Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Lifeboats and deals

Some New Zealanders think that any manoeuvring by political parties is inherently scummy. Part of that is because ordinary people don’t like politicians, so they certainly don’t like what politicians do.

But are they being fair or ornery? I think it’s the latter, and incredibly self-defeating.

The main issue right now is parties doing what TV3 News’ Political Reporter, Patrick Gower, has been referring to as “dirty deals”. For example, in the Epsom electorate the conservative National Party is running a phony candidate who is, he said, campaigning only for the Party Vote. That way, it will enable the far right Act Party a chance to elect a former National Party MP as the Act MP for Epsom, bringing in three or four Act Party MPs, based on current polling.

This happens because of the “threshold” for representation in Parliament: To be in Parliament, a party must win five percent of the party vote, or an electorate. If they win an electorate, then all their Party Votes count. If a party wins neither an electorate seat nor five percent of the Party Vote, then that party receives NO seats in Parliament.

In the 2008 election, Act got 5 MPs, even though they won only 3.65% of the Party Vote, because they won the Epsom electorate (again through a deal with National). However, in the same election, New Zealand First won NO seats in Parliament, even though they received 4.07% of the Party Vote, because they failed to win an electorate seat.

This anomaly encourages deals like that of National and Act in Epsom. It also encouraged National to avoid challenging one-man Party Peter Dunne in Ohariu Belmont, and also, allegedly, for the Greens to avoid campaigning for the electorate vote there in order to give Labour’s Charles Chauvel a better shot at defeating Dunne. Similarly, Gower reported that Act won’t stand a candidate in New Plymouth to give the National Party candidate a better shot at defeating Labour’s Andrew Little. And there are, no doubt, similar things going on in other electorates.

There’s nothing “dirty” about this deal-making—it’s a rational thing for parties to do in order to shape the new Parliament. Gower says these deals are “dirty” because they’re not being honest about what they’re doing. Well, maybe, but considering voters’ almost visceral negative reaction—helped by the news media, if we’re honest—can we really blame them?

It doesn’t have to be this way: We could abolish the threshold altogether so that all Party Votes count. There would be no wasted votes, except for the fringiest of the fringe, and there’d be no need for all these “deals”. Obviously a party would need to win enough votes so that they correspond to a complete person. At the moment, to have one MP in the 120-member Parliament, a party would need to win something like 0.834% of the Party Vote.

Some people would be appalled by this, but as Idiot/Savant notes on No Right Turn, the whole point of MMP is proportionality: “We wanted parties to be represented in direct proportion to the votes cast.” In fact, that’s what we tell people about MMP—I know I certainly have. The five percent threshold makes proportionality more difficult to obtain.

The two main parties—National and Labour—are fine with that. National wants to dump MMP in favour of a non-proportional system. Labour wants to keep MMP, but the party’s leader, Phil Goff, has argued that party votes shouldn’t count if they win an electorate unless they also win five percent of the Party Vote.

I have to admit, I’m a recent convert to the abolitionist view. I’ve argued that Labour and Green voters in Epsom should vote for the National Party candidate because if the Act candidate loses, then Act will be out of Parliament. I’ve even said that if I lived in Epsom, that’s what I’d do—after all, it’d advance my centre-left values to vote strategically.

However, I’ve come to realise that this tactic, while valid and rational from the viewpoint of promoting centre-left government, is inherently un-democratic. I despise everything Act stands for, but if they have enough support from New Zealand voters, why shouldn’t they be represented in Parliament? The way to combat the insane agenda and ideology of Act isn’t to suppress their votes and disenfranchise their supporters, it’s to provide an attractive alternative to voters.

So I’ve changed my mind. If we want a Parliament that looks like New Zealand, if we want one that accurately reflects how voters cast their ballots, then the logical thing to do—the right thing—is to abolish the five percent threshold.

In the meantime, that’s the system we have, and parties would be mad not to take advantage of it as best they can. It doesn’t make it right, democratic or fair, but it is rational. The solution isn’t, as Goff and Key want, to restrict and reduce democracy, it’s to expand it and give the people the greatest possible choice—and voice.

No comments: