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The MMP dilemma: are you the lap dog or the tail?

Under MMP our smaller political parties face an almost insoluble dilemma, always accused of being either the lap dog or the tail that wags the dog, writes Peter Dunne

The one certain prediction that can be made about the coming election is that no single party will win an outright majority. Therefore, the next government will continue to be a combination in some form of at least two parties.

Ever since the introduction of MMP in 1996, voters have shied away from giving either of the two old parties an outright majority in the way they did at every election between 1935 and 1993 under the old First Past the Post system. On the two occasions since 1996 when it had looked possible that a single party might have gained an outright majority – 2002 under Labour, and 2014 under National – voters baulked at the prospect.

When voters ignored Labour’s call in 2002 to give it  an outright majority in the wake of the break-up of the coalition with the Alliance, they instead ensured that Labour could continue in office, only after it had signed the country's first Confidence and Supply Agreement with UnitedFuture. Similarly, in 2014 National was denied an outright majority once all the special and overseas votes had been counted, and had to rely for the third straight time on its respective Confidence and Supply Agreements with the Maori Party, ACT and UnitedFuture to remain in office.

Faced with the choice of a return to single party government voters have consistently opted for multi-party government under MMP where the potential excesses of the large party can be moderated by its smaller partners.

With the 2020 General Election barely three months away it is not surprising that the smaller parties currently in Parliament – New Zealand First, the Greens and ACT – have all been looking to raise their profiles of late in order to attract the voter support they need to survive. All are presently polling below the 5 percent party vote threshold required to remain in Parliament, although ACT does have the luxury of holding the Epsom seat, and so is currently best placed to be in the next Parliament.

In an attempt to boost its support New Zealand First is now actively campaigning that it is the true handbrake on its partner Labour's aspirations for New Zealand's future. The more mild-mannered Greens are focusing more on the gains they see they have made on environmental matters, that would not have otherwise occurred.

But all this essentially positioning activity highlights one of the basic contradictions within our MMP system, and why the smaller parties have never really prospered. While voters quite like the diversity of view smaller parties bring to Parliament, they are, at the same time, worried that about these smaller parties exercising too much power by being the "tail wagging the dog."

There seems to be an inherent view that the role and place of smaller parties is basically to support one or other of the major parties to govern, in return for some, but not too many, key policy concessions. But the problem is that while they seem to expect the smaller parties to “know their place” while a government support partner, voters also have frequently dismissed support partners as "lap dogs" when they do not hold the government to ransom to prevent it implementing policies groups of voters do not approve of.

They voted for them in the first place because they liked their policies and somehow expected them to implement all those policies, while still knowing their place and allowing the major party to govern. That is an impossible contradiction, so they become frustrated when the smaller party cannot achieve all the things it promised. Yet when governments do things that are popular, often following a support party initiative, it is normally the major party of government that seems to get the credit. But when they do things that are unpopular it is invariably the smaller parties that can get the blame for having let them do so.

This creates an almost insoluble dilemma for the smaller party. On the one hand, they want to show that they are serious political players with a legitimate perspective to offer, and that they can be trusted to act responsibly and constructively in government. Yet, on the other hand, if they achieve all these things, they run the real risk of being written off as unprincipled opportunists, solely interested in the baubles of office. It is little wonder in this environment that to date no government support party has crossed the 5 percent party vote threshold at the subsequent election.

New Zealand First’s remedy... is to tackle the issue by proclaiming unashamedly it is the tail that currently wags the government dog.

Some have speculated this shows we are on the verge of returning to the old two-party system. While total support for smaller parties has fallen from its high in 2002 – when 38 percent of New Zealanders voted for parties other than Labour or National – there is still a public expectation smaller parties should have some representation in Parliament. The issue more seems to be the level of influence they then exercise.

For New Zealand First and the Greens, now facing the prospect of failing to cross the threshold according to some recent opinion polls, not getting 5 percent would be terminal as neither currently hold an electorate seat. Both would be out of Parliament under that scenario, with any political good they have done in their time left to be interred with their bones.

New Zealand First’s remedy, aside from a likely forlorn tilt at the Northland seat (Shane Jones has so far lost every electorate contest he has entered), is to tackle the issue by proclaiming unashamedly it is the tail that currently wags the government dog.

Rather than laying claim to any constructive achievements, it is now promoting itself as essentially the party that stops the currently popular Labour Party from doing things, let alone allowing the more “risky” Greens a more meaningful slice of the action. At the same time, however, it still professes a capacity and willingness to continue working alongside them in government. It is all an understandable nonsense, brought on by its desire not to be absorbed by Labour, as Shane Jones stated perhaps a little too candidly last week.

This approach runs smack up against one of voters’ long-held worries about proportional representation government – the potential hijack of the wishes of the majority by a small minority. Throughout this term of government there has been steady although generally muffled criticism that it has been New Zealand First – with just 7 percent of the vote at the last election – that has been calling all the shots.

New Zealand First has even pointed out from time to time that it – not the New Zealand electorate – installed the Prime Minister in office. It is bargaining on the prospect that there is a sufficient bloc of traditional “none of the above” voters, who prefer larrikinism over responsibility, to put it over the threshold again. According to these voters, there is nothing wrong with the tail wagging the dog, provided it is their tail doing the wagging. To them, talk of responsible, representative government is just pretentious, idle poppycock. Yet, if New Zealand First’s strategy works, not only will it be back in Parliament, against all the current odds, but, in all probability, will then be determining the shape of the next government.  

The coming election will be New Zealand’s ninth MMP election.  Overall, the results have produced remarkable political stability over the last quarter century with both Labour and National-led governments each in office for twelve years since 1996. But that stability has often been underpinned by the role the smaller parties have played in government (notably UnitedFuture from 2002 to 2017; ACT and the Maori Party from 2008-2017). Yet, to date, all have paid a price for doing so. The incongruity of our system seems to be that although voters want political stability, they award no dividend to the parties that provide it.

The 2020 election will show whether the Greens, who have generally followed the responsible path to date, will succumb to that historical pattern, and whether New Zealand First (dismissed from the National-led coalition in 1998, suspended by Labour in 2008, and boasting it, not the public, installed the current Government in 2017) continues to call the shots.

Until voters resolve whether they want smaller parties to play a meaningful role in government, or just be a noisy, distracting sideshow, our MMP system will continue to fail to reach its full potential.

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