The Electoral Commission’s two major recommendation for improving MMP are discussed in this guest blog post by Alistair Young. He argues in favour of retaining the much-disliked ‘coat-tailing’ provision, and says that MMP would also benefit from a lower MMP threshold than 4 or 5%. [Read more below]
We are in the midst of a change in our MMP system, there are two core recommendations from the Electoral Commission:
1: Remove the 1 electoral seat waiver (coat-tailing), which allows a party that wins an electoral seat to pull extra MP’s through even if it doesn’t cross the 5% threshold.
2: To reduce the threshold a party must cross to (in the absence of an electoral seat win) achieve representation to 4%.
I will address each of these points in turn:
Proposal 1: Elimination of the electoral seat waiver (coat-tailing)
This controversial practice has created a lot of resentment among many, who regard the pre-election horse trading over tea cups in Epsom as somehow being more grubby and unfair than the post-election horse trading which we expect and welcome under an MMP system.
This is little more than sour grapes from sore losers. We must remember that the Labour Party used this same pre-election horse play with Jim Anderton’s Progressive party to great effect in the Wigram electorate with the same ruthless calculus as National and Act have done in Epsom.
We must look beyond the mean shortsightedness of those who wish to gerrymander a political system for short-term gain. Instead we should look to the long-term benefits a system offers its voting population. I argue that far from being unfair coat tailing improves the stability of MMP coalitions and reduces the possibility of micro parties exerting excessive power in coalitions (i.e. ‘the tail wagging the dog’).
Commentators from David Farrar through to Geoffrey Palmer tell us that eliminating the electoral seat waiver will eliminate the possibility of pre-election horse-trading. This is utter nonsense – imagine if we had no coat-tailing and that the Act Party was just below the threshold of 5%. Of course wily John Key would head to Epsom for a cuppa and make it clear that if Epsom voters were to give their list votes to Act and push the party over the threshold then a National-led coalition could eventuate.
The political sophisticates of Epsom that are well used to these election games would no doubt cooperate and vote for National in the electorate seat and Act on the list (the reverse of the current situation) pushing Act over the 5% threshold, resulting in the same outcome currently available via coat-tailing. Clearly eliminating coat-tailing will not eliminate the possibility of pre-election deals.
We must instead ask what we actually lose by eliminating the practice. The answer is political stability and political diversity.
One of the main benefits of coat-tailing is that it allows either Labour or National (through a pre-election deal) to help sustain a smaller compatible micro party which is ideologically different from it, but still compatible with it. This is done through the gifting of an electoral seat to the micro party, in exchange for cooperation. Thus the micro party becomes dependent upon its host party guaranteeing a high level of stability in coalitions, while also allowing for wide political diversity. It also eliminates the possibility of the smaller party failing to cross the electoral threshold, thus reducing the chance of wasted votes.
The most common criticism of MMP is that it gives micro-parties disproportionate power, allowing the ‘tail to wag the dog’. Clearly this is not the case with micro-parties such as Act, United or the Progressive party which through their dependence on either National or Labour via pre-election deals (coat-tailing) were solid and reliable coalition partners.
Within our political system Act, United, Mana – and to some extent the Maori Party – are all currently dependent on coat-tailing if they are to have any hope of growing. Eliminating coat-tailing will emasculate over half of the current political parties in Parliament. With Winston Peters hitting the wrong side of seventy and smoking we can only assume that NZ First will pass away following his physical demise. This leaves us with the dire possibility of a three-party MMP system with a few Maori electorate MPs at the political margins. This would essentially be ‘FPP cross-dressing as MMP’.
Proposal 2: Reducing the threshold
New Zealand’s experience of MMP in six elections so far has shown that only one political party has emerged from outside Parliament – the Act Party. No other party has emerged independently of an existing party. This suggests that the 5% is just too high. Currently a party requires around 125,000 votes to meet the 5% MMP threshold.
Within the Government’s terms of reference for MMP reform, there is no reason for retaining a threshold as high as 4 or 5%. It could easily be reduced to 3% without requiring a referendum. At 3% this would still require an emerging political force to muster 75000 votes – providing 4 MPs to such a party.
This would allow political forces to emerge organically and independently of either Labour or National – thus not requiring a pre-election deal to swap an electoral seat in exchange for a guarantee of cooperation. Of course with time a new political force could mature and begin to do pre-election deals with one of the two main parties, creating a relationship of political dependence and stability, while maintaining the rich diversity that MMP has the ability to deliver.
Conclusion: We are currently looking at the imminent demise of United and Act. With Winston Peters entering his tobacco accelerated dotage we will be down to three dominant parties (National, Labour and the Greens) with the two Maori-focused parties at the margins. Eliminating coat-tailing will guarantee the Maori focused parties stay at the margins leaving us with a future of only three political parties in an MMP system – ‘FPP with lipstick’.
Reducing the threshold to 3% would allow new political forces to emerge with reasonable ease. Keeping coat-tailing will improve the durability of those emerging political forces which are compatible with either of the two main parties, sustaining the new political forces and generating greater stability once they mature, undeniably a virtuous cycle of political stability and diversity.
This is a magnificent opportunity which we should not sacrifice to the current mean and short sighted goals of the incumbents or the sore losers.
Notes – primary materials in this analysis were: