. The price of piety is to be overlooked.

During the 2008 general election campaign, National promised that, if elected, it would hold a referendum on MMP no later than 2011. National was of the view that it was time for the voting public to review the way they elected representatives. All the major parties concurred.

But when the referendum took place in 2011, the opportunity to change to a different voting system was rejected. Perhaps that was not surprising. The referendum coincided with the height of both National’s and Mr Key’s popularity, with National capturing 47% of the votes.

The vote for change also suffered for lack of a political champion. Having campaigned on holding the referendum, Mr Key elected not to promote it. Having proved so adroit at coalition-building, it is hard to fault his politics.

But as we look ahead to weeks, if not months, or even three years of purgatory – with or without a coalition government – I would give long odds to anyone suggesting the result of the referendum would be the same if it were held next election.

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