What Good is MMP Anyway?

November 11, 2009

This is the next in several posts on MMP and the debate around whether it should be retained or done away with in the referenda to take place over the next few years. Here I ask: What good is MMP anyway?

The traditional wisdom on proportional systems versus majoritarian systems (or MMP vs. FPP) is that proportional sytems are ‘nicer’ and more inclusive, whereas majoritarian systems are more effective. The logic behind this is pretty straightforward: The more parties in government, the more people get to have a say; with only one party in government decisions get made in a quick, decisive way.

But does this logic hold? Actually, in 1999 it was blown out of the water. Political scientist Arend Lijphard categorized 36 countries as consensual or majoritarian, but he also asked the ‘so what?’ question, and he found that on the whole the traditional wisdom was unfounded: there is no trade-off between quality and effectiveness of democratic government.

1. Economic development is at least as good under proportional (MMP) systems as under FPP. Successful macroeconomic management needs a steady hand as much as a strong one, and MMP systems are in fact better at managing inflation than FPP systems (though this is probably because they are associated with independent central banks).

2. Consensual systems like MMP are associated with less political violence like riots.

3. Consensual systems provide for better democracy: Higher voter turnouts, higher representation of minorities and women, more equal distribution of political power and less corruption.

4. Consensual systems are ‘nicer’: they have less people in prison and are less likely to use the death penalty, they have better social welfare systems, they are better at protecting the environment and provide more foreign aid.

Obviously you will have to read the book and look at the statistical analyses, but taken at face value these conclusions rob opponents of MMP of one of their main arguments: We can have our cake and eat it too – there is no trade-off between inclusiveness and quality of government and effectiveness or economic growth.


Who Will Stop MMP Reform?

November 5, 2009

To continue the analysis I started in my previous post on the apparent unpopularity of MMP in NZ and its possible demise I ask: Who will try and stop a move back to First-Past-the-Post electoral procedures? Let’s take a purely utilitarian approach to this question.

In Parliament, the opposition must surely be opposed to a government which seems to seek to change the electoral ‘rules of the game’ to its advantage. And I believe the Labour party will oppose a move away from MMP, ostensibly for the reason I mentioned previously: Labour has traditionally had more allies with which to form coalitions under MMP, and can thus consider the current system to be to its advantage.

Because the matter will be decided by a public referendum, one could assume that Labour supporters and supporters of all small parties would vote against a move away from MMP and as a bloc form a majority. National did not win a clear majority in the last election after all.

However as the last post showed, not only National supporters are advocating a change back to First-Past-The-Post. Why? And without a Labour-Small Party bloc who will support MMP?

I suggest that National’s success in wooing the Maori Party and United Future has changed some Labour supporters’ view of the ‘rules of the game’ of MMP in that they no longer see themselves as a priviliged player under MMP compared to National. If National can also form coalitions with three or more smaller parties, what are the benefits to Labour from MMP (over and above those for National, it goes without saying)?

There are none. Labour supporters are therefore put in a position the same as National supporters were up to now: they have no reason to support proportional representation when they could govern alone under First-Past-the-Post (except ideational reasons which I may look at later). By this reasoning, if voters vote according to their parties’ interests at the referenda only small party supporters will support PR and MMP should be shown the door.

How to explain politicians’ continued support of MMP? They are hedging their bets, maintaining their popularity in the eyes of smaller parties, who they will have to work with until 2014 at least, and perhaps beyond if the referenda fail.

There is a very interesting poll on the NZ Herald website today which shows most New Zealanders would like to change their electoral system away from MMP. 49% said they would vote against MMP at a referendum, 36% said they would vote for it and 15% said they didn’t know which way they would go. There is to be a referendum on whether to keep MMP at the next general election.

To compare these figures to the results of the election a year or so ago: Then only 14% of voters voted for a small party – that is not for National or Labour (but excluding those who did not make it into Parliament). So MMP obviously has support outside its core demographic of voters who do not subscribe to the two main parties.

However, a larger proportion of respondents are against MMP than voted for National at the last election: 49% versus 45%. I find this a little surprising, as my first instinct on MMP reform was that it was just a case of the victors being able to change the rules of the game to ensure their continued electoral success: National has always had a lesser number of willing coalition partners than Labour and thus would prefer a return to FPP. (Yes, I maintained this belief despite John Key’s sincere utterings that most NZers want to stick with MMP – which have been proved to be wrong).

But this result seems to indicate something a little deeper than that: It is not just National, but also Labour, supporters wanting to get rid of proportional representation. The flip-side of the 14% of people voting for smaller parties are the 79% of people voting for either Labour or National, as shown below.


As this graph makes visually clear, if supporters of the two main parties decide that they no longer want proportional representation, and would rather govern alone without coalition partners, they will always be able to push this through.

This is, of course, a simple case of majority rules and exactly what MMP was brought in to prevent. Should the change to MMP therefore be regarded as an anomaly; a short period where the majority were so disillusioned with politics that they were prepared to allow minorities a more significant say, which has now passed?

Of course we will have to see what the results of the actual referenda are, but this initial poll result would suggest that supporters of both main parties are a little more cold-blooded in their attitudes towards minorities than one might have expected.