MMP: What about Politics?

September 25, 2009

Due to the upcoming referendum on the MMP electoral system in New Zealand, there have been a raft of blog postings on the performance of the present system, what people would prefer in a new electoral system, what the effect of the 5%  threshold is, and different types of electoral system.

These all make for interesting reading, if you are interested in arcane electoral mechanics, mundane spreadsheet calculations and the functioning of democracy in obscure countries (like NZ).

However they all miss one aspect of the debate around MMP, and that is Politics, or ‘Who gets what, when and how’.

They seem to assume that NZ politics will be solely defined by its electoral system and miss other things such as public opinion, political parties, interest groups, political culture, the list goes on.

It is therefore worthwhile asking: Would having a different electoral system change NZ politics? The answer is, not very much. The changes would be on the fringes: with perhaps slightly higher representation for smaller parties in Parliament, and perhaps the creation and representation of a new party or two.

Due to the inate tendency of party policy to tend to the middle, it can be safely assumed that the majority of the votes cast will be gathered by two large parties who battle it out for the chance to form a government.

Sound familiar? Yep, it sounds like democracy pretty much all over the world. That’s the beauty of not examining an electoral system in isolation but in its context, Politics.

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4 Responses to “MMP: What about Politics?”

  1. dave Says:

    it is therefore worthwhile asking: Would having a different electoral system change NZ politics?

    Did the change of electoral system in 1996 change NZ politics? Demostrably so. DO you think that if we had FPP with no Maori seats nothing will change in politics?

  2. comparablog Says:

    Thank you for the post Dave.

    I think your questions can only be answered by referring to the definition of politics I mentioned above: Who gets what, when and how.

    Then the answer becomes more fuzzy than you assume.

    Apart from the few parliamentary salaries for their members of course, have the smaller parties in Parliament really made a large difference to the distribution of wealth and power in NZ?

    I would argue no. Small parties’ influence is by definition small. Large policy decisions are still made by the two large parties, who distribute the spoils to the large majority of voters, around the middle of the political spectrum, who vote for them.

    This poses a normative question: Is this fair?

    However I digress. Your second counterfactual question can be partly answered by my comments above. But in a representative system like that of the United States (FPP) minorities could have a harder time garnering influence through political parties and lobbying than when they are allocated a certain number of seats in parliament like in NZ.

    On the other hand not even that is a given, and I’m sure there are interesting studies which examine the question of minority influence in different electoral systems.

  3. MarkF Says:

    Henry – proportional systems sometimes give small parties a say that is greater than the proportion of votes (or seats) that they gain on election day. In NZ the classic example is Winston Peters deciding who would form the government in 1996.

    In Israel the threshold for entering the Knesset is 1 or 2 percent, which means that more extreme positions make it on to the table as single-issue parties can get elected. In the Israeli case the small parties have a big say in who gets what, when and how because the big parties need their votes to form coalitions and pass legislation.

    I would say that under the 5 per cent threshold in NZ (magnified of course when a party wins a consituency seat) the Greens, ACT, United Future, the Maori Party and Jim Anderton have had a major influence on the agendas of Labour and National-led governments. One could argue that Labour’s support for social issues advanced by the Greens cost it the last election, although John Key’s comments following the recent anti-smacking referendum revealed that Sue Bradford’s bill had wider support than the Nats were prepared to admit in the campaign.

    MMP with a 5 per cent threshold may not be a ‘fair’ system, depending on the criteria by which one measures fairness. In NZ’s case it is probably the ‘least bad option.’ A party that needs 5 per cent to get elected has to offer a broader manifesto than one that only needs 1 per cent. Broader representation in the House keeps the bigger parties from getting too far ahead of themselves. I’m not sure that it is wise to put this system up for referedum – and potentially damaging changes – just as it is bedding itself in. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. A different system would undoubtedly lead to changes, and not necessarily positive ones.

  4. comparablog Says:

    Howdy Mark. Thanks for the insightful comments as always. As regards the influence of small parties, the poll I commented on today suggests that a lot of NZers are not so keen on them having much of an influence at all!

    The timing of the referenda has been made very long to try and prevent a knee-jerk reaction against MMP but the sentiment seems to be anti-minority parties at the moment and we will have to wait (a long time) to see how the story continues …


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