Now it’s over … a celebration of MMP

Arguments to the effect that that it ‘isn’t right’ to form government without the highest-achieving party are factually and historically suspect, writes the University of Auckland's Victoria Woodman

Travelling to deepest Waikato during the wait to know who would be leading our country, I passed a noticeboard that asked simply, “Winston, heads or tails?” My attempt to escape the relentless speculation had been in vain. This attempt was motivated by a feeling that popular discussions around the post-election negotiations had not served our democratic dialogue particularly well. If one's problem is the outcome of the government formation process, it may seem easy to assemble evidence to support this distaste. Perhaps most worrying is the tendency towards “all-or-nothing” thinking of the type that conveys either purest outrage or elation. However, many do not have their causal ducks-in-a-row.

Arguments to the effect that ‘X holds all the power’, that it ‘isn’t right’ to form government without the highest-achieving party, that ‘MMP is broken’, or that we should ‘return to the halcyon days of FPP where majorities ruled’, aren’t just inflammatory, they are factually and historically suspect.

Government formation is complex, even after the most decisive of elections. Parties must decide on policy priorities, allocate portfolios in a highly competitive environment, and concern themselves with the next election. All political parties are “aggregators” of opinion, major parties especially so. Internally, any party possesses factions or opinion groups that diverge, and parliamentary members or hopefuls with particular interests and career ambitions. The challenge is reaching a compromise. Negotiations between parties are not entirely dissimilar: the key difference is that the blocs bargain under different banners, in a relatively public manner.

New Zealand’s Westminster-derived system relies on the democratic provision of majority rule, the procedural expression of this being “confidence” of the legislature. If the representatives of the people are not "confident" in the government, it fails to achieve this expression of democratic majority. The procedure is a check on Executive power, and a means to constitutionally depose any minority that purports to govern on behalf of the people.

Since our first MMP election in 1996, parliamentary majorities have been comprised of several blocs, rather than a single party, and political leaders have been relatively creative in achieving them. Formal coalitions are one means to do so, but confidence and supply, or an agreement to abstain on key votes of confidence and supply also suffice. Of course, it isn't necessary to seek a "minimum" winning coalition, or mere baseline majority. The balancing act instituted by the Key-led National government, in which the United Future, Act, and Maori parties traded support in return for offices and policies, constituted much more than a base majority. Those concerned with the stability of the current arrangements would do well to consider that the 2008-2017 National government might not have achieved much of consequence had they foregone this judicious combination.

In considering the government formation process, reasoned judgments must fall beyond elation or outrage. In politics, we all win sometimes, and we all lose sometimes, too.

No system is perfect. Rules and laws are never neutral in their effects. Put simply, every electoral system facilitates certain possibilities and outcomes, and makes others more difficult. When assessing a system, judgements must draw from the values held, or the “good” deemed desirable. The goods we wish to achieve will be many, and in most cases mutually incompatible in their fully-realised forms. While the FPP-MMP dichotomy is a false one, I’ll submit to it nonetheless.

If the good we desire is relative governmental strength, FPP is the clear choice. FPP facilitates decisive majorities, term-length stability, conclusive and swift policy action, and the elimination of “kingmakers”. Thus, the argument goes, a clear line of accountability is drawn, with voters simply checking government performance at the next election. FPP doesn’t necessarily produce these outcomes, though.

A cursory view of pre-war politics reveals the instability of majorities, and the concessions negotiated between parties and factions. Further, under FPP, Parliamentary majorities were rarely popular or “median-voter” majorities. The 1951 National government was the last elected with both Parliamentary and popular majorities under FPP. Jack Vowles’ observation that under FPP ‘power is given to minorities who think they have a majority’ is apt. Worse, it was these manufactured majorities that saw New Zealand branded by Geoffrey Palmer ‘the fastest law in the West’, possessing a system of largely ‘unbridled power’. Such a judgment should perturb those interested in effective and representative law-making.

No individual can achieve the entirety of their political wishes, nor should they. Compromise is a necessary and desirable feature of democratic life.

On the other hand, if the good we desire is wider representation, surer proportionality, moderated and consultation-derived legislative programmes, and checks on the leading party, then the pendulum swings in MMP’s favour. In a system with a unicameral legislature, where parliament is supreme, and few formal checks exist, an outcome which tends towards compromise can be a powerful moderating force. While post-election negotiations have been necessary under MMP, the process is neither needlessly drawn-out, nor unnecessarily complex. In comparison, it took over 200 days for a Ministry to be formed after the March 15 Dutch Parliamentary elections.

Some may have contempt for Winston Peters’ “heads or tails” decision, but it is helpful to put this into perspective. After any election, the potential winning coalitions of support are usually larger in number, and broader in combination, than most voters and parties will countenance. Grand coalitions between major parties do occur elsewhere, the 2013 German Bundestag serving as an example. But, much like we are unwilling to seriously consider a grand coalition in New Zealand, we are unwilling to reward minor parties who choose to work across the ideological aisle. New Zealand voters punish minor parties who work with larger parties, regardless of whether this working arrangement is a full coalition or a limited support relationship. It is little wonder that our post-election negotiations yield few realistic options. The fault is not Winston Peters’ alone.  

In considering the government formation process, reasoned judgments must fall beyond elation or outrage. In politics, we all win sometimes, and we all lose sometimes, too. Most often, each of us both wins and loses simultaneously. No individual can achieve the entirety of their political wishes, nor should they. Compromise is a necessary and desirable feature of democratic life. Like choosing an electoral system, or forming a government, democracy is compromise. Indeed, it should be.

Jonathan Hunt, former Speaker of the House and longest-serving MP, said in his valedictory statement ‘I was one of those who opposed MMP, and I certainly voted against it. I was wrong, and I admit that fact, because I believe that MMP has made Parliament more accurately reflect New Zealand as a whole.’

To use a Parliamentary convention: “Hear, hear” Mr Hunt.

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