Perhaps putting more voices into power could deliver New Zealand the MMP system it asked for, writes Thomas Coughlan

Green co-leader Metiria Turei’s principled stand against Winston Peters, and Barry Coates’ subsequent (and now retracted) avowal that their party would trigger a second election rather than go into coalition with Peters and New Zealand First has illustrated the discordant cultures that animate New Zealand’s political life.

These cultures exist across the political spectrum, feeding from political parties to voters and back again.

Though ostensibly availed of a complex electoral system capable of expressing multipolar political views and delivering governments of wide-ranging opinion, New Zealand is encumbered with bipolar politics, where parties of one side of the spectrum rarely deign even to countenance the views of the other.

Let’s test Coates’ claim. Why could the Greens not go into coalition with New Zealand First? If Peters’ racism is the real concern, could we see a rump Labour-Green bloc enter a grand coalition or offer a minority National-ACT government a confidence and supply arrangement to strip kingmaker Peters of his crown? If keeping Peters out of the Beehive is that important, surely an agreement with National (sweetened perhaps with some environmental concessions) is the lesser of two evils?

It’s not as unthinkable as it sounds.

There is a disconnect between our relatively new electoral system and the political culture that it sustains. Just look at the brouhaha stirred amongst the commentariat when Andrew Little broached the possibility of a Labour-Green-New Zealand First coalition. It’s not unthinkable – it might even have happened in some form had things worked out differently in 2005 or 2008. Indeed, in an interview on The Nation, Turei suggested this was a possible outcome this time around.

A Labour-Green-New Zealand First coalition led by Peters is less likely, but again not unthinkable. Surely if Labour’s vote collapses there is some kind of mandate for a coalition led by one of the country’s most popular politicians instead of one of its least. This would be a true creature of an MMP parliament – a coalition of relative equals, rather than the FPP fiction of a major party propped up with a minor party’s support.

Our electoral landscape is changing — albeit slowly. There is a slight, though growing sense that minor parties are necessary not just to fashion a crushing majority, but also to secure a wide ranging mandate from the diverse factions of the MMP parliament. John Key’s broad arrangements with ACT, United Future and the Māori Party, and his cooperation with the Greens on home insulation gesture towards this.

Little’s coalition would be different. Far short of the scores chalked up by Helen Clark and John Key, he would enter the coalition as the larger partner amidst three effectively minor parties. This wouldn’t be a leader propped up by supporters as all of our MMP governments have been, but a truly proportional government of the kind often seen in Europe.

It would neatly solve a problem that emerged from recent polling that showed a majority of voters would like to see National out of government but are unwilling to unify behind a single opposition party.

We have two conflicting mandates here. Traditionally, the larger of the two main parties is fairly assumed to have a mandate to form a government, however with recent polling showing a majority support turfing National out, it might now be equally fair to say that opposition parties can fairly claim a mandate for forming a government.

“It should come as no surprise that the FPP culture lives on — establishment politicians never wanted it to begin with.”

In spite of perennial charge that MMP has led to tail-wagging-the-dog politics, all MMP governments have been more or less creatures of FPP. Each has been composed of a major party that dishes out goodies to minnows in exchange for support. In these coalitions the tail doesn’t really wag the dog, but if it wags at all it does so (to stretch the metaphor) in approval at tasty but ultimately vapid concessions doled out from the high table in return for support and supplication: a super gold card here, a ministry there.

Comparing New Zealand with a more mature MMP culture in Germany where Angela Merkel has twice invited the Social Democrats, her main opposition party, to form a grand coalition only serves to underline how much our governments still resemble their FPP origins. Ours looks far more like the FPP governments seen in Britain; the 2010-2015 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition or the 2017 confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionists wouldn’t look at all out of place in New Zealand.

It should come as no surprise that the FPP culture lives on — establishment politicians never wanted it to begin with. According to David Lange, almost none of Labour’s key personnel (including himself and Helen Clark) backed the electoral reform referendum. MMP was even less popular with National, and electoral reform only made it to the ballot after Jim Bolger decided that he could not break his promise to grant a referendum on electoral reform, having u-turned on the superannuation surtax.

It’s helpful to remember what MMP was actually for. It replaced FPP largely on the promise that it would curb the power of the executive and bring an end to the period of traumatic reform voters seemed unable to escape with either Labour or National. The poverty of choice was so significant even Ken Douglas, then of the Federation of Labour, considered whether to endorse National in the 1990 election. Douglas recalled that some on the executive had believed that ‘the tories can never be worse than this lot’, though in fact they were. The reforms continued no matter who held the keys to the Beehive.

If Andrew Little (L, with Kelvin Davis) leads Labour to victory, he could enter a coalition as the major partner amidst three effectively minor parties. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

To a certain extent, MMP has delivered on its first promise: to put an end to violent reform by ushering in technocratic governments who prefer to tinker rather than change. Parliament is more diverse in every sense and some of that diversity has fed through into government. But still more could be done to unleash the potential of this electoral system. After the heady 90s and early 2000s, MMP has become profoundly less diverse in one of the most important realms of all: ideas.

While it may be crumbling around the world, the politics of the third-way, summed up by Helen Clark’s ‘command the centre’ mantra, is alive and well in New Zealand. National has governed within a recognisably Clarkist, technocratic paradigm, and Labour and the Greens have committed to the same level of public spending as National. We’re right back in the 80s. No matter who we vote for, the outcome is the same.

All of a sudden, MMP has delivered precisely what it was supposed to destroy: a poverty of choice and a dearth of ideas, utterly incapable of rising to modern challenges. While going back to FPP’s elected dictatorships doesn’t seem all that appetising, is it possible to envisage MMP yielding a more nuanced, less dictatorial reform?

An interesting hypothetical is to consider whether parties transparently willing to compromise on certain issues to get into government would then be more able to pursue a more radical and purist agenda advanced by their base. This is particularly true of parties like the Greens and Labour. Would Labour be a stronger party by patently appealing to working people and recipients of social welfare? Would the Greens likewise be more successful if they stuck to environmental issues and offered national confidence and supply in exchange for a progressive environment policy?

Progressives will say that such issues are interconnected and should be addressed structurally, which is possibly true, but this is an MMP parliament and a single party – any single party – with an all-encompassing, majoritarian agenda is anathema to it. MMP can only deliver progress with compromise.

With voter turnout declining and a desire for change brewing, a radical rethink of MMP politics is needed to make sure it delivers on its promise. Perhaps getting more voices into government (not just parliament) is part of that solution.

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