Public dissatisfaction with FPP, under which Sir Robert Muldoon (L) thrived, risks being repeated with similar ill-will towards its successor, MMP, where Winston Peters (R) holds all the cards.. Photos: Getty Images

More than anything, the genesis for MMP and the current Winston Peters carry-on is what happened at the 1981 general election.

National, under Sir Robert Muldoon, won a third term despite polling 38.8 percent of the vote to Bill Rowling’s 39.0 percent for Labour — but the critical factor was the widely-satirised Social Credit party winning 20.7 percent and getting just two seats. A fifth of the vote and one 46th of the seats in the House.

The First Past the Post system, which at the previous election in 1978 had seen a similar result with National receiving less of the popular vote than Labour but winning more seats, and Social Credit taking 16 percent but just one seat, had terminally discredited itself.

Switching electoral systems takes time and it took a full 12 years for the 1981 injustice to be remedied. The movement for a change of electoral system ran through that decade and into the 1990s, an almost missionary campaign by zealots and lobbyists until it culminated in the referendum in 1993 that selected MMP as the replacement for the first proportional representation election in 1996.

The smash-through politics of the David Lange-Roger Douglas Labour government from 1984-1990 and the smash-em-again policies of the early National-Jim Bolger years with Ruth Richardson running the Treasury sealed FPP’s fate. 

You can ignore and over-ride some of the people, some of the time. The electorate eventually rose up against a vastly unfair FPP electoral system, against an accumulation of Executive power over Parliamentary power and against repeated broken promises or secret agendas.

Peters has the teapot and is holding a Mad Hatter’s tea party.

New Zealand First’s campaign slogan this year of “Had Enough?” would have been perfect in the lead-up to 1993. People had had enough of the There is No Alternative haste of the free market radicals.

Lange himself had anticipated during his administration that the public wanted ‘a pause and a cup of tea’. 

Essentially the build-up of resentment at electoral results and political shock-and-awe led to the public crying enough and voting for built-in handbrakes. Jim Anderton’s Alliance and then Progressives played that role, as did Act, United Future, the Māori Party and twice before and right now, the New Zealand First party.

Bruce Beetham’s party, in 1981, far outperformed Winston Peters’ party in 2017. Photo: Getty Images

This is, in reality, another pause and a cup of tea. Peters is holding the teapot and holding a Mad Hatter’s tea party. 

His party took seven out of every 100 votes, the kind of figure Bruce Beetham’s Social Credit – which was regarded as truly fringe with its fixation on reform of the monetary system, reclaiming control of the money supply from foreign banks and imposition of a financial transactions tax – scored in 1978 and 1975 and 1984. 

Even with 20 percent of the poll no one would have expected Social Credit to direct, demand, and require subservience of one of the two big parties.

New Zealand First has never managed to become more than a minor party, despite Peters’ pride in its survival as an entity for 24 years. National formed as a party in 1936 and had claimed power within 13 years; Labour in 1916 and taking government 19 years later in 1935. New Zealand First has not yet achieved Social Credit’s 20.7 percent figure of 1981, scoring 13 percent on MMP debut in 1996 but since then averaging less than the old Social Crediters.

While the 1981 result ought to have delivered Social Credit more representation in Parliament, even with 21 percent of the poll no one would have expected it to direct, demand and require subservience of one of the two big parties.

The tactics now of New Zealand First and Peters, effectively arm-twisting concessions out of both major parties, are probably what we have come to expect from them. And, if you can get more for your seven percent than you should, why wouldn’t you? This is the hand-brake in action. This is one MMP theory in stark reality.

The major failing now is the behaviour and surrendering of power by Bill English’s National Party and Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party. Desperate to show respect to an MP who has the distinction of serving in three administrations and not completing his term in any of them, and of having been ousted from three separate electorates, they have ceded authority and credibility. What they cede, and how much, in terms of policy will be key to the public’s reaction. 

Worse, they may have sown the seed for public disaffection with MMP which was supposed to make power proportionate and bridled. It won’t be sudden; it could take three or four more elections. But a mood for changes to MMP could build from the lack of leadership of these past 22 days.

As the tail wags the dog and the guy with Social Credit’s seven percent addresses the nation daily, the country starts to realise it can become hostage to what is disproportional representation.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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