The minor parliamentary parties are killing support for MMP - that’s the impression I came away with after watching the TVNZ minor party leaders debate on Monday night. They’re killing us with boredom, consensus and sameness. Yet this should be the general election whereby the minor parties in Parliament get to shine by showing how different they are to the incredibly centrist and ‘me-too’ Labour and National parties. Surely there are millions of disaffected and unimpressed voters that are turned off the claustrophobic centrist new political consensus set up by Labour and National? But the tragedy is that all the minor parliamentary parties are infected by the same disease – they are falling over themselves to agree with one another and show how cooperative and clean they are. This isn’t useful in an election where the New Zealand public need a real choice between different political programmes rather than mere tinkering with the status quo. Part of the problem is that the current minor parties are atrophied leftovers from the 1990s. We therefore need a shake up of the New Zealand party system and the introduction of some parties that offer real change. [Read more below]
I was pleased to find that a lot of political commentators and pundits were equally displeased by the TVNZ minor party leaders debate on Monday night. Peter Cresswell of the Libertarianz said he was ‘bored rigid’ and deemed the debate to be ‘a pantomime that makes clear enough why MMP has delivered only farce’.
Colin Espiner of the Christchurch Press, was actually at the event and said he ‘was continually looking at my watch and wondering whether it would be polite to leave half-way through’. He agrees that the current party leaders constitute the best argument against MMP: ‘As an advertisement for MMP it was terrible, It’s no wonder voters aren’t very interested in the minor parties if last night’s effort is anything to judge by’. Espiner also cites the new consensus politics and capitulation of the minor parties as the problem:
Basically, all the minor parties have morphed into being United Future. Espiner’s tongue-in-cheek theory was that ‘TVNZ had replaced them with lobotomised clones’ of Peter Dunne, and that therefore ‘everyone was so well behaved that poor old Peter Dunne was unable to shine as Mr Commonsense because everyone else was already being, well, sensible.’
This is one of the key themes of the campaign so far: the tension between the internal party pressure for bitter/dirty election techniques to be used and the external public mood favouring and rewarding reasonableness and clean politics. I wrote about this back in January when I disagreed with most commentators by suggesting that the election campaign might not actually turn out to be all that bitter or dirty:
Hence, Espiner notes that ‘Even Peters and Hide hardly got out of first gear. For anyone who’s seen the pair going hammer and tongs at each other in the House, last night was pussycat stuff. When Hide told Turia he agreed with her about the entrenchment of the Maori seats I thought I’d seen it all’. Espiner pondered whether ‘the party leaders thought it would be a good idea to show the public that they really could behave after all, or whether they wanted to show up Clark and Key from the previous week’.
On his blogsite Against the Current leftwinger Steven Cowan described Monday’s debate as ‘mindboggingly tedious’. His analysis concentrated on the fact that the minor party consensus that has developed is one based on neoliberalism:
Instead of hearing ‘the same old same old’, what he ‘wanted to hear was someone offering a fundamentally new economic direction. I wanted someone to condemn the neo liberal road that the parliamentary parties are lurching down to and offer a clear alternative - socialist or left Keynesian. But we got neither’.
Cowan singles out the Greens and Jeanette Fitzsimons for special criticism:
Massey University’s political marketing expert, Claire Robinson was also amazed at the timidity of the minor parties in the debate. On TV3’s Sunrise she expressed surprise that even Jeanette Fitzsimons was ‘lackluster’ and ‘didn’t come out fighting’ - see video. Robinson wondered whether the Greens are simply playing it safe in the campaign, ’wanting to sail through and not ruffle too many feathers’. Nonetheless she deplored the fact that none of the parties can differentiate themselves from each other or even from Labour and National. Correctly, she stated that ‘Minor parties have to come up with something new and something different from the competition’. Robinson concluded on an exasperated note, asking, ‘Really, why would you vote for a minor party if all it can do is agree with everyone else and say the same thing?’
Not only are the minor parties apparently doing their best to kill support for MMP, they’re helping make the 2008 general election one of the least dynamic and policy-oriented for a long time. Following Monday’s leaders’ debate reports suggested that the public switched channels on the boring debate – see: Leader talks have viewers looking for the remote. Unlike the Labour-National leaders debate, viewing numbers dropped considerably, with only 377,856 watching – a decline of 43% from the same time slot on Labour Weekend last year. The two other main channels were the beneficiaries, with 478,000 watching Shortland Street and 417,000 watching Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
It is increasingly clear that the minor parliamentary parties have run out of steam and dynamism. The minor party leaders’ debate involved mostly ‘yesterday’s politicians’ of the 1990s: Anderton, Peters, Fitzsimmons, Dunne, and Hide are all simply survivors from the politics of the early 1990s. They’ve been around for too long and represent mostly pre-MMP politics. Hence everyone in the debate had grey hair. Now obviously there should always be room for a bit of grey hair in our elections, but the handwringers who worry about youth not voting, might want to look at just what’s on offer before blaming the public for not bothering.
It’s also worth noting that MMP has largely let down the public in its promise to revitalize the New Zealand party system. Labour and National still monopolise Parliament, and nearly all the minor parties in Parliament are leftovers from pre-MMP days. We never really had the shake up of the party system that was expected. In fact, apart from Act, every minor party in Parliament has been established from within Parliament by existing MPs (and even the Act party was established by a number of ex-MPs including Richard Prebble who was only temporarily out of Parliament for one term).
Unfortunately we’re now into our fourth MMP election, and all the minor parties seem about as exciting and relevant as United Future. Perhaps it’s time for a real shakeup of the party system.