• How MMP Is Meant to Work

    There will no doubt be many who will be outraged if Winston Peters agrees to join Labour and the Greens in a coalition government.  But they will be wrong – reflecting a first-past-the-post mentality that should have no place in an MMP environment.

    The objectors will argue that New Zealand First’s obligation is to join the party securing the greatest number of votes (and seats).  But – however strongly they may feel that the National party, as the largest party, somehow has a moral claim to be in government – there is no such obligation, either in principle or in the rules.

    On the contrary, MMP is specifically designed to ensure that the largest party does not necessarily walk off with all the spoils.  One of the great weaknesses of a first-past-the-post election is that it ensured that the “winner” – even if falling short of a majority of the votes cast – can in most cases secure a parliamentary majority, and can then proceed to treat parliament as its poodle, paying little attention to the interests of that wide range of opinions not represented in government.

    It was this kind of outcome that led Quintin Hogg, later the British Conservative peer, Lord Hailsham, to describe such a government as an “elective dictatorship”.  MMP was designed to ensure that a party would, improbably, have to win an outright majority of votes and seats before it could govern without reference to any other party.

    The essence of an MMP government is, in other words, not that it has more votes and seats than any other single party.  The only thing that matters – as it always does under any voting system in a Westminster-style parliament – is that it must be able to win crucial votes in parliament – that is, it must have a parliamentary majority.  How that majority is made up, and whether or not it includes the largest party, is completely irrelevant.  A coalition of (let us say) the five smallest parties in parliament would be perfectly legitimate, as long as it commanded a majority.

    The point of the MMP reform is that it should produce a parliament that is more representative of the various interests and opinions in the country, and that the government of the day should have to pay more attention to the views of the whole of parliament rather than just those of its own members.  It is not unrealistic to say that, in our experience of MMP, those goals have largely been achieved.

    Today’s parliament, by comparison with those of a couple of decades ago, boasts a greater representation of women and minorities of various kinds, and governments are more likely to be compelled to negotiate for support from smaller parties rather than being able simply to over-ride them.

    The delay as we await the formation of a coalition government, in other words, is not some unforeseen and unfortunate and quixotic malfunction.  It is the intended and positive outcome of a constructive and planned reform.

    The interesting aspect of MMP, though, is that it has produced for us a beneficial combination of outcomes that may not have been fully foreseen.  In what we might flatter ourselves is an expression of the genius of the New Zealand voter, we have succeeded in not only bringing about a more representative and fairer parliament and a more responsive government.

    We have at the same time managed to retain for the voters a genuine and recognisable choice between two main groupings – in conventional terms, one on the left and one on the right.  So, we have in effect the best of both worlds – a fairer system but also one that does not preclude the emergence of an effective majority government that is more or less in line with the public’s wishes.

    In our current situation, the two competing blocs are perhaps less to be described in conventional terms of left and right (it would not be clear where New Zealand First might fit in such a dichotomy). The distinction is rather between those favouring the status quo and that majority who are looking for change.  New Zealand First’s position on that spectrum is pretty clear – and they deserve no criticism for acting on that preference.

    Bryan Gould

    8 October 2017

     

     

     

     

2 Comments

  1. mikesh says: October 8, 2017 at 4:31 amReply

    Winston of course is not completely free to choose the next government. He cannot form a coalition that doesn´t include one or other of the the two largest parties.

  2. Bryan Gould says: October 8, 2017 at 7:19 amReply

    Agreed.