Suddenly we’re seeing a rather boring-looking election year spring into life. Until last week, we’ve had a relatively safe and slow moving government about to sleep walk to victory over a lame-duck Labour Party. But now the party system has been somewhat reinvigorated, and the contest might be a lot more interesting because there’s going to be some real policy disagreement, and some relatively dynamic debate being forced by these parties to the left and right of the big two giants (National and Labour). I was interviewed this morning on TVNZ Breakfast about this topic and about what the changes in the political landscape might mean for the referendum on MMP. The video of the interview is here, and it was also reported in a story entitled ‘Race row could escalate ahead of election’. This blog post elaborates on some of the points I made about the changes in the political landscape. [Read more below]
This change in the party system has been building for a while – so it’s not exactly a big shock; the Act Party has been stumbling around looking for a way out of the doldrums for quite a few years, and obviously Hone Harawira has been looking to start a new party for some time and its really just a coincidence that it all came together in the same week. So, although there has just been a fair bit of turbulence in parliamentary politics, there’s not likely to be any other significant new minor parties being launched this year. These two parties are really starting to fill a gap that’s been a bit missing on the left and right of politics in recent years.
But the resurgence of these more dynamic forces doesn’t necessarily mean that politics is suddenly going to be free of trivial and superficial personality-style campaigning. The fact is that minor parties are increasingly focused on trying to create political stunts to get themselves attention – and that’s exactly what Hone Harawira’s doing with this resignation from Parliament: it’s a big political stunt really, and quite a brilliant one in terms of strategic campaigning. It’s well-timed and it means Harawira’s new party is going to get a lot of media coverage over the next few months.
We’re going to see a lot more stunts from politicians in the next few months. The minor parties have trouble getting our attention by just talking about their policies, so they resort to all sorts of circus-like behaviour and colourful publicity mongering. Increasingly politicians will do anything for a bit of the limelight.
The Impact of the Harawira and Brash parties on the MMP referendum
The two newly invigorated minor parties could indeed have quite an impact on the MMP referendum. They could both hurt and bolster MMP’s chances of success at the referendum. They could hurt MMP, because the public are likely to vote against retaining MMP if they believe that minor parties such as the Mana Party and Act Party are too extreme, if they have disproportionate power in coalition government, or are deemed too irresponsible. And certainly Hone Harawira’s decision to force an expensive by-election will be viewed as irresponsible by the vast majority of voters (but of course, Harawira isn’t focused on winning the approval of the majority – instead he’s sharply focused only on a very small minority of voters).
But these radical left and right parties might also bolster the chances of MMP succeeding in the referendum by making the electoral system work better, and providing voters with a lot more ideological diversity in this year’s election. The rest of the parties – especially National and Labour, but the Greens too – are increasingly boring and bland and focused almost exclusively on swing voters, and those in the middle of the political spectrum. So to have two parties that are genuine left- and right-wing in ideology might actually show the public the value of having a choice in elections that is beyond just the two-party system. Turnout at this year’s election is likely to be higher because those more marginal voters outside the “centre of politics” will actually take more of an interest in the vote.
We’ll be asked in the referendum whether we want to retain MMP or not, and we’ll also be asked what other electoral system would be a better alternative. Yet at the moment there isn’t really anyone significant, or any political party, that is pushing strongly for any of the alternatives to MMP. So unless there is suddenly a strong push for a return to first-past-the-post or, say, the Supplementary Member system, then I’m not really sure that MMP is going to be properly put to the test.
Will minor parties be irrelevant to the MMP decision?
The irony of the coming referendum is that it’s occurring just when the public might actually elect a party to govern on it’s own without the need for minor parties to support it in coalition. The voters are almost reverting us back to a first-past-the-post style government simply by voting in such strong numbers for one single party.
Unfortunately there hasn’t yet been much public debate on the merits and drawbacks of MMP – which is a bit of a concern. Hopefully once we get a bit closer to the election, there will be some reasoned analysis of the options amongst the public. But unless that happens, it’s human nature to simply make your decision on your recent experience of MMP. And although this current government has worked MMP quite well, which should lead most people to be happy with the status quo, there’s a real danger that many people will make their referendum decision based on the maverick behaviour and idiosyncratic politics of Hone Harawira and Don Brash – that’d be a real shame.