There’s been a lot of noise about how “unfair” it is to National for them to win a plurality of the party vote in this election, but not have succeeded in forming a government, necessitating some other pretty interesting smackdowns of that meme.
I’m not going to focus on their complaints, which can be adequately addressed simply by saying that National supporters, or supporters of any other party, have no right to tell New Zealand First supporters what sort of government their party should enter, which is absolutely a matter for those people who voted for New Zealand First, who I will not even attempt to analyze from the outside. Instead, I’m going to be focusing on the suggestion, floating around National Party supporters on social media, that the largest party (“plurality winner” is the technical term for being largest without necessarily winning a majority) after an election should have some enshrined constitutional right at the first shot to form the government offered to them by the Governor General. This would be similar to Germany’s system of the President proposing their Chancellor (PM) and the Bundestag (Parliament) confirming them, or in practice more directly similar to Iceland’s system, where their President invites parties in sequence to try to form a government after the election, so we’ll focus on the latter for comparative purposes. It is relatively common for these sorts of constitutional mandates to be offered in European proportional systems, but not so much outside of Europe.
The obvious first thing to discuss here is that such an arrangement would favour National forming the government except in the most Labour-slanted circumstances, as right-wing votes tend to be much more concentrated towards the largest party when they feel like National is doing well, making them the most significant beneficiaries of the “come back to mother-ship” effect that both of the two largest parties benefited from this election. Given that it is almost exclusively National supporters suggesting this change, we should probably fall back on the principle of electoral reform’s purpose not being to outright advantage any particular party, and count this as a strike against the idea. That’s not to say that ideas that do advantage any given party can never be considered, but they need to have broad support outside that particular party in order to be considered a point in their favour like MMP had in the 90s, and there’s no evidence yet that this change would enjoy such support.
The second thing we need to consider is the length of coalition talks. Lets go back to Iceland, where recently a three-party coalition was formed, despite hopes that the Pirate Party might pull a five-party coalition out of their bag of tricks. It took their President four rounds of inviting parties to form a government in order to make it through to a formal coalition. Each round of talks took between two weeks to a month. If we had formed the latest government that way and New Zealand First had made the same decision in the quickest likely period of time, we’d still be waiting on Peters’ announcement about a week from now. That’s two strikes, as New Zealanders expressed a clear preference for faster coalition talks in ’96, and seemed impatient even with the practically-lightning-speed talks this time around.
This flows nicely into the third point- that of redundant coalition negotiations. There is no guarantee in such a system that a powerful third or fourth party like New Zealand First in 2017 wouldn’t simply wait until it was their turn to be in charge of the coalition talks for extra political clout. Being able to say no to your preferred partner amps up the stakes significantly. Again, we saw that in the 2016 Icelandic election, where the fourth round of negotiations concluded with the same partners forming a government as had attempted to agree in the first round- so arguably six weeks of coalition talks were wasted just to go back to square one but with more leverage for the minor parties! I struggle to imagine the field day the New Zealand media would have with that, but it would probably be pretty enraging for all highly political types.
And finally, overall, it’s simply a constraint on freedom of association for minor parties. It goes against democratic principles and constrains political speech to have our head of state direct coalition talks, and it rules out parallel talks which are simply more efficient and leave the country waiting less time. It might not be a bad idea for parties to agree to some fair norms around coalition talks and Parliamentary reforms, but I think that’s a discussion that needs to be had on a more consensus basis between our four largest parties. (New Zealand First’s new waka-jumping legislation seems like a particularly good example of how not to do this)
Overall failing on every major point, this idea seems to be a non-starter, and is instead perhaps intended as just another front for National to attack MMP on, after it has tried and failed twice to defeat it at the ballot box- if they succeed in getting the measure through, they slow down and make coalition talks far less popular. If they fail, they get to say that the electoral system is unfair and hasn’t elected a prime minister with plurality support, something which was never the point of MMP and wasn’t even in our constitution before then, as FPP often awarded more seats to a party that had lost the popular vote, or at least failed to achieve a near-majority of the electorate. They need to instead move on and accept that they can’t rely on strong plurality results to govern without eating up the electorate-based parties that support them, and perhaps even consider splitting into multiple parties themselves for more differentiated campaigning, as National has always been an informal coalition of urban right-wing liberals, right-wing conservatives, and a significant rural support base of many ideological flavours, and arguably could earn more of the Party vote under MMP by campaigning separately to each group. But that might require them modernizing, an idea which is always deeply unpopular with the National Party, who still have no direct democratic impact on important decisions like electing leaders.