The hazards of MMP

David Cunliffe’s apparently-rash pledge to scrap the coat-tail rule that permits a party with less than 5% of the party vote to bring in additional MPs as long as it wins an electorate within 100 days turns out to not be quite so bold: it looks as if they simply intend to introduce Iain Lees-Galloway’s member’s bill — currently before Parliament — enacting (most of) the recommendations of the Electoral Commission as government legislation. That isn’t bad. It initially seemed as if he intended to ram through just this one cherry-picked rule under urgency, and some of us overreacted to it. There are still problems with the plan, but they are more complex.

Anyway, the episode throws light upon a lot of the tradeoffs and subtleties inherent in MMP — the major one of which is whether proportionality or equity in the distribution of proportionality is more crucial.

What MMP is good for
MMP is a rather ugly, instrumental system for balancing the expressed wishes of fickle and often arbitrary voters with regard to an volatile and rather shallow pool of political talent against the need for stability. It is not a means by which to determine moral merit, as trial-by-political-combat FPP claims to be, and nor is it a route to the mutually-least-bad choice, as in STV and related systems. It is what it is.

What it is not is an elegant expression of noble political aims. I guess this is why traditionalists dislike it viscerally: it feels kinda shabby, but it works.

“Rorts” and electorate-level match-fixing
So with that last point in mind, Danyl has said it best: the game is the game. Its job is not to look nice, it’s to deliver representative parliaments. I don’t much like it, but the utility of the kind of strategy in play in Epsom is obvious, so fair enough — as I said before the 2011 election, “If the electorate won’t punish them for doing so they’d be rude not to.”

Two things to add. The first is that the electorate clearly isn’t inclined to punish the ACT and UnitedFuture parties, at least not locally, because in the solitude of a cardboard booth, orange marker in hand, self-interest tends to overcome ethical compunctions. But the appeal to such compunctions is still the only way to reduce the viability of the “rorts”, so it is natural that those opposed will try to jawbone those compunctions. Patrick Gower is leading the charge here — although he, too, has been consistent in his derangement about this topic since before the 2011 election.

Second, the agreement between the Internet and Mana parties where Hone Harawira’s seat in Te Tai Tokerau will, they hope, bring in Internet party votes and list MPs is emphatically not of the same type as Epsom and ÅŒhariu, where major parties throw the electorate to exploit the coat-tail rule. Nobody is throwing anything in Te Tai Tokerau — in fact, it seems likely to be one of the most strongly-contested electorates in the country, a fact which is causing conniptions in some quarters. While the electoral outcome will look similar to the undiscerning eye, the Internet MANA deal is different — smaller parties allying to overcome structural barriers to their participation in democracy. Not only is it not only not a rort, it is perfectly just and rational behaviour in the face of an iniquitous system.

Consensus and timing of law changes
In general there should be consensus in changes to electoral law. But I agree with Rob Salmond that “should” is not the same as “must” — the object is to be sure that changes will be generally popular, and will be durable, and in this case an independent commission and the deep consultation that occurred during and after the referendum strongly suggests that implementing the recommendations via the Lees-Galloway bill will be both those things.

But timing matters: now that Internet MANA has declared its hand and chosen to take advantage of the coat-tail rule in a similar way as ACT and UnitedFuture, it would be unjust to change the rule immediately before the election. Depending on how things play, it might still be unjust to change the rule without further consultation after the election, because it may be that people see in the Internet MANA a new way to challenge the entrenched parties (I plan on writing more about this if I get time). For this reason it is good that John Key has ruled out supporting the Lees-Galloway bill.

Proportionality versus equity
All that having been said, I favour scrapping the coat-tail rule. Even though, as Graeme Edgeler has explained, it increases proportionality rather than decreasing it, mitigating the effect of the 5% threshold that kept New Zealand First, with 4.07% of the party vote, out of Parliament in 2008. The trouble is that it increases proportionality selectively rather than equitably — that is, among minor parties who are willing and able to become the vassals of larger parties — as Gower said in 2011 “It’s finally official: John Key owns the ACT Party.” Proportionality in an instrumental system is not an intrinsic good that automatically trumps other considerations. Process does matter. But outcomes matter too.

Political clientism in an instrumental system is not so much morally or ethically wrong as it tends to degrade representativeness, and delivers huge benefits to the strongest parties — who have the ability to burn political capital to take advantage of these sorts of relationships — in ways other parties cannot. So while you get the appearance of more diverse representation, the effect is more that the liege party gets to offload political risk and responsibility to its vassals. The clearest case of the present government is the charter school policy that, had National passed it of its own volition, would have endangered Key’s moderate reputation. ACT’s presence in parliament — even without deputy leader Catherine Isaac, who was outrageously granted the sinecure implementing the charter schools plan — gave the government cover to implement policy they wanted, but which was too politically risky.

Self-interest dressed as principle
So to an extent the proposal from Labour is sour-grapery from a political middle power that is neither big enough to be able to benefit from the coat-tail rule, nor small enough to potentially need it. For all their posturing about the integrity of the system, I am sure they would use it if they could get away with it (as they did in Coromandel in 1999), but they can’t. They have no potential clients, so they have no need for the coat-tail rule. The Greens, secure above the threshold, don’t need them for this, and they (correctly, in my view) regard Internet MANA as too radical for such a relationship. The retreat to electorate nostalgia is also strategic positioning from a party that has seen the resentment that exists towards list MPs, and has pledged to re-take the provinces and rebuild its electorate network.

National’s refusal to implement the findings of the commission also come clearly down to self-interest. They are so far the major beneficiaries of the coat-tail provisions, having used their two vassal parties to good effect through both terms of their government.

Ultimately while both the major parties’ positions are self-interested, Labour comes closest to the right conclusion: that the iniquity of the coat-tail rule’s additional proportionality is a greater cost than the additional representation gained by it is worth. The best cure for the problem is to cut the party vote threshold — to 1/120th of the party vote, or a “full seat”, which would obviate the coat-tail rule. Scrapping the coat-tail rule is a rather distant second-best outcome, but doing that as well as cutting the threshold to 4% as recommended by the commission seems like the sort of compromise with which nobody will be totally happy, but which will endure.

Because functionality is what matters, not perfection.


23 thoughts on “The hazards of MMP

  1. If I recall correctly, the purpose of the threshold was to prevent too many small parties getting into Parliament, which of course has turned out to be a nonsense.

    I don’t believe the threshold should be as high as 5% but do think there should be one, probably 2/120th (not 1/120th as you suggest). That eliminates the coattail issue and also prevents parties that really don’t have enough support from getting in.

    It could of course easily be argued 1/120th is fairest, 2/120th is fairest, 4% is fairest and so on for a variety of reasons.

  2. Having a 1/120th rule is kind of like scrapping the rule entirely for reasons that are clear if you think about it. Each seat “costs” about 0.83% of votes so if you set a minimum number of MP’s at 3,4, or 5 you would avoid joke parties getting in with a reduced wasted vote. That said keeping out Winston First seems an admirable success of the current rules. It is the public’s system so give them what they say they want.

  3. “It is the public’s system so give them what they say they want.”

    When it comes to democracy there’s a problem with that approach. If we arranged our electoral system based on the biggest public vote then the majority may be quite happy to shut out a minority from getting representation for their vote because that suits the majority, but it’s bad democracy.

    A democratic system needs to be as fair as possible for as many as possible, not dictated by the strongest group.

    The majority may well vote to scrap the Maori seats if they could – and they have a distinct numbers advantage – but that doesn’t make it the best thing to do.

  4. Chris,

    Graeme’s post goes into much detail about these sorts of things and he picked 2.5% as his number. I think anything under 4% is defensible.


    Seat allocation is a little more complicated than a linear 0.8 per — the second and subsequent MPs for a small party tend to require a little less. Yes, lowering the threshold to about the proportion required to win one seat would effectively nullify the rule, and that’s why it’s a preferable to simply legislating the rule out.

    The threshold keeping out NZ First (also the Conservatives, who would have had three or four MPs in Parliament in 2011) is simply undemocratic. Those voters were disenfranchised, plain and simple. A certain amount of distortion is inevitable, but to excuse it just because you happen to like the result is doubly antidemocratic. You don’t have to like a party or its voters to regard them as deserving the same franchise as the rest of us.


  5. Having a .83% threshold is most definitely not like scrapping the threshold. Saint-lague (the formula used to distribute seats in Parliament) is more generous to smaller parties, and it would grant you a seat with about .44% of the vote if there were no threshold.

    A .83% is sufficient to avoid any previous joke party being elected, and having a threshold that low would greatly reduce the likelyhood of future joke parties being elected, as it would make it much easier to form a new party that represents people who feel disenfranchised.

    And yes, it’s the public’s system, and the public spoke in many different ways- one of those was a preference for a lowered threshold, and one of those was for removal of the lifeboat provision.

    I don’t think we should implement one without implementing both, and 4% is really far too high a threshold if the party vote is to be a practical place to start new parties- which it should be, as political ideologies do not conveniently coalesce into electorates that well, and preventing new parties starting that way will prevent people from engaging in politics.

  6. I think you’re mischaracterising Danyl’s view. He seems extremely opposed to the ‘rort’, going so far as to call UF and ACT ‘fake parties’. He said the same thing about the Progressives when they were around, too.

  7. Calling ACT and UF ‘fake parties’ smacks of arrogance. They are real parties who meet all the requirements for being legitimate parties – UF had to prove this last year.

    They’re struggling for sure to get support outside the electorates they hold but there are people in both parties who genuinely think they have something to offer voters and are doing what they can to be noticed and supported.

    They are less fake parties than Danyl is a fake Green activist. Greens are probably the best organised and motivated party of them all, may ahead of most of the others including Labour, but sneering supporters don’t do them any favours.

  8. Hugh and Pete,

    Danyl can clarify if I’ve misrepresented him. But regarding the parties as “fake” (which I think is justified) is by no means incompatible with the view that they should exploit whatever weaknesses it is legal and customary to exploit in service of their goals. It’s also perfectly consistent to oppose the coat-tail rule and still acknowledge parties’ right to exploit it.


  9. Matthew, great comment, and thanks for articulating the seat allocation better than I did.


  10. My wish list for electoral reform would be would be to
    1) make voting compulsory
    2) allow voters the right to abstain for both the list and electoral votes

    This hopefully would provide a well needed wake up call to our representatives to show if they have a genuine mandate to govern or not

  11. @Edward: I presume you believe that the huge flood of “abstain” votes would constitute said wake up call?

    How would 500,000 abstain votes send a different message than 500,000 non votes?

  12. Lew re “regarding the parties as “fake” (which I think is justified)”

    Why do you think that’s a justified description? Both parties have had sufficient voters (of their own free will) elect electorate MPs multiple times. Both presumably meet the 500 member requirement, I believe UF has over twice that number.

    Do you think MANA is a fake party too? Or have they become authentic now they have a rich benefactor? Many people seem to think that’s a fake sort of union of convenience.

    Redbaiter and others think National are fakes and not true to their founding ideals. There’s many think similar of Labour. Greens have changed substantially since the days of Rod and Jeanette – and they tried an electorate arrangement with Labour in 1999.

    Can you explain what you think makes a party authentic?

  13. Pete, ACT and UF are Parliamentary parties only due to the electoral patronage of the National party, which keeps them as vassals. Hone Harawira has won all his own elections without concessions.

    “Fake parties” is perhaps a bit harsh. They’re on about the same level as the Libertarianz and the Democrats for Social Credit, and would have precisely the same number of MPs were they left to fend for themselves.


  14. “They’re on about the same level as the Libertarianz and the Democrats for Social Credit”

    That’s quite funny. They (and the Maori Party, are they fake too?) have had more success implementing their party policies this term and last term than Labour, Greens, NZ First and Mana.

    The key to politics is finding a way to achieve something of what your party stands for. For one person parties (or five for ACT last term) they have succeeded proportional to size far more than most other parties.

    Rodney Hide won Epsom through very hard work and earning electorate respect. Whether National’s help made the difference or not can’t be determined, but if Hide won concessions from another party then it helped his success.

    Peter Dunne has held an electorate for longer than any other sitting MP. He has survived and succeeded through various party permutations and working with different Governments better than anyone else under MMP.

    Their respective parties are struggling but calling them fake or similar is arrogant and is disrespectful to the party members who contribute and work for them.

    What sort of political legitimacy do you have?

  15. Why on earth would the Māori party fallinto the same category as ACT and UF? They won their electorates fair and square as well. And of course the vassal parties have been able to progress an agenda — that’s what they’re for!

    And, again, fair enough. Them’s the rules.


  16. The reality is it’s quite difficult for 1/63 of a Government coalition to progress their agenda, and they are committed to supporting the whole of Government on confidence and supply, but they all achieve as much of their own policies as they can.

    The Maori Party in particular often opposes National’s agenda. Dunne has also opposed it when contrary to his own party’s policies, or has done what he can to negotiate compromises.

    That’s how MMP politics works.

    There’s more fakeness in the bitchy dissing of those flailing with impotence.

    Is Lalia Harre a vassal to a financial overloard?

  17. I did read the post. My first comment was directly referencing an aspect of the post.

    “Because functionality is what matters, not perfection.”

    That applies to MMP itself, and it also applies to parties. None of them are perfect, but some find ways to function more effectively with the Government of the day than others. Until now that’s been a weakness of the Greens and especially of Harawira/Mana.

    Internet-MANA may have found a formula that allows them to function with the next Government. But it could scare moderates in the opposite direction and backfire.

    That would be very frustrating for the Greens, who are more organised and ambitious than ever and have tried to make Labour+Green look like a viable not too radical alternative. Internet-MANA may drag the left bloc too far left for the voters that will decide the election.

  18. The “IMP could scare moderates” meme is the same one that National have been running since 1999. I think that the centrist Labour voters who will run screaming to National the moment Labour flirts with going into coalition with a party that isn’t led by Winston or Dunne are a myth.

  19. Pete,

    That applies to MMP itself, and it also applies to parties. None of them are perfect, but some find ways to function more effectively with the Government of the day than others.

    I agree about this. But none of my point has ever been about how effective ACT or UF or the other minors are, but their existence, and how they came by their positions.


  20. Lew I was being facetious about Winston first I agree.
    Matthew – As the threshold comes down the number of wasted votes must reduce and the average cost will tend towards 0.83% except for the final allocations, which obviously are most important for this discussion. I had a quick look at what the results would have been under no threshold and the last 3 seats required between 0.64% and 0.82% of vote. Not sure where you got 0.44% from. Conservatives got 3 seats.
    By definition the last seat will always be less than 0.83% so I take your point but disagree. If 1/120th were the threshold it is entirely possible that a small party would get more votes for that last seat than the party awarded it. That would simply produce another round of arguments.
    UF & ACT both had strong representation in previous elections and are holding on by their fingernails. Not quite the same position as IMP.

  21. Phil, I apologise. In my defence it does often get cited as a benefit of the threshold.


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