The problem isn’t just MMP, but how we use it.

Minor party leaders
Photo: RNZ - Screenshot/TVNZ

As Winston holds the ‘balance of power’, New Zealand’s mainstream opinion media is trying to blame this situation entirely on the MMP system we use to elect our parliament.

Every right-wing pundit seems to be claiming first-past-the-post was much easier, they say, and much more representative. They question how the system can allow one man to decide the government. Never were these concerns aired in any of the last handful of elections.

Any attempt to delegitimise a Labour-led government with Jacinda Ardern at the helm requires not just an attack on New Zealand First and the Greens for not choosing to work with National, the ‘biggest party’, but also an attack on the system that allowed voters to give us this position.

This is simply an attack on New Zealand democracy because the results were inconvenient.

We are privileged to have a democratic process that is actually near representative of the population. In the 2015 United Kingdom election, the Conservatives won 57% of the seats with only 36% of the vote, while the Liberal Democrats won just 10% when they got 23% of the vote. The UK Greens got just 0.2% of the seats when they received almost 5% of the total votes. We all watched in horror last year as Hillary Clinton won 2% points more than her orange opponent, but lost the presidency. This is the reality of the totally unrepresentative first-past-the-post system.

MMP is necessary to force the moderation of the government by requiring them to negotiate with other parties to get over the line. In the UK, the Conservative party can screw over two thirds of voters in favour of the other third and still be handed a majority.

I make no claim that MMP is perfect. It isn’t. The biggest problem is the ridiculous threshold. The threshold is an unfair bar that numerous political movements, with tens of thousands of voters backing them, have failed to meet, keeping them locked out of the debating chamber. Both TOP and the Māori Party lost out because of it in this election; the Conservatives, Internet Mana, and the ALCP all lost out last time. You can have 4.99% of the population behind you, but because you didn’t have just a handful more people ticking your box, you have no direct legislative influence.

Maybe if those commentators saw the benefit of having two to three more parties to work with, they’d change their tune. In 2014, without the 5% threshold, National would have needed 5 more seats to form a majority. Conveniently, the Conservative Party (who has much more in common with National than the Māori Party or United Future), would have exactly 5 seats to give them.

It is sad that the only way to form a new successful political party is to have someone throwing millions at it. Gareth Morgan donated $1.7M to his party this year, and Kim Dotcom threw $4.5M at Internet Mana in 2014.

The threshold is forever justified by claims that it ‘keeps radicals and extremists out’. We just need to look to Germany to see both that it doesn’t, and the rest of of the parties can react accordingly. In the 2017 German federal election, the ‘Alternative for Germany’  party (AfD), or the ‘not-quite-Nazi’ party, rocketed past the 5% threshold and became the third biggest party in the Bundestag. As a result, the Social Democratic Party has decided to leave the governing coalition and sit in opposition, partly so that the AfD does not become the leader of the opposition. Chancellor Angela Merkel now simply has to form a new coalition with the Free Democratic Party and the Greens. Their 5% threshold failed to keep Nazi-lites out, yet they are able to form a competent government without succumbing to any demands of the nationalists.

Part of Germany’s ability to jump around the undesirables is largely due to the proper embrace of MMP. The largest party is only 24% points more popular than the smallest party in the Bundestag. This embrace of MMP where the 6 parties in the Bundestag all have a moderate share of the votes is great for political representation, but also due to the maturity of the system in Germany. Germany has used MMP for 68 years, whereas New Zealand has only used MMP for 21 years since we adopted it in 1994.

While we grow up, the ancient mainstream media and the voting public still look at our electoral system through the lens of the first-past-the-post system we used for decades. It’s why before a major party ‘wins’ an election, they first consolidate the left or right vote. We saw it happen in 2005 when National squashed United Future,  New Zealand First, and ACT before they stormed to victory in 2008. We’re seeing the same thing happen this election, with Labour sucking up the Greens and New Zealand First.

The outdated idea that being the biggest party is necessary to form a government certainly isn’t helped by politicians like Winston Peters or Bill English claiming there’s a ‘constitutional convention’, or the National Party lackies claiming they have a ‘moral majority‘. The reality is the only requirement is that you have the numbers to form a government. Heck, ACT could form a government with confidence and supply from National and Labour. It’s extremely impossible, but a real option.

Nor is the FPP mentality helped by a media that treats elections like a drag race. I cannot blame Winston for refusing to turn up to the multi-party leaders debates when Jacinda and Bill also don’t turn up. I also can’t blame Winston for criticising TVNZ and Three for having ‘Leaders Debates‘ with only two leaders. Again, the media perpetuates the idea that elections are a two horse race.

Of course, as long as voters treat elections that way, so too will the media, and vice versa. Until one of these partners breaks the cycle, I certainly doubt we will fully embrace the potential of MMP. Maybe New Zealand needs to be forced into the situation of a National-Labour coalition to usher in an era of stronger ‘minor’ parties. Maybe the media networks need to reform the way they structure their debates. Maybe there’s some other solution.

But don’t blame MMP, blame the voters.

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