Sunday, November 27, 2011


The one thing that’s clear about this year’s election is that MMP was the victor: It worked as it’s designed to and delivered what it always does: Governments with shared power. This is all very good news, indeed.

But once again the five percent threshold came up for debate. In 2008, it was New Zealand First, which got more Party Votes than Act, but still didn't get any seats because it didn’t get 5% of the Party Vote and didn't win an electorate as Act did. This year, it was two other parties who were left out of Parliament. Again pundits are asking, should the threshold be eliminated so there are almost no “wasted” votes?

As things stand at the moment, subject to change when the special votes are counted, the NZ National Party only needs the two one-person rightwing parties (United Future and Act) to have a majority. If they lose a seat after the specials, they’ll need the Maori Party’s three seats more than they do now, but in the unlikely event they lose two seats, they’ll need the Maori Party to govern.

The “Act Party” is only in Parliament because John Banks won Epsom. Banks is not an Act Party person (he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Nat) and, like Peter Dunne, he isn't a party any more than Jim Anderton’s Progressive Party was in the last Parliament. Yet they all received seats in Parliament because they won electorates.

At Public Address, Graeme Edgeler has crunched the numbers and worked out what Parliament would look like if there was no threshold (apart, I’m guessing, from having enough support for one whole MP). Here are his results (keep in mind that all these numbers will almost certainly change once the special votes are counted):

National would have 57 seats (instead of the 60 they appear to have won), United Future and Act would both still have one seat and the Maori Party would still have 3 (because they all won electorates, but their Party Vote wasn't high enough for any more MPs), for a total of 62 seats for the government in a 121-seat Parliament. That’s a bare majority, but a majority.

The Opposition would be Labour 33 (down one), while the Greens would still have 13, New Zealand First would still have 8 (both won no electorate seats) and Mana would still have one (they did win an electorate seat, but had low Party Vote).

Those four seats taken off the two main parties would go to Colin “God Bless” Craig’s Conservative Party (3) and the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party (or ALCP, 1).

Would we want that? On the one hand, if enough people vote for a party that their share of the Party Vote would entitle them to one MP, why shouldn’t they be in Parliament? MMP is about proportionality, ensuring that Parliament matches the support parties have. As things are, the 5% threshold—which is an entirely arbitrary number—means thousands of voters are effectively disenfranchised.

On the other hand, entertaining though it might be, clearly the vast majority of New Zealanders don’t want the ALCP in Parliament, so maybe it’s not so unfair to have a threshold. If MMP, and it’s encouragement of coalition government, works to put a brake on the party that forms government, should we not have a brake at the other end—stopping single-issue or activist parties?

I simply don’t know; in fact, I can see merit in both arguments. But the system the way it is not only disenfranchises those who vote for tiny-to-small parties, it also effectively suppresses their support because voters won’t want to waste their vote on a party they perceive as not being able to win a seat in Parliament (usually due to public opinion polling). Who’s to say that Act and United Future wouldn’t have had more Party Votes if those votes weren’t wasted? And National’s self-interested deals in Ohariu, Epsom, New Plymouth, and so on wouldn’t have been needed.

Also, much as I am totally opposed to Colin Craig’s fundamentalist Christian-aligned Conservative Party, if they can win so many votes, do they not deserve to be represented in “the people’s house”? Doesn’t the ALCP? Is democracy not better served by more democracy, more representation, not less? Or, is a “gatekeeper” function also important? Honestly, I’m not sure.

Assuming that MMP’s lead holds and it is retained, as seems likely, then the independent review that follows may help us work out what’s best. I can’t decide how I feel about the threshold; I hope the review helps us all clarify our thinking about it.

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