Electoral Misconceptions

Keith Rankin, 23 December 1998


According to a report ("Foreign investors take their profits out of New Zealand") in today's Business Herald, "more than 3/4 of the respondents to a recent survey commissioned by the American Chamber of Commerce believed New Zealand had become a less attractive place to do business over the past three years, citing MMP as the principal change for the worse.

We have to be very wary of these reports because we do not know (i) what kinds of information about MMP (New Zealand's new proportional electoral system) were fed to these American businessmen, (ii) what alternative (if any) to MMP they had in mind as being better for business, and (iii) whether their criticism of MMP is a criticism of MMP as a form of democracy, or a dislike of democracy itself.

It is unlikely that these people would claim that the economies of Germany, Norway, Ireland or Australia are suffering on account of MMP (Germany is the prototype of "mixed member proportional") or the other forms of proportional representation (Australia has proportional representation in its Senate only). If the problem is seen as being policy paralysis, then there is no way that New Zealand can be accused of suffering from more policy paralysis than the USA, or indeed any country with multicameral representation.

It is most likely that the criticism of MMP results from a combination of distrust for democracy within international capitalist circles and misleading information (and leading questions) emanating from New Zealand's business sector.

Foreign businessmen are not the only people confused about MMP. New Zealand's journalists, by and large, have still not come to grips with it. Colin James (NZ Herald, 23 December) says "only in Act have all a small party's MPs kept faith with MMP". He means that some of those elected on the Alliance and New Zealand First party tickets no longer vote with those parties.

MMP is no more a party system than was its "first-past-the-post" (FPP) predecessor. It makes no more sense to say that Alamein Kopu's defection from the Alliance was any more "keeping faith" with the electoral system than were the defections of John Kirk and Jim Anderton from Labour in the 1980s.

Political Parties are no more than a practical means of arranging representation in societies that are too large for most of the candidates to be known personally. Party allegiances help us to know what people stand for. And we vote for party lists on the belief that there is some commonality about what each person on the list stands for. We judge MPs on their ability and willingness to promote those principles in Parliament. We judge them on the basis of loyalty to the ideals that they are meant to be promoting, and not on their slavish loyalty to a party machine that may itself have wavered from the ideals associated in the public mind with that party.

When the next election comes around, we should vote to re-elect candidates who have effectively represented our philosophies and our electorates. Or we should vote for new candidates who we believe can represent us more effectively.

The parties play a crucial role in bringing new candidates to our attention. We can really only get to know them once they have entered public life. Before that, we trust the parties to have chosen well on behalf of the voters who identify with the philosophies that the parties are identified with. That is the role of the parties; to get people into Parliament, and not to control them once there.

Of course, informal arrangements of mutual convenience whereby parties vote as a block are acceptable. But they should never be legally binding. Such arrangements are less cumbersome than under the old rules where the rules pretended that MPs did not vote in party blocs, and all MPs had to physically enter the voting lobbies for every vote. The new procedure for voting within Parliament reflects a reform of Parliament's procedures that happened to coincide with the introduction of MMP. It is not, as Colin James seems to assume, an integral difference between the old and the new systems of voting people into Parliament.

The most important single difference between FPP and MMP is that the entry-hurdle for new parties was reduced from around 20% (de facto) of the total vote to around 5% (de jure). (Under FPP, parties could, given special conditions in particular electorates, get representation with less than 20% of the nationwide vote. Likewise, under MMP, given special conditions in particular electorates, parties can get representation with less than 5% of the nationwide vote.)

Capitalists liked FPP because of its lack of contestability. Just as the organised business community prefers monopoly and oligopoly to competition, business interests prefer to operate within a political duopoly that virtually assured single-party government. It's much easier to lobby two parties whose only competition is each other, than it is to push for policies favourable to capital within the confines of a genuine multi-party democracy. Even if MMP delivers just 2 parties in the 1999 election, New Zealand will continue to have a multi-party democracy because the 5% entry threshold will remain.

Finally, MMP (and any other electoral system) is about how MPs get elected. What MPs do once elected has nothing to do with the electoral system. MPs are autonomous representatives of the people. Their loyalty - their oath of allegiance - is to the "Crown" or to the "Constitution", where "Crown" and "Constitution" are names that represent the sovereignty of the people who both govern and are governed.


© 1998

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