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One simple trick to improve the quality of our politics and our politicians

How does MMP work – and how can you make the most of your two ticks? Danyl Mclauchlan has your crucial election year primer.

It’s an election year in New Zealand. Again. Our political calendar always starts with a sequence of set pieces, and these intensify going into a campaign year, starting with Ratana. After that opposition leaders often give a “state of the nation” speech in which they attempt to recreate Don Brash’s big Orewa moment and usually fail. There’s the opening of parliament where the prime minister traditionally gives a statement attempting to set their government’s tone and messaging for the year. Jacinda Ardern will, presumably, caution us all against any terrible fake news suggesting that her government is less than transformational and has not healed the nation. The opposition leader traditionally responds with a savage frenzy of hatred and mockery, a role that Simon Bridges is likely to excel at.

Then there’s Waitangi, our national day, which is now a feeding frenzy for lobbyists because of the high concentration of senior politicians and staffers trapped in a non-parliamentary environment for almost a week. After that there’s a long sequence of strategic budget leaks and preannouncements, leading up to Budget Day in late May or early June, when everyone pretends to be astonished that the budget contains the things the government has said it would. No one knows if any of this stuff has any impact on the voters, but politicians always do it all anyway, just in case.

My brain tells me the most likely outcome of this year’s contest is a continuation of the status quo: the co-Prime Ministership of Jacinda and Winston. My heart wants a Labour-Green government (some people worry that this would be a very radical government, but Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern would still drive the policy agenda and the depth of their political radicalism does not keep me up nights). Both my heart and brain desperately want New Zealand First out of parliament. My gut insists that National will win. Maybe it knows something I don’t.

But whatever the outcome and no matter which party you vote for, I want to try and convince you that the way you cast your other MMP vote – your electorate vote – can also influence the nature of our politics and improve the quality of our MPs – if you cast that vote strategically. I’m talking about split-voting here: dividing the two votes you get under the MMP system between different parties instead of voting for the same party both times, which is the way most New Zealanders vote.

If you already know what split voting is and why we have two votes under MMP then you can skip ahead a couple of paragraphs and I’ll explain how and why you might be able to use it to vote strategically. But if the concept of split voting and/or the entire electoral system seems weird and confusing to you then, briefly:

Prior to 1996 New Zealand used a different electoral system which we now call First Past the Post, or FPP. The way this worked is you got one vote and you cast it for whoever you wanted to elect as your local electorate MP. So if you lived in the Auckland Central electorate, the only vote you could cast was to decide which candidate would become the MP for Auckland Central. And the party that won the majority of electorates formed the government.

FPP’s great advantage was its simplicity. Its disadvantage was almost everything else. What if you liked the Labour Party, say, but didn’t like your local Labour candidate and didn’t want them in parliament? What if 20% of the country liked a third party that wasn’t Labour or National, and voted for them, but that party struggled to win a majority in any electorate seats (this happened in 1981: a now obscure party called Social Credit won 20.65% of the nationwide vote but only 2 seats in parliament). What if the distribution of votes meant that the majority of the country voted for one party but another won a majority of the seats and formed the government (this also happened in 1981: Labour won the popular vote but the National-led Muldoon party won a majority of electorates and formed the government). What if you lived in one of the seats in which one party had a sizeable majority so your vote was basically meaningless? (This happened in most of the country in every single election; the government was decided by a handful of swing voters in a handful of marginal electorates.)

So in the mid-1990s we switched to a less awful but more complicated electoral system and now we all get two votes. You can still vote for a local electorate MP, but you also vote for the party you support, and that decides the proportionality of Parliament and thus who governs the country, thus the name of the newish system: Mixed Member Proportional, or MMP.

The way this works is that prior to each election the parties all draw up ranked lists of candidates. At the top of these lists are the party leaders (Jacinda Ardern, Simon Bridges, Winston Peters etc) continuing down through most of the incumbent MPs, and then the aspiring candidates who aren’t in parliament yet but want to be. After the election the number of MPs/seats the parties win corresponds to the percentage of party votes nationwide, and those MPs consist of (a) the winning electorate MPs, and then (b) the list candidates who didn’t win seats – if their party won fewer electorate seats than their proportionality of that vote.

Which sounds confusing but is pretty simple in practice. If we had MMP back in 1981 then Social Credit, who won 20% of the vote would have had their two electorate MPs and then sixteen more list MPs drawn from their candidate list; Labour would have had more MPs than National, rather than fewer, with those additional MPs drawn from their candidate list, and Labour and Social Credit would have formed the government.

Under MMP “it’s the party vote that counts”, as political journalists on TV say every time they run a poll story. And this is both true and not true. The party vote decides the outcome of the election. But your electorate MP is also quite important. They’re the person who represents your local community and its voters in parliament, and the best person to do that might not be a member of the party you support, for all sorts of valid reasons.

Firstly and most simply: you might not like your party’s candidate. This is the beauty of MMP, but I suspect it’s an unconventional beauty that many people fail to see. Let’s say you’re a National voter who prefers the Labour candidate – you can party vote National and electorate vote Labour, and if the Labour candidate wins you’ll get the local MP you want and this will not change the outcome of the election.

(There are a few seats where this isn’t true: the Māori seats, Epsom, any other electorates that turn out to be strategic because of the weird loopholes in MMP. But we won’t worry about them for now. Many, many columns will be written about them closer to the election.)

This might sound bizarre. How could our hypothetical National supporter vote a Labour MP into parliament and not have it change the election outcome? It feels counter-intuitive to the way we think elections are supposed to work. The answer is that it is indeed “the party vote that counts”, ultimately, so every electorate MP that Labour brings in costs them a list MP. Your local MP goes to parliament instead of some other aspiring candidate on the Labour list. The total number of Labour MPs doesn’t change but the identity of the MP does. The logic of the MMP system ensures that the total number of MPs is decided by the party vote, but the electorate vote gives us more power over who they are, and who represents us than we think we have. And that can make a big difference.

If you’re a civilian living a middle-class life then the identity of your electorate MP probably doesn’t matter very much. But local MPs are very well placed to help the people who are struggling in your electorate and who are trying to navigate the central government’s bureaucracy, dealing with departments like immigration, housing, Work and Income, Oranga Tamariki. An MP’s ability and willingness to perform this role has less to do with their party and a lot to do with the character and calibre of the individual MP (and the staff they can attract).

Some MPs are good at constituency work and some aren’t, and no matter what our different politics are I think most people would agree that parliament and the country would be a better place if there were more MPs who did this work well, and that we should vote accordingly – especially since getting rid of underwhelming local MPs or supporting good ones costs us nothing in terms of the success of our preferred party.

But we don’t seem to do this. Only 27% of voters split their vote in the 2017 election – the number has dropped from 39% in 2002. Part of this is probably the decline of minor party voting. The majority of minor party voters split vote, ie Greens who candidate vote Labour, NZ First voters who candidate vote National. (And not all of these splits seem very strategic: if you’re one of the 2017 Epsom voters who gave ACT your party vote and then cast your local vote for the Green candidate instead of David Seymour, get in touch: I’d love to hear your rationale.)

Maybe we’re also split voting less because we’re more polarised? Maybe our understanding of our political system has deteriorated over time? Maybe millennials have ruined strategic voting out of pure evil? Whatever the reasons, most National and Labour voters simply vote for local candidates that match their parties. Which is fine if you’re invested in a model of politics in which one party is the good party with the good people, or if you just genuinely like the local candidate of the party you happen to support. Or if you’re uncertain about the quality of local candidates and use your party vote as a heuristic.

But I think we should be more discriminating. The basic competence of our MPs is important, and it isn’t the only motive for strategic split-voting. If you’re worried about the ethnic and/or gender diversity of Parliament you might be able to use your electorate vote to improve this. Eg, if you’re a Labour supporter and you think there should be more women in Parliament, and your Labour candidate is a man and the National candidate is a woman, maybe vote for the woman? Alternately, if you’re motivated by a single specific conscience issue – cannabis, euthanasia, abortion – you can see how your local MP voted on this issue in parliament and then query their opponent’s stance and vote accordingly. You could even be cunning and deliberately support a more liberal/conservative candidate in your rival party, thus subtly dragging it towards your own value system. And, again, you can do all of these things without changing the final outcome.

Assessing the quality of electorate candidates can be tricky. You can go along to “Meet the Candidate” events, and if you’re especially repelled by a politician then you should trust your instincts and vote against them. But beware of being charmed by them. Politicians as a species excel at the art of blagging themselves up. It’s their core competency, and even the most mediocre backbencher can make themselves sound like their presence in parliament is vital to the ongoing survival of the nation.

You can search the website of your local newspaper, if you still have one, and see what positions MPs and candidates took on issues that have relevance for you. You can talk to people who aren’t obsessive political tragics (this is about 98% of the country so if you don’t know anyone who fits this description and need to branch out, I hear weekend sports or dance classes are fun). Ask your normies if they know who their MP is and if they’re any good. Church and school leaders, social service workers and local journalists are also fairly reliable indicators of this sort of thing.

There are two complementary mistakes many people make when we think about politics and politicians. The first is the cynic’s “they’re all as bad as each other” and the second is the loyalists: “my party are the good guys and their adversaries are monsters”. But we can support the values of one party and still accept that there are bad or mediocre people in it and good and worthy people in the others. I think this is obviously and uncontroversially true, and we’re lucky to have an electoral system that reflects this truth. We can use it to elect better politicians and improve our politics, and all we have to do is see them more clearly and vote more strategically than many of us currently do.



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