Winston Peters heads to the polls in 2014. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The best argument against lowering the MMP threshold? Winston Raymond Peters

Winston Peters has spent decades gaming MMP to keep himself in the position of king (or queen) maker. Asks Danyl Mclauchlan, are we really going to make it even easier for politicians like him?

The Green Party has put forward a members bill which, among other things, advocates lowering the MMP threshold from 5% to 4%. Let us set aside the terrible, terrible optics of a political party that is part of the government, and hovering just above the 5% threshold in the recent round of polls – and which routinely under-performs the polls on election day – attempting to alter the electoral system to its own advantage and consider the 5% threshold itself.

It is obviously unfair and distortionary. A party that gets 5% of the vote gets six seats in parliament, while a party that gets 4.9% gets zero. Why should 131,508 voters (5% of the turnout in the 2017 election) have their votes translated into seats into Parliament, and a slightly smaller number have their votes nullified? And the threshold distorts the decision making process around who to vote for if their favoured party is in that danger zone. Does a Green voter vote Green, with the risk that their vote will get wiped out, or switch to Labour, who they support less but whose vote carries essentially zero risk?

A 4% threshold still has these problems, but because the threshold is lower the unfairness and distortion are reduced. Why not lower it to 1%? Or whatever percentage is enough to capture a single seat in parliament (this number shifts around, depending on various factors). The assumption is that this would lead to a proliferation of weird minor parties and lead to the instability we see in, for example, Israeli politics.

But New Zealand seems to be heading in the opposite direction, drifting back towards the two party system MMP was designed to prevent, and the 5% threshold seems to play a key role in this. It’s just too high for aspiring new parties to breach and it’s endangering both the current minor parties. So lowering the threshold to 4% seems like a moderate step to address this. And prior to the last election I was a strong advocate of a 4% threshold for all the reasons I just described. Now I’m not so sure.

A few years ago I was arguing with the recently departed and much missed political commentator Rob Hosking and he told me the parable of Chesterton’s Fence. The conservative essayist and novelist G K Chesterton wrote about two farmers walking down a trail. They come across a fence blocking their way. The first farmer suggests they get rid of it; the second farmer replies, “First let’s figure out why the fence is here. Then we can decide whether we should get rid of it.” This is a very flattering way for conservatives to think about their role in politics: silly old progressives keep trying to abolish customs and traditions without understanding them, while conservatives patiently prevent them from hurting themselves and everyone else.

But it seems relevant with regard to the 5% threshold. Our version of MMP was copied from the German system and the threshold was there to prevent the rise of extremist political parties, something that nation was apprehensive about for obvious reasons. That didn’t seem like a realistic fear for New Zealand so copying such a high threshold seemed unjustifiable. But now that we’re seeing a global rise of extremist parties, a fascist government in Brazil, etc, it no longer seems like such an abstract fear.

But my main problem with lowering the threshold is that it will also probably save New Zealand First, and it will make the New Zealand First model of politics so much more viable.

This is a model in which you fundraise from exploitative, extractive industries (fishing, forestry), campaign on populist issues (Peters’ flagship policies in 2017 were lower immigration, a referendum to ditch the Māori seats and to remove GST on fruit and vegetables), ditch all of your policies and issues as soon as the election is over, and use your position in the political centre to maximise your personal power.

It means Peters gets to operate as a de facto co-prime minister, he gets to veto any attempts to regulate his corporate donors, he gets to unilaterally change our long-standing foreign policy towards China without bothering to tell the actual prime minister, let alone the Cabinet, his deputy gets given three billion dollars to just give away to whoever he wants, and none of this has any mandate from the public whatsoever. Nobody wanted or voted for any of this, not even New Zealand First’s voters, but here we all are.

The 5% threshold hasn’t saved us from Peters but this is because he’s one of the most brilliant politicians the country has ever seen. His model is a very successful hack of the MMP system, but you have to be Peters to pull it off – otherwise everyone would do it: after all, you get near total political power with virtually no votes.

But Peters was kicked out of parliament after his last shambolic tenure in government and, based on the current polls, he’ll be wiped out at the next election, so it is (hopefully) not a sustainable model, even for him. The 5% threshold is what protects us from countless imitators reproducing the hack and wrecking our government. That is what the fence is protecting us from. We’d be fools to lower it.


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