- Date published:
8:00 am, March 4th, 2017 - 22 comments
Categories: accountability, Deep stuff, democratic participation, election 2017, International, MMP, Politics, uk politics, us politics - Tags:
2017 will be New Zealand’s eighth election under MMP, over 22 years. With very strong democratically elected governments appearing right across the world digging in for the long term, it’s useful to take a moment for MMP.
One of the lessons of very strong and non-MMP governments is that when the opposition to the centre is weak, it is a recipe for bad government. For one thing, it breeds the kind of overconfidence in the long term that leads to measures such as great big walls along Mexico or the invasion of Iraq, or wiping out ethnic opposition in Turkey’s case. For another, the absence of any counterweight means that the governing party’s focus tends to turn inwards – so politicians and the media obsess about internal quarrels and personality clashes, rather than questions of policy.
If for example UK Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn were a credible prospective Prime Minister, he would keep Theresa May on her toes. But his weaknesses pose significant problem. His shadow ministers are selected not for their knowledge of their briefs, but for their ideological purity. Brexit could have splintered the Conservatives, instead it has renewed the Conservatives and splintered Labour.
The Democratic Party of the United States is also at its weakest political point in decades, and there is no functioning leader of the opposition. The Democrats govern fewer and fewer states, and they hold power in none of the Constitutional checks and balances. There are also no alternative elected political voices to either critique power or inflect debate with fresh policy ideas. There appears no structural political reform on the horizon that could alter this situation.
There is no specific fix to strong one-party states, but it makes me pretty grateful for MMP.
In 2011, Gordon Campbell reflected on why a change from First Past the Post to Mixed Member Proportional parliamentary selections was important in the 1990s.
At that time, the public had been battered by three successive waves of heavy-handed government: the Muldoon era, the Lange-led Labour government, and the Bolger-led National government.
The cumulative effect was that voters felt themselves to be at the mercy of elected representatives who kept on enacting policies for which there was little or no public support. The inherent unfairness of the First Past the Post system, the lack of adequate checks and balances in New Zealand’s single chamber Parliament and the ideological extremism of both major parties had all served to create a perception that the voting system was delivering the public into the hands of an elected dictatorship.”
He could easily have been talking about Turkey, Malaysia, or Britain, or the United States right now.
Nearly three decades since the Bolger government, MMP is now well settled in here. It has benefited the ideological breadth of the left far more than it has the right due to the maturing strength of the Green Party and the slowly growing core of nationalist support within the New Zealand First party. It has also provided the traditional left Labour party with more coalition options.
Prime Minister Bolger may not have been able to foresee these political consequences but I think he would have been pleased with the results: stable government but more interesting policy ideas from more politicians.
MMP is only a structural tilt to the process of politics: it’s not a shift in any kind of policy or opposition to policy in itself, and won’t cure voter lethargy by itself.
But MMP has done its primary job for society: confirmed that the legitimation and regulation of society is and is seen to be primarily Parliament, rather than primarily markets. It has done so by providing fresh conduits for ideas, protest, and representation that FPP could not. It has also kept politics mildly interesting despite the scope and ambit of the state and the public realm consistently decreased over time.
After 22 years, and the way global politics is going, I’m grateful for MMP.