Written By: - Date published: 9:17 pm, November 26th, 2017 - 154 comments
Categories: democracy under attack, election 2017, MMP, national, nick smith, nz first - Tags: enforced coalition, sour grapes
I can’t believe we’re still relitigating this stuff. Micky provided us a screencap earlier of a letter Nick Smith sent to the Nelson and Tasman areas, claiming that:
Election 2017 resulted in an unusual outcome where National won the election but lost the MMP negotiations. We secured 1,152,075 votes, which is more than we did in 2008, 2011, or 2014. National’s Party Vote of 44.4% was higher than Labour’s 36.9% and significantly more than under Helen Clark’s three governments.
This odd outcome is because NZ First has ignored the convention both in New Zealand and overseas that the party with the most votes gets to form the government. It is Winston Peters saying he knows better than voters.
This outrageous claim has also been reported at Newshub. While we’ve had a chance to quickly discuss the implications in the other thread, I thought I’d do some detailed rebuttal, using actual context, facts, and references- you know, those things that National Party politicians seem to love to hate, probably due to reality’s well-known left-wing bias. Strap in, this post is going to be long.
Government negotiations are not unique to MMP as Smith may be implying. Australia’s ruling party frequently requires negotiations with centrist independent MPs to form a government. In fact, they can even happen in FPP systems- the UK recently had what is referred to as a “hung Parliament,” where there is a plurality winner but no outright majority winner, and a coalition or confidence and supply arrangement is required to govern, and Theresa May’s Conservatives had to form a government with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party. All our New Zealand MMP governments so far have been “hung” in this respect, but no recent FPP ones were, so the term has never really caught on in New Zealand.
Yes, National lost the negotiations. What they are claiming here is that they have some sort of moral right to force New Zealand First into coalition with them or at least get them to formally prioritize a government with National as the plurality winners, because being plurality winners gives them a right to govern. This is absolutely incorrect, even when you compare constitutional norms in New Zealand with other countries, in every country that’s still a democracy, it is understood that potential coalition partners have a right to say “no.” This isn’t unusual, it’s basic democracy in action. As for the claim National should get some sort of formal priority to form a government due to being the biggest party, we’ve already discussed that particular modest proposal.
What being a plurality winner gives you is a significant negotiating advantage, especially when your nearest competitor would need to add additional support partners to their arrangement to form a government and you only need one. National had that advantage with New Zealand First, but was unable to offer a convincing policy package that addressed their aims for New Zealand. This is not the fault of MMP, it is the fault of an uncompromising National Party that still hasn’t really adapted to the idea of a Parliament with more than two strong parties: it still wants to be able to throw its weight around against parties smaller than itself.
I will accept, of course, that we are in an unprecedented new situation with our current coalition government: For the first time, we have a government that has to function based on consensus between three parties, with the core governing party not an ascendant winner of the largest vote in the election, but still having successfully won an election by campaigning for clear change. Previously, governments have always been able to arrange multiple ways to get bills passed, making the governing party far more powerful than its support parties. In our current parliament, the only way for that to happen outside of all government parties agreeing is for National and Labour to agree, something that’s relatively infrequent, (although sadly likely in certain cases, like passing legislation for the new version of the TPP, the CPATPP) and outright co-operation between the two on routine matters is generally reserved for wartime.
Is it a norm that a Plurality Winner forms the government?
Let’s say it’s a trend due to their stronger position, but not an actual norm. This trend is strongest in anglophone countries, where we have a tradition of representation that isn’t quite proportional, a tradition MMP was supposed to end. Since the introduction of MMP in New Zealand, we have had three governments formed based, during at least one of their terms, on support from parties in the centre of the political spectrum, who could arguably have gone either way. On two of those occasions, the governing party was the Plurality winner. On two of those occasions, the governing Party was Labour. There is also the 1999 election, where National won the plurality, but Labour and the Alliance governed with support from the Greens.
If we want to look back before the implementation of MMP, however, there were coalition governments in New Zealand, in fact, that’s how the National Party came about, as an eventual merger of the Liberal and Reform parties that had twice coalesced to keep the plurality winner, Labour, out of power.
So let’s accept that we need to look outside of New Zealand to determine norms clearly, because we simply don’t have enough data, and let’s restrict our comparison to other proportional systems, and besides, if we look just in New Zealand, Smith is clearly wrong that this is some sort of constitutional convention- both law and tradition state that a coalition winner can oust a plurality winner.
In Germany, the country who our system is modelled after, it is constitutional convention that the Chancellor is only decided after a majority government is picked, (thanks to the commenter who corrected me about that, it’s hard to find accurate info on exactly how governments are formed sometimes) which is similar to our system where the Governor General appoints the PM based on an assurance of a majority in Parliament. There are four previous examples out of 18 Bundestags3 where the chancellor has not been from the party that was the Plurality winner, hardly an “unusual outcome”. Germany has also mostly avoided this in recent times due to the two major parties converging on the centre of German politics, and frequently forming Grand Coalitions which frustrate both far-right and far-left voters, arguably leading to the recent rise of the neo-nazi Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD, or “alternative for Germany”) party above their 5% threshold. This is an example National probably doesn’t want to follow, as it benefits them tremendously to be seen as distinct from Labour, even though there is arguably siginificant overlap between Labour, New Zealand First, and National.
In Iceland, as I discussed in that previous post, it is a frequent occurrence that the plurality winner is excluded from government, even though they get the first try at forming a government, as the largest parties are often three or more medium-sized parties (by New Zealand norms) around the 20% mark in their elections, giving those who are willing to consider multiple coalition options a fair degree of power in the talks. In Sweden we only have to go back to 2010 to find an election where the plurality winner lost, and this one will interest National supporters, as it was a left-wing party that was seen as having a historical loss when it was forced out of power by a right-wing coalition. This also happened recently in Israel’s 2009 election. I’m sure I could keep going here, but I don’t suspect I need to- while it’s not the most frequent outcome internationally, it’s well-precedented that a coalition winner can oust a plurality winner in a variety of list-based proportional systems similar to MMP.
Undermining our system of government
What this really seems to be about is an attack by the National Party on the very idea of MMP itself. When New Zealanders campaigned to change our system of government, National was in charge, and they tried to stack the odds against change by including what they thought would be the most unpopular options they could for genuine change, including increasing the number of MPs if New Zealanders voted for MMP, but they did anyway. In 2011, they misconstrued promises of a “review” on how MMP was functioning to mean we needed a referendum on whether the public wanted to keep it, when it was clear pre-referendum that MMP had broad support in New Zealand society, and nobody wanted their alternative options. They also refused to implement the recommendations of a committee on changes to MMP that they themselves formed, after it recommended both a slightly lower 4% threshold4, and that they eliminate the lifeboat rule which they were hoping might resurrect some of their coalition partners in the future. Now in 2017, all their significant potential governing partners are either out of Parliament or have sided with Labour, and they’re worried about where their next path to government will come from, so instead of campaigning for public support, or considering splitting off a new party to go into coalition with, National is instead trying to undermine the legitimacy of the new government by attacking how it was formed, using what can at best be characterized as misinformation.
This is scorched-earth tactics from National, and is Trumpian behaviour at best, if not simply outright anti-democratic. (I would argue that they’re the same thing, personally) National needs to sit back, reconnect with voters, and try to come up with a way to be popular enough that it can get back into government with just ACT, or compromise enough so it can get New Zealand First or the Greens to pick it ahead of Labour, or even seriously consider splitting.
And seriously, why not split? National used to be two parties, and it currently has a right-wing socially liberal wing that does well in Auckland and with urban business, and a right-wing conservative wing that does well in the regions and relates well with the farming community. Why not let Judith Collins lead one party, and Bill English or a sucessor, lead the other? A lot of National’s worse results in the past have been due to losing conservatives to parties like the Conservatives, United Future, or various Christian Parties, or losing libertarians to ACT. Splitting into two would allow both parties to more aggressively pursue their ideological constituencies, driving up voter turnout, while still going into coalition with each other, if the numbers allow. It would also mean that conservatives don’t have to rely on conscience votes to oppose socially liberal legislation. Overall, it might be an electoral win for the right-wing in the short term, but it would likely be a bigger win for democracy and democratic engagement in the long term. It would also likely mean that they could win back a fair amount of conservative support from New Zealand First, who currently represent the conservative centrist vote.
I’m not optimistic that National will ever truly embrace MMP, or seriously consider splitting, but their approach to opposition right now is just going to annoy voters who support the current system, and it’s highly unlikely it will ever sufficiently energize their base to help them in an election. In the most charitable interpretation, it could be viewed as sour grapes.
1 This claim is based on National being the “plurality winner,” ie. receiving the largest number of party votes. This is distinct from having a majority, (over 50% of seats in Parliament) a mandate, (over 50% of party votes in total for a government, where the parties concerned campaigned strongly on certain common issues that can be said to be broadly supported by the public) or any sort of moral authority to govern. By any measure, being a plurality winner is not a claim to having “won the election,” you would need to have either an outright majority, which has never occured under MMP, or a mandate to govern by coalition, like the government has.
2 This claim is misleading. While National received a higher number of Party Votes, they also received a lower proportion of the total party vote than in any of the cited elections. This can be easily verified on the Elections site. This is the same trick National used all the time in government when claiming “record spending” in particular areas of the budget: yes, the raw numbers have gone up. That’s because the population has grown. The relative percentage figures are also highly relevant.
3 Because I know National MPs have been having difficulty adding up their figures lately, this is 22.22.%, or roughly one out of every five terms of government has included a Chancellor who was not from the party that won the plurality of Party Votes. My previous wording is careful here because during one of those terms of government, the coalition partner switched allegiances, instating a Chancellor from the party that won the plurality. Germany’s system is a little weird in this regard in that it’s parliamentary like ours, but it doesn’t allow a vote of no confidence in a Chancellor without proposing a new one, so snap elections can’t happen. It is of course, very stable and efficient, like their system for their Bundesrat, the other legislative chamber, where the seats are simply delegations sent from each State government.
4Note that I’m not supporting either that the threshold remain this high or that the lifeboat rule be repealed- I am simply pointing out that National has repeatedly tried to game our electoral system to be more favourable towards them, and continued to reject changes if they don’t go the way they like.
Correction: Andre correctly points out in this comment that in ’99 Labour did win a plurality of the party vote, my comment that National had a higher result under Shipley was in fact due to a rushed and mistaken reading of the results.