New Zealand collectively continues to reject the option of having a single-party majority government, writes Jack Vowles

Reactions to the 2017 election result fall into three main camps. Those who have always disliked the MMP system proclaim the outcome as a vindication of their fears that a small party will exert disproportionate power. That is a prediction to be tested by ongoing events. Those who would like the MMP system to be made even more proportional lament the reduction of the number of parties represented and the loss of votes experienced by the Green Party and New Zealand First. They see MMP as ‘failing’ as a result. 

In the middle, there are those who have favoured the MMP system as a form of moderate proportional representation that delivers fair results to significant parties while discouraging micro-parties and preventing a single party from governing alone. With only one micro-party remaining, and with no one party having a parliamentary marjority, MMP moderates can be relatively satisfied with the result.

MMP was not designed to proliferate parties. It was designed to give fair representation to parties with significant support, whatever and how many of them there might be.  After several elections, as the Electoral Commission recommended, there is a case for lowering the threshold and removing the so-called ‘coat tail’ provision whereby a small party with votes short of the party vote threshold can still cross the threshold by winning an electorate seat or seats and potentially gain further list seats.

This would prevent occasional anomalies in MMP elections, particularly affecting parties around four percent of the votes. Yet had the recommended reforms been enacted, or even taken further, such as a drop in the threshold to three percent, in terms of the votes cast, seat allocations from the 2017 election would not have been any different. Complete abolition of the threshold is advocated by some. 

A party ‘winning’ with a little over 44 percent of the votes cannot reasonably claim a moral right to govern: at best being the plurality winner designates being the first in the queue to seek that role.

This would run the risk of giving a pivotal role to non-serious parties such as the Bill and Ben Party (2008, on 0.56 percent of the party vote). In the absence of a threshold, about 0.4 percent of the party vote would be sufficient for a party to win a single seat. In the absence of a threshold parties such as Outdoor Recreation or Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis, both with narrow issue agendas, would also have won seats at previous elections.

Other critics make the argument that for the 2017 election we experienced a first-past-the-post campaign inappropriate under MMP. There is something to be said for this criticism. From 2005 onward, the major party leaders have not agreed to participate in debates with the leaders of the smaller parties. 

The major party television leader debates have encouraged a two-party focus in the campaign. That point conceded, when votes and polls do continue to indicate that the two major party leaders are the only feasible alternative Prime Ministers, a focus on those individuals can be justified, although it is regrettable that small party leaders do not have the opportunity to debate with them.

Analysis of broader patterns of electoral behaviour over time suggest that 2017 was a ‘normal’ MMP election in which the pendulum swung toward large parties and away from smaller parties. Its closest comparison is with the 2005 election, when the major parties were even closer in their vote shares and even more dominant in the results. When we weight the number of parties by their vote shares, the effective number of parties in 2017 was 2.9, a reduction from 3.3 from 2014, but very similar to 3.0 in 2005.  

Normality in MMP terms is best estimated since 2005. From 1996 to the 2002 election, smaller parties did get more votes – in 1996, the effective number of parties was 4.4, in 2002 4.2. Since 2005, MMP politics has stabilised. We have experimented with a more fragmented party system and collectively decided on a more moderate version, within which the effective number of parties has cycled around three. 

Vote shifts have also stabilised. Since 2005, vote shifts as measured by net vote volatility are about half what they were over the three post-MMP transition elections. At about 27 percent, net volatility between 2017 and 2014 is the highest since 2008, but much lower than any pair of elections between 1990 and 2005. 

There is no guarantee of good government under any electoral system.

This post-transition MMP party system has most in common with that of 1978 to 1984, when the effective number of parties was also just below three. At that time New Zealand had developed a moderate multi-party system much like that of today, and as a consequence the first-past the-post electoral system was failing to reflect voter choices adequately and generating serious anomalies and distortions.

Some will no doubt claim that MMP has its own flaws and perversities. Some of these are recognised by those who wish to reform it in line with the Electoral Commission’s recommendations. No electoral system is perfect: some are better than others. But even these sorts of judgments depend on conditions, and on the patterns of choices made by the actors involved. There is no guarantee of good government under any electoral system.

Because New Zealand is a representative democracy, who governs depends on votes in Parliament, and only secondarily on votes cast in the election. This has always been the case, even before MMP. Voting determines the allocation of seats, but its power is indirect. 

A party ‘winning’ with a little over 44 percent of the votes cannot reasonably claim a moral right to govern: at best being the plurality winner designates being the first in the queue to seek that role. This advantages National. But stability and durability of a coalition or other government arrangement is enhanced by ideological proximity and congruence between the partners. This advantages the centre-left combination of Labour, New Zealand First and Green. A majority is 50 percent plus one. In 2017, as at every election since 1996, New Zealand has collectively continued to reject the option of having a single-party majority government.

Professor Jack Vowles is in the Political Science and International Relations programme at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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