Politics

Enough with the MMP catastrophising. The system is working just fine

It might feel like we’re waiting forever, says Simon Wilson, but MMP is operating effectively right now.

What exactly is the problem? We had an election that did not deliver an obvious majority government, so coalition talks have been required. They were delayed because there was a very high number of special votes and it was assumed they would change the weightings of each side in the final result. That assumption was correct. We are now less than two weeks into a negotiation period where the parties have been, we are told, intensely focused on policy. An announcement is probably imminent.

It’s all good. If you can’t stand waiting in a queue for five minutes for a cup of coffee, this is probably hard. But it’s not wrong.

On the contrary, so much about it is very right. In no particular order:

They’re focused on policy

Everybody always says how much they hate the way personalities dominate politics. But these negotiations have been all about policy. If what we’re told is true, they have not been arm-wrestling over the baubles of office but have, instead, been on a deep dive into what each side would do as government. That’s splendid.

They’re not horse trading

In focusing on policy, it also seems they have not been able to treat the negotiations as an auction, bidding and out-bidding each other to some absurd end. We had enough of that between National and Labour during the election campaign. Now, it seems like they’ve done something more like sealed bids.

Sharpening the mind, for all parties, will have been the knowledge that simply winning isn’t the goal. Both National and Labour have to win with a credible deal – one that allows them to lead a popular government into the next election in good shape. If they get there in tatters, they’ll be history. If they can’t get that credible deal, both of them will be better off, just for now, in opposition.

Again, this is a good thing. We are unlikely to get a government forged out of fantasy politics: all promises and no substance.

The tail is not wagging the dog

In a simple sense, Winston Peters is deciding who the next government will be. But he doesn’t have a free hand. We voted on who should be in the next government, and our collective will did not deliver a simple decision. Peters can do no more than our vote allows him to do. And that’s fine.

We are now waiting to see who can construct a government that reflects the complexity of our collective will. Only two political leaders are able to do this: Bill English and Jacinda Ardern. One of them will form the next government.

Yes, Peters has dictated the form of the negotiations. But so what? Once they’re done, NZ First will be a minor party in a government led by a major one. We’ll be back to business as usual, with a government programme led by the major party and moderated by the minor partner or partners.

It’s worked pretty well for 20 years now.

The moral right to govern is secure

The moral right to govern belongs where it has always belonged, not just under MMP but under First Past the Post (FPP) as well: with the party that can command a majority of votes in parliament on the issues that count (principally, what it wants to spend money on). That is, as always, the true moral authority in a democracy.

Besides, when it comes to moral authority the version of democracy with the most spurious claim is FPP. That’s because a party with less than majority support is able to behave as if it has the majority behind it, with no checks on that behaviour. Coalition government under MMP inherently offers a check, because coalition partners don’t have to agree to everything.

It doesn’t matter that we’re still waiting

If the choice is to get it done quickly or get it done well, is there really anyone who prefers the former?

It doesn’t matter that MMP’s not perfect

MMP makes every vote equal. Just about. That’s its great strength. But like all forms of democracy, it’s imperfect. Anomalies and inefficiencies exist. Some of them, it doesn’t really matter; others, we should fix. We probably won’t all agree on on which problem fits into which category, but we can try.

Because MMP requires parties to compromise, they can never fully implement their policies – on balance, in my view, that’s a strength. But the 5% threshhold and the exemption rule for parties that win a seat, they seem to me like weaknesses. People who vote for very small parties don’t have their wishes reflected in the makeup of parliament. This election, there were 120,000 such voters, or the equivalent of nearly six seats in parliament.

It’s also a problem that no party has ever got into parliament without first having at least one MP who defected from another party already there. That’s the problem TOP faced.

We’ve learned about a couple more weaknesses this election, too. One is that MMP appears to kill minor parties. Another is that lowering the 5% threshhold even to, say, 3% might not solve the problem of keeping smaller parties alive. No parties in this election got close to 5% but just missed. TOP got 2.4% and the Māori Party 1.2% and no one else even got to 1%.

There are lots of things we will need to do if we want smaller parties to become more viable. A more sophisticated approach from media would help: just because it suited National to describe the election as a drag race, it didn’t follow that it should have been treated that way. The election was much more than a drag race. As we are witnessing right now, the outcomes for NZ First, the Greens and the Māori Party were all critical.

More importantly, the major parties will need to work out how to help their allies more. National, for example, needed the Māori Party to remain in parliament. If it had been more alert to the issues of poverty championed by the Māori Party, so the latter could have pointed not just to policy wins but real material gains for Māori, the smaller partner might well still be there.

Similarly, Labour made a lot of its quick early gains under Jacinda Ardern by stripping votes from the Green Party. But it must be obvious that for a Labour/Greens government to be viable (as both parties wished for not so many months ago), Labour can’t rely on cannibalising the Green vote.

There will probably also need to be more electoral accommodations. National allows Act to win the Epsom seat but why doesn’t it ask its Epsom supporters to give their party votes to Act as well? If they did that, Act would have its longed-for second MP. And why don’t Labour and the Greens agree on a seat for the Greens?

There’s lots for them – and us – to debate before we get to 2020 (only three short years to go!).

Meanwhile, let’s forget this idea that MMP’s not working. It’s about to deliver us a government with an agreed programme of policies and a workable majority in the house. That majority will comprise MPs who are all in parliament because (votes for the very small parties excepted) each citizen’s vote was worth no more and no less than that of every other citizen.

It’s a very good basis for a government.

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