NRT on MMP threshold

Written By: - Date published: 12:11 pm, July 29th, 2011 - 49 comments
Categories: MMP - Tags:

The threshold and stability

Over on Kiwiblog, DPF attempts to defend MMP’s undemocratic threshold. To his credit, he opposes Phil Goff’s nakedly self-interested desire to remove the “electorate lifeboat” clause, and supports a lower 4% threshold, as recommended by the Royal Commission on the Electoral System. But he supports a threshold for stability, to prevent “an Israel type situation where miniscule extremist parties have massive say in who forms the Government”.

This is at its heart the same reason given by the Royal Commission. In their report, they argued:

the Commission considers that the [4%] threshold is a justifiable and desirable means of preventing the proliferation of minor parties in the House. Such a proliferation could threaten the stability and effectiveness of government.

Which probably sounded good back in the safe, conformist, 2-party world of 1986, where we hadn’t had a coalition government for over fifty years, and political difference and dispute was seen as threatening. But to modern eyes, it seems quaint – not to mention sniffily undemocratic. To point out the obvious, we currently have 8 parties represented in our Parliament, and in the past have had as many as 9. And it hasn’t threatened the stability or effectiveness of government one bit (to the contrary, the present government is arguably too effective, as its constant abuse of urgencyshows).

There are two reasons for this. The first is that our political culture doesn’t support destabilising, winner-take-all, toys-out-of-the-cot tantrum politics. Winston Peters tried that in 1996, the electorate punished him for it in 1999, and our parties have learned their lesson: we expect them to get along, work together on the areas where they share common ground, and manage their differences like adults rather than trying to dictate to one another like children. And largely, they do. Our parties compromise with another. Areas of serious dispute are redlined in support agreements, and put aside for the term or punted to committee. Threats to withdraw confidence and supply and collapse the government unless they get their way are notably absent.

The second reason is mathematical: a “proliferation of minor parties” actually increases stability and effectiveness, by increasing the number of possible majority coalitions, thus reducing the bargaining power of any one party. We have a good example of this in the current Parliament: ACT can’t “hold the government to ransom” and demand big policy concessions because National has an alternative majority with the Maori Party. Meanwhile, the Maori Party can’t “hold the government to ransom” because the National has an alternative majority with ACT. The two parties effectively act as a check on each other’s demands. It was a similar situation in the 2002 Parliament, with Labour able to gain a majority with any one of United Future, NZ First, or the Greens. Having an extra 3 or 4 kibble parties at the bottom end simply increases the balance; if one of them doesn’t like your policy, then you go to another. You’re only in trouble if they all don’t like your policy, in which case its probably well-deserved (just as it would be if both ACT and the Maori Party opposed something of National’s).

So, “stability” is an illusion. There’s no reason to think that a more representative Parliament would be less stable, or a more representative government less effective, than at present. Meanwhile, this illusion costs us in democratic terms, by effectively disenfranchising (at the last election) 6.5% of the population. DPF would probably counter that those people and their views and votes aren’t important. I disagree. A core principle of democracy is that everyone’s vote should count equally. Under current arrangements, those cast for small parties don’t. That is undemocratic, it is unfair, and it is wrong. While I disagree passionately with many of our small parties, they are just as deserving of democratic representation as I am. Those who would support their disenfranchisement need an exceptionally powerful reason to justify it. And its clear from the above that “stability” just doesn’t cut it.

49 comments on “NRT on MMP threshold”

  1. Lanthanide 1

    Who wrote this? Is it a guest post?

    • Shane Gallagher 1.1

      I/S did – this looks like a re-post. Excellent article. 🙂

      • Lanthanide 1.1.1

        Right, I see on the main page that the intro blurb says it’s from No Right Turn, but that same sentence doesn’t appear anywhere in the actual article.

        Also I thought Guest Posts were normally filed under Guest Post, not The Standard. They usually also have a pre or post script noting that it is a guest post.

        • Carol 1.1.1.1

          NRT is in the Title.

        • lprent 1.1.1.2

          Guest posts are posts that are sent to us for first publish. Where we would carry the copyright if a dispute ever came up.

          The Standard is for anything that is essentially a repost of someone else’s already published material.

          We won’t edit the contents of either apart from changing the odd typo in guest posts and maybe fixing layout. That is the limit of the current policies.

          I’d normally put in a intro, a linkback, and a site related graphic for a repost and a intro for a guest post.

          After being bitched at for put those in, and having other editors being bitched at for leaving them out – well we really can’t be bothered figuring out a policy about how to present these.

          Suck it up and live with whatever the editor chooses to put in.

          • Lanthanide 1.1.1.2.1

            “Suck it up and live with whatever the editor chooses to put in.”

            Only if you don’t mind people ascribing opinions to The Standard, as it currently looks like that is the author of this post.

            That is to say, posting a press release or cartoon under The Standard, or content that doesn’t really have any opinion, is one thing. Re-posting an opinionated piece from somewhere else under The Standard and not indicating it is a re-post, is something else. IMO anyway.

    • higherstandard 1.2

      [outing will get you banned] – it’s a pretty well thought out piece of thinking.

  2. mik e 2

    I agree one person one vote simple

    • Draco T Bastard 2.1

      We already have that so that’s not the problem. The problem is that a fairly large percentage of those votes are wasted as our electoral system arbitrarily discounts them resulting in some people effectively having no vote.

      • Ari 2.1.1

        Right, but there’s a good argument that “wasting” large amounts of votes denies the principle of one person, one vote.

  3. freedom 3

    MMP accomodates the potential that true representation of the voters is achievable. If the trend to more and smaller parties is encouraged then electorates might end up being represented above the commercial interests that have progressively corrupted the political process of Democracy.

    Those who decry MMP are never, in my experience, people who actually want active Democracy

  4. Tigger 4

    The right uses the same argument against marriage equality. Let the gays in and it will destabilize marriage. In fact it makes us stronger if we’re all in the tent rather than left out. This is a superb piece.

  5. Stuart Baker 5

    I don’t agree with all the views here, but I understand the logic behind them. This is a good piece, and MMP really does need to be kept if we want a true democracy. Voting to keep MMP is the right thing to do to have a representative and effective government, and once it’s voted to be kept there will be an attempt to see if there is any way to improve it anyway – to see whether the threshold should be raised, lowered, or whatever else could be changed about it.
    Vote to keep MMP, and tell others to too!

  6. Tangled up in blue 6

    Why not lower the threshold to 3-4 and have it so that if a party wins an electorate seat it can only bring in extra party members if it has passed the threshold?

    • Lanthanide 6.1

      “Why not lower the threshold to 3-4 and have it so that if a party wins an electorate seat it can only bring in extra party members if it has passed the threshold?”

      Because in that case winning the electorate seat is irrelevant. If the Greens win 7% of the vote, they don’t need to also win an electorate seat.

      My preference is for 3.5%, and winning an electorate seat lets you bring in a maximum of 1 more MP should your party vote be large enough for one.

      Eg if you win an electorate seat and have 3% of the vote, you get 2 MPs. If you win an electorate seat and have 0.3% of the vote, you just get the single seat for the electorate winner.

      • Tangled up in blue 6.1.1

        I assume that electorate seats would be relevant to parties with who might not make a lower threshold but could win an electorate? (Mana, UF, Progressive)

        But yeah I do see your point.

      • Alwyn 6.1.2

        As far as I can follow your logic that would mean that National and Labour would only be allowed a single list MP each. After all they have won an electorate and therefore are only allowed a single list MP as well.

        • Lanthanide 6.1.2.1

          In the case that both Labour and National got less than the new 3.5% threshold, yes.

          • Alwyn 6.1.2.1.1

            OK. I didn’t read it that way at first.
            It would be quite unfair to hold them to the single electorate seat of course. The wouldn’t even be able to move anything in Parliament without the support of another party as you have to have a mover and a seconder.

      • felix 6.1.3

        And the point of having a threshold in your scenario, Lanth?

  7. While I disagree passionately with many of our small parties, they are just as deserving of democratic representation as I am. Those who would support their disenfranchisement need an exceptionally powerful reason to justify it. And its clear from the above that “stability” just doesn’t cut it.

    I agree with this. Large parties claim”instability” is a threat, but what’s really at threat is their level of power.

    We should have as representative a system as possible. If we end up with more small parties and independent MPs then our democracy will be better for it.

  8. mikesh 8

    I think we should get rid of the threshold altogether. Many voters will not vote for their preferred party if they think that party has no chance of reaching the threshold. This “wasted vote” factor, I believe, operates as a sort of self fulfilling prophecy, depriving many small parties of their potential support.

    • Luxated 8.1

      Agreed, I’m not sure why we ever needed the threshold in the first place, it just seems to be a hangover from the German system. To be honest I’d much rather have a few fringe candidates every other election than to restrict someone’s choice in how their views will be represented.

  9. Rich 9

    I’d favour a threshold of two MPs, with no coat-tailing. If a party only gets enough votes for one list MP, then it isn’t a party, it’s a one-man-band.

    • Tigger 9.1

      What’s wrong with that if that one person has gained enough national votes? Some of us come from minority groups. If we can get someone in Parliament then what is the issue?

  10. Draco T Bastard 10

    There should not be a threshold. If a party can get enough support for a seat in parliament (~0.8% of votes) then they deserve a seat and should have one. Not giving them one, as the present system does, is removing peoples choice in representation.

    • Tangled up in blue 10.1

      Do you propose to scrap the electorate seats?

      • Draco T Bastard 10.1.1

        I’m in two minds about that. I’d to like drop the electorate seats but also think that local representation is important. One solution for this would be to have electorates voted for after the election with the electorate representatives chosen from the now sitting MPs. Another option would be to drop the electorates and have local councils having a more active role within national government.

        • freedom 10.1.1.1

          to achieve that we would only have to align the local bodies to the electorate map or vice-versa so that the Mayor becomes the Mp, and appoints a deputy who is effectively mayor

          this idea would be impossible at this time as we have the ridiculous Super City elephant in the room

        • Luxated 10.1.1.2

          That is a similar line of thought to one I’ve had innumerable times, DTB. I figure that local representation in central government needs the following things:

          Impartiality: Issues brought up by the electorate are raised with central government regardless of the perceived politics of the issue.

          Immune to pork barrelling: Look at the US system and how many defence contracts (in particular) are extended nigh on indefinitely just to keep the factories in the right representative’s state.

          Accessible: As much as practical members of the electorate must be able to discuss issues with their representative.

          By those three measures electorate MPs either fail or are compromised severely: They’re not impartial, although pork barrelling doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem in the current political climate there is still a risk of it, electorate MPs given ministerial posts or similar positions have substantially less time for their electorate.

          Of course that list isn’t perfect or even necessarily complete, I welcome discussion on it though.

          Just how to go about providing the representation required is a different kettle of fish however. For example does the position have to be elected or would it be equally well served by one or more public servants? Is it even required at all, perhaps the electorate MPs function can largely be absorbed by the councils?

  11. nadis 11

    the perfect world (for me) would be an electorate based system that (perhaps magically) reflected proportionality. personally i’m all for real PR, but I really dislike the party list aspect of MMP. Sometimes I’d like to vote for a party but not some of its members, and if they are on the list then tough luck. Plus, MP’s should be accountable and accessable in the electorate. There are plenty of nat and labour MPS who have no real connection or presence to an electorate, but do have a high list ranking which has been given to them by a very small number of decision makers (greens excepted). Perversely, smaller parties often tend to have much more local presence (ACT, UF, Anderton etc).

    • Carol 11.1

      Local presence is not the only important factor. People who are high on a party list are likely to get portfolio’s or shadow roles. These are the people who make discsions about/for, or challenge policies that impact on, all Kiwis. I like having an electorate vote, plus a vote for the party that I would most like to make decisions for the whole country.

    • Lanthanide 11.2

      What about MMP where incumbents MPs who have won electorate seats are not allowed to be put onto the party list. Exceptions made for the top 2 spots – party leader and deputy/co-leader are allowed to stand in electorates and also on the list.

      This tweak would mean that the party list was not a simple fall-back for poor performers and would ensure that electorate MPs actually got involved with their electorate or risk losing at the next election.

    • mikesh 11.3

      This could presumably be achieved if list seats were allocated in accordance with the proportion of votes a candidate received in his or her electorate.

    • the perfect world (for me) would be an electorate based system that (perhaps magically) reflected proportionality. personally i’m all for real PR, but I really dislike the party list aspect of MMP.

      Totally possible.

      You want STV with largish electorates.

  12. prism 12

    the Commission considers that the [4%] threshold is a justifiable and desirable means of preventing the proliferation of minor parties in the House. Such a proliferation could threaten the stability and effectiveness of government….

    The conservatives say that a low threshold would mean more parties and ‘instability’. I/S shows that’s not only mathematically false, it’s not a reason to deny people democratic representation.

    What an impractical ideological assertion that is. I/S is saying that we should throw away our ability to run the country in a stable way, so that any politically-obssessed person who can garner enough supporters can get leverage on our parliament for whatever personal crusade or one issue advantage they want. I am not a Conservative. I agree that many parties would threaten stability and effectiveness of government and I don’t see why taking that view should result in being labelled a Con.

    The party system with 5% or at the least 4% threshhold which we have under MMP now, I consider, is preferable to having a lot of tiny parties which would be practically a bunch of independents. I noticed some time ago when Le Pen the rightist anti-immigrant nearly got office in France that the left vote, though overwhelming overall, was sliced up by numerous little parties with apparently incompatible views.

    In 2002 elections for the French National Assembly there were 13 minor parties and three major with the National Party’s Le Pen beating the socialist Jospin 16.86% to 16.18% and Chirac’s party only getting 19.88%. By splitting the vote with nine left minor parties under 5%, the far right, anti-human rights legislation candidate managed to rise with a firm right vote
    (Figures from Wikipedia French presidential election, 2002).
    In the 2007 elections for the National Assembly – the two major parties, 7 small parties, also 11 tiny parties that together got 26 seats in the 577 seat assembly. Sarkozy has two smaller parties in coalition for the 5 year term. http://www.parties-and-elections.de/france.html

  13. Ed 13

    I agree with no threshold – an electorate seat may well be possible with fewer votes than a list candidate, but I don’t see a practical alternative to allowing that very small bias in favour of electorate MPs.

    Any system can result in a fragmented parliament – even Australia with far less proportional a system has a government depending on ‘independents’. In such a situation it is possible that another election may well be required earlier than normal, but that does not seem unreasonable either.

    • Draco T Bastard 13.1

      …an electorate seat may well be possible with fewer votes than a list candidate, but I don’t see a practical alternative to allowing that very small bias in favour of electorate MPs.

      STV for electorate voting. It won’t make it exactly equal but it would make much closer.

    • prism 13.2

      @Ed Your example of Australia and Independents is facile. We have independents here involved with government. It is the number of independents that is important to control or we will end up with increased political feuding and name calling instead of time spent on consideration of the country’s progress, instead we’ll get increasing regress.

  14. Afewknowthetruth 14

    If voting made any real difference the powers that be would have made it illegal long ago.

  15. alex 15

    There is no reason for any threshold, and debates over which arbitrary number it should be are stupid. If a party gets enough of a party vote to get a seat, it should get a seat. If they get enough of a party vote to get a seat and win one electorate, they should get one seat. If they win one electorate and get enough party vote for two seats, they should get two seats. See where I’m going with this? It could all be so very simple, fair and democratic.

  16. alex 16

    Prism – There would be fringe groups represented in Parliament. So what? There are fringe groups in society. Are you suggesting they don’t have the right of representation if they can only muster 20,000 votes, as opposed to 100,000? The numbers needed for even 1 percent of an election are significant, easily worth giving a seat in Parliament to. Outcomes such as ‘instability’ are clearly a load of bollocks, because individual MPs simply aren’t that powerful. The majority would still rule, minorities would just have a chance to have a say.

    • Colonial Viper 16.1

      What do you mean by ‘minority’ in this context? We don’t really need joke party MPs or Jedi Party MPs in Parliament do we?

      I’m pretty sure The Jedi Party could score 3 or 4 MPs in an election, easily.

      Well now that I mention it, maybe this is a good idea 😛

      • felix 16.1.1

        “We don’t really need joke party MPs or Jedi Party MPs in Parliament do we?”

        You mean as well as the joke party mps we have now? Or instead of?

      • alex 16.1.2

        But if people actually want to use their vote for a Jedi party, who are you to tell them they can’t? To be honest, a vote for the Jedi party would in my opinion signal a general disgust with all parties, sort of like a vote of no confidence. That is an entirely legitimate political expression, no matter how it manifests itself.

        Plus the Jedi party would be very persuasive.

    • prism 16.2

      Another comment relevant to not having lots of little parties giving it a go in parliament. I found this quotation in a book under Minority – The political machine works because it is a united minority acting against a divided majority. Will Durant

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