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Edwards: The death of minor parties under MMP

Minor parties were supposed to be a big part of politics under MMP, yet they are in serious decline. Bryce Edwards looks at the causes, and explains that The Opportunities Party will not buck the trend, as it looks to be tearing itself apart.   

Could the next general election result in a two-party Parliament made up of just Labour and National? It seems highly unlikely – especially under proportional representation – and yet the 1News Colmar Brunton poll released on Sunday points to a scenario where we could be close to that. The results were highly favourable to the major parties. National’s 46 percent and Labour’s 43 percent - totalling 89 percent - only left about one in ten voters supporting the minor parties.

In fact, as an indication of just how much the major parties are now dominating politics, this year marks one of the very rare times since the introduction of MMP that both parties have been above 42 percent at the same time. Normally one party is up in the polls while the other is down, with minor parties making up the difference. Instead, Labour and National are both receiving support similar to back in the 1980s under first-past-the-post.

The Colmar Brunton poll had both the Greens and NZ First around the cut-off point for getting back into Parliament – with 5 percent and 4 percent respectively. And the Act and Māori parties were on less than 1 percent.

The possibility that minor parties could be left out of Parliament altogether in 2020 is generally dismissed, often with the assumption that “the minor parties always do better during the election campaign”. This simply isn’t the case. For example, at the last election, support for both the Greens and NZ First plummeted during the campaign.

What’s more, ever since MMP was introduced, every minor party that has gone into government has subsequently received a worse party vote at the following election. Minor parties struggle to retain their distinct identities in coalition government, and their supporters lose faith with the compromises their parties inevitably make while in coalition.

The MMP threshold is proving to be a major barrier to the healthy flourishing of new minor parties.

David Seymour – the one minor party MP who holds an electorate seat – may not survive the next election either, with rumours that National is intending to pull the plug on its deal with him in Epsom. With United Future disbanded, and the Māori Party essentially moribund, it’s unlikely that any of the old parties will make a return to Parliament.  

But surely there’s still some kind of constituency for a new party. In fact, the latest Colmar Brunton poll found 10 percent of those surveyed were undecided, and therefore highly available to a dynamic new force. Yet the chances of new parties breaking into power now appears unlikely. The Conservatives have relaunched as the New Conservatives, but will continue to be negatively associated with Colin Craig.

Tough times at TOP

Some still have hope that The Opportunities Party (TOP), previously led by Gareth Morgan, might be a possibility for 2020. After getting 2.5 percent of the party vote in 2017, they have shown themselves to have the potential to break the 5 percent threshold.

However, TOP appears very unlikely to be a real contender in 2020, as the party is currently struggling to reinvent itself as TOP 2.0 and embroiled in a faction fight over its future.

Former deputy leader Geoff Simmons has been operating as the interim leader until now. But it’s not clear he will be elected, especially as Gareth Morgan is campaigning strongly for rival candidate Amy Stevens, an Auckland lawyer currently working for ASB.

Morgan has written a couple of Facebook posts in which he calls for a vote for Stevens, and explains why Simmons is the wrong person for the job. Morgan says Stevens is what TOP needs in order to connect with the centre right of the political spectrum: “what Amy Stevens offers is a business background not one as a public servant” and “she can relate to all those small business owners who are as familiar with the trials and tribulations of running a business”.

And as a bonus, Morgan – who gave $3 million to the party towards the last election – promises more money for TOP if Stevens is elected: “My money will be on Amy to lead the refresh that is TOP 2.0, as I think she’s sufficiently credible to attract the significant funders. I’ll certainly chip in if she’s leading.”

Clearly Morgan believes that TOP has become too liberal or leftwing: “TOP faces a big risk right now that it gets usurped by people who would otherwise vote Left or Centre Left. Our policy programme is for all New Zealanders, we are over-represented by members from the Left, Centre Left”.

Morgan appears strongly opposed to Simmons becoming leader, suggesting the role needs to be filled by a more conservative or rightwing leader: “that person needs to attract a wider set than the herbal tea and flowered shirts brigade. TOP has to have appeal to the centre right and the disadvantaged if it is not to be yet another club for comfortable, privileged urban liberal supporters of the status quo. We have that mob covered – heaven knows our ranks are over-full with this cohort”.

Clearly both Simmons and the liberal faction is bothering Morgan considerably. Morgan explains that Simmons wants to create a different type of party to what was envisaged: “I don't like at all his preference for TOP as a political debating society or a collection of gentrified urban liberal coffee clubs.”

Many of Simmons’ actions as interim leader have also seriously irked Morgan. On Facebook, Morgan complains, first, about the decision to hold an election for the leader, when the party’s constitution appears to instead allow for a direct appointment of the leader.

Second, Morgan complains about Simmons’ decision to go on a paid “listening tour” of the country, which the party founder seems to see as a “misappropriation of party funds” which simply “gives him unfair advantage” over his rivals in what is a “bogus leadership poll”. In fact, Morgan declares: “Stuffing around with a gerrymandered leadership election to satisfy one man's ego is not what TOP is about.”

Morgan also paints Simmons as being overly concerned about internal party processes and democracy: “the touchy feely model Geoff loves. I can't stand it”. Morgan concludes: “Intra party democracy is not a priority – indeed it threatens to destroy TOP, to turn it into a consensus-riddled political ambiguity.”

It’s hard to see how TOP can continue to contain both Simmons and Morgan. The idea of “TOP becoming a Kumbaya collective that reflects the comfortable and complacent outcomes of the consensus of its members” is clearly not tolerable to its founder. He says: “That would be a disaster. Frankly I'd rather TOP didn't exist than go down that path.”

However, Morgan does say that he’s “not totally pessimistic about TOP not being salvageable”, but “unless we can get people into the leadership team who are not Left of Centre we have a big problem.”

When parties are talking like this, the game is over. TOP will clearly struggle to move beyond these severe differences. And, so, yet another minor party that might well have had a shot at getting into Parliament in 2020, seems to be dying.

Meanwhile, the Labour-led Government is pondering bringing in some small fixes for MMP. But the proposal to reduce the 5 percent threshold to 4 percent is mere tinkering in the face of what clearly needs more radical thinking. Abolishing the threshold entirely, makes more sense.

The MMP threshold is proving to be a major barrier to the healthy flourishing of new minor parties. Of course, it’s not the only problem for the small parties. We therefore need a more serious think about the state of minor parties and how to allow them to prosper. If not, New Zealand’s multi-party parliamentary system might soon become a thing of the past, leaving the public with a choice, once again, of just two monolithic traditional parties.

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