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Slightly smug about MMP

Written By: - 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.

22 comments on “Slightly smug about MMP”

  1. red-blooded 1

    Yep – while I’m not a fan of the current government and MMP is by no means without fault, at least it’s normalised the concept of coalition government and it’s provided a much wider range of voices and viewpoints in parliament than we used to have. Bolger and his party didn’t want MMP – they actively campaigned against it – but they did follow the will of the electorate and that was the right thing to do.

  2. jcuknz 2

    As an ‘oldie’ I remember when 20+% of voters voted for an idea and got just two MPs under FPP … whatever faults MMP may or may not have it is better than FPP.
    Perhaps that was a reason for folk voting for a change.

    • New Labour, right? 🙂

      I’m too young to have been there, but I look into those sorts of things to point out how much MMP has fixed about NZ politics.

      • red-blooded 2.1.1

        And presumably you see that by allowing people whose political viewpoints are at loggerheads to form new parties and forge separate political identities it’s contributed to a more honest, more open political landscape.

        • I wasn’t party to the debate pre-MMP. I got into politics just after it was implemented, (but before I could vote 😉 ) and I’m actually interested in further electoral reform, and don’t want to see us going backwards from MMP to systems like STV or AMP.

          My general preference is an Open List Proportional system for Parliament, but I don’t know if that’s sellable just yet, because it essentially means trading in your electorate vote for being able to re-order your preferred Party’s list.

  3. Draco T Bastard 3

    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.

    Which friggen rock have you been living under for the last two decades?

    Even with MMP we’re still getting a parliament the sees the market as king.

    • dukeofurl 3.1

      Not quite King, even national has seen the light and suggested a ‘non market’ Urban Development Authority.
      The on going public financial support for Kiwirail is another.
      You just have blinkers on DTB

      • Draco T Bastard 3.1.1

        No, I really don’t.

        Labour’s Kiwibuild is a market mechanism. Build houses – put them on the market.
        They’re not banning offshore buyers because of the market.
        National just sold off massive state assets because of the market.

        The list goes on and on.

        So, no, I’m not the one with blinkers on.

        • dukeofurl 3.1.1.1

          Labour will still build ‘State houses’ just because they will put non market interventions into the new home owner market is still a good thing.

          Do you own your own home ?

          • Matthew Whitehead 3.1.1.1.1

            Right, but Labour’s solution to high power prices was also “let’s institute bulk buying to the market.”

            Labour has never met a market it didn’t like in principle. It just wants to tweak them a bit in practice.

            • dukeofurl 3.1.1.1.1.1

              A reasonable alternative as of course the generation market was partly privately owned.
              My electricity distribution company is mostly user owned- through market principles- a good choice. My Water supply is entirely owned by the Council and is remote and not customer friendly.

              The reality is that there will be a mixture of market controlled, market led and non market entities.
              We have a mixed system after all.

              • Draco T Bastard

                A reasonable alternative as of course the generation market was partly privately owned.

                No it wasn’t.

                The correct thing to do is to go back to power generation and distribution as a government service.

                My electricity distribution company is mostly user owned- through market principles- a good choice.

                Bollocks. I can pretty much guarantee that the majority of the community does not own anything of it. That’s what causes the massive inequality that we see today.

                My Water supply is entirely owned by the Council and is remote and not customer friendly.

                And what makes you think private ownership will change that? It never has before.

                The reality is that there will be a mixture of market controlled, market led and non market entities.
                We have a mixed system after all.

                Only because the bludging rich have allowed that for a time. They’re slowly returning it to full private ownership though – private ownership and control through hidden mechanisms.

              • I thought it was a reasonable solution that may have solved the problem. That doesn’t mean I don’t dislike that Labour’s first reaction is always to preserve market solutions. Not every problem needs to be solved that way.

                For instance, I actually think having multiple electricity retailers may be a mistake- the market competition should be in generation, not in retailing. It’s perfectly reasonable to have the government act as the single buyer for electricity and retail all of it itself to remove a layer of profiteering from the system- the only thing that arguably is added to the consumer from having seperate retailers is an element of competition in customer service, which comes at the cost of potentially aggressive moves to collect debt or cost-save. We can then buy up the lines companies and run them as a public service without making a profit on them, possibly through small levies to all retail electricity customers.

                The market is a good mechanism to use when competition will provide an expected benefit. Not every service will actually benefit from competition, however, and there are some inefficiencies to competition, like marketing costs, or duplicating administrative functions, that mean if there’s no expectation of gaining a superior service, competition is actually , bad idea.

          • Draco T Bastard 3.1.1.1.2

            Do you own your own home ?

            No I don’t and I don’t really want to but under present conditions I feel that I have to.

            But the real question is: Why does anyone want to own the house that they live in?

            It’s not actually a viable thing to do as far as community and economics goes.

            • jcuknz 3.1.1.1.2.1

              If you mortgage yourself to a bank for most of your working life I can see your point DTB but if you do what I did with a good steady job , took on a minimum mortgage[ $5K ], and built out of income apart from a starting sum which bought the old house [ $2K ] we lived in while we built, it makes good sense. The result a good life repaying our efforts.
              The fly these days is the steady job, not many around. But in the ‘good old days’.
              I see the practical future as a meld of left and right where the government looks after both its people and business. Provides proper welfare while keeping government and regulation to a minimum to let business flourish
              But that is anathema to the idealistic extremists who continually scream ‘Go left!’ Sadly misguided IMO 🙂

              • Draco T Bastard

                If you mortgage yourself to a bank for most of your working life I can see your point DTB but if you do what I did with a good steady job , took on a minimum mortgage[ $5K ], and built out of income apart from a starting sum which bought the old house [ $2K ] we lived in while we built, it makes good sense. The result a good life repaying our efforts.

                Even then it’s not right economically or communally.

                Economically private ownership must result in a few people owning everything and everybody else has nothing. This is the major cause of the present housing crisis.

                Such ownership and inequality then breaks the community.

                I see the practical future as a meld of left and right where the government looks after both its people and business.

                Looking after business is contrary to looking after the people. This is because of the private ownership of business, the way it’s based upon greed and not having to work to get an income.

  4. Bearded Git 4

    People forget that Key did his best to get rid of MMP. That was a saving grace of the 2011 election (which Goff nearly won BTW).

    There would be at least two left-of centre parties in both the UK (Corbynistas and Blairites) and the US (Clintonites and Sandersistas) if they had MMP in those countries, and both would probably have been able to form governments…..though in the UK good old UKIP (sarc) would have masses of seats.

    • Yeah, if the US had a representative political system, there would be a coalition between Sanders democrats, corporate democrats, and the Green Party. (which gets enough of the vote to show up in a representative congress) The opposition would be the Republicans and the Libertarians.

      UK is really interesting, because while it’s clung to FPP, (mainly because the Liberal Democrats became super unpopular for backing the tories, so the referendum to ditch it was tainted by the fact it was proposed by the Lib Dems) it still has lots of distinct and mature minority political movements that win seats. In England, it has Green, Labour, Lib Dem, (centrist) Conservative, and UKIP (nationalist) MPs, it also has the Scottish Nationalist Party, (which would be like have a South Island Independence Party in opposition in New Zealand, or a Māori seperatist party perhaps) and of course it has devolved assemblies for Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales, although curiously, nobody’s realised they should really make one for England if they’re following the pretense of having a semi-federal system within that country of countries. So they already have a lot of the minor parties that MMP would give them, they’re just not showing up in the correct numbers for their level of national support, and it disguises the problem to them a bit.

      Also, as countries with an entrenched FPP system, there’s a lot of talk about how winners should have “majorities,” and how systems that don’t do that aren’t fair, but it’s really interesting what happens to the viewpoint once you start drilling down into “what does a majority mean,” because it turns out FPP isn’t actually all that great at that criteria, either. It’s main claim to fame is simply that it’s easy to administer- the hardest thing about it is splitting the country into districts.

  5. While I don’t oppose Nationalism completely in its benign form, I would point out that there are very dark sides to nationalism and we shouldn’t be too enthusiastic about the rise of New Zealand First as a genuine fourth party to New Zealand politics. We’re lucky that our nationalists are currently headed by someone who, despite his positive view of anglo-New Zealand culture, is half-Māori and half-Asian. If someone with a different background had led a party with those values, it might not be as benign as it currently is, and we need to watch carefully what direction the party turns when Winston is no longer able to continue as leader. It’s possible it will collapse, or it’s possible it will stay a group of centre-left nationalists with an interesting mix of liberal and conservative social policies, or it could turn in any number of bad directions, too.

    They’re also a particularly odd bunch of “nationalists” in that they don’t want to be independent of the UK Queen. XD

    • dukeofurl 5.1

      “[Peters]His father is of Māori descent and his mother of Scottish descent. His iwi affiliation is Ngāti Wai and his clan is McInnes.” Wikipeadia

      Where did you get the idea he is ‘half asian’ ? Its nothing that makes sense.

      Recent research has linked polynesian migration to perhaps indigenous hill tribes of Taiwan, but they even arent Han chinese.

  6. Skeptic 6

    As someone who campaigned for and supported STV as the fairest electoral system, I find this article refreshingly comforting as it confirms what many have said to me. MMP has delivered all it promised and stopped the gerrymander of FPP. Let’s not forget that the “economic experiment” of Douglas and Richardson where the direct result of FPP where the Finance and Expenditure Committee ruled Caucus, and Caucus ruled Parliament – so the country was run by 6 people. MMP has stopped that – thankfully. Also true is that overseas where proportional representation is not part of the electoral system, there have been and still are deep seated problems with the perception of fairness in certain democracies – well established democracies at that!
    Can we be too smug – hell yes. Any 1st year Pols grad can tell you that – and give a decent list of what’s defective. However, is the general population of NZ ready to institute changes? – well, I don’t think so. NZers are one of, if not the, most pragmatic peoples on the planet. We tend to tinker with what works to make it better rather than toss the baby out with the bath water. So too with our electoral system. I suspect most people are happy with a three year electoral cycle that delivers approximate proportional representation. We might tinker with the threshold and overhang, we might even seriously consider re-establishing an Upper Chamber, but while we who are interested in politics (you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t right?) ponder these things seriously, most Kiwis much prefer to ponder their Provincial Rugby Team chances for the next NPC cup. Constitutional change is not something they’re really interested in mainly because what we have generally works. You and I might tend to think there are lot of improvements that are if not necessary, at least desirable, but does the “average Kiwi” really care that much?

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