Winston Peters has spent decades gaming MMP to keep himself in the position of king (or queen) maker. Asks Danyl Mclauchlan, are we really going to make it even easier for politicians like him?

Winston Peters has spent decades gaming MMP to keep himself in the position of king (or queen) maker. Asks Danyl Mclauchlan, are we really going to make it even easier for politicians like him?
Winston Peters, by Jacky Carpenter.

By Danyl Mclauchlan, The Spinoff*

The Green Party has put forward a members bill which, among other things, advocates lowering the MMP threshold from 5% to 4%. Let us set aside the terrible, terrible optics of a political party that is part of the government, and hovering just above the 5% threshold in the recent round of polls – and which routinely under-performs the polls on election day – attempting to alter the electoral system to its own advantage and consider the 5% threshold itself.

It is obviously unfair and distortionary. A party that gets 5% of the vote gets six seats in parliament, while a party that gets 4.9% gets zero. Why should 131,508 voters (5% of the turnout in the 2017 election) have their votes translated into seats into Parliament, and a slightly smaller number have their votes nullified? And the threshold distorts the decision making process around who to vote for if their favoured party is in that danger zone. Does a Green voter vote Green, with the risk that their vote will get wiped out, or switch to Labour, who they support less but whose vote carries essentially zero risk?

A 4% threshold still has these problems, but because the threshold is lower the unfairness and distortion are reduced. Why not lower it to 1%? Or whatever percentage is enough to capture a single seat in parliament (this number shifts around, depending on various factors). The assumption is that this would lead to a proliferation of weird minor parties and lead to the instability we see in, for example, Israeli politics.

But New Zealand seems to be heading in the opposite direction, drifting back towards the two party system MMP was designed to prevent, and the 5% threshold seems to play a key role in this. It’s just too high for aspiring new parties to breach and it’s endangering both the current minor parties. So lowering the threshold to 4% seems like a moderate step to address this. And prior to the last election I was a strong advocate of a 4% threshold for all the reasons I just described. Now I’m not so sure.

A few years ago I was arguing with the recently departed and much missed political commentator Rob Hosking and he told me the parable of Chesterton’s Fence. The conservative essayist and novelist G K Chesterton wrote about two farmers walking down a trail. They come across a fence blocking their way. The first farmer suggests they get rid of it; the second farmer replies, “First let’s figure out why the fence is here. Then we can decide whether we should get rid of it.” This is a very flattering way for conservatives to think about their role in politics: silly old progressives keep trying to abolish customs and traditions without understanding them, while conservatives patiently prevent them from hurting themselves and everyone else.

But it seems relevant with regard to the 5% threshold. Our version of MMP was copied from the German system and the threshold was there to prevent the rise of extremist political parties, something that nation was apprehensive about for obvious reasons. That didn’t seem like a realistic fear for New Zealand so copying such a high threshold seemed unjustifiable. But now that we’re seeing a global rise of extremist parties, a fascist government in Brazil, etc, it no longer seems like such an abstract fear.

But my main problem with lowering the threshold is that it will also probably save New Zealand First, and it will make the New Zealand First model of politics so much more viable.

This is a model in which you fundraise from exploitative, extractive industries (fishing, forestry), campaign on populist issues (Peters’ flagship policies in 2017 were lower immigration, a referendum to ditch the Māori seats and to remove GST on fruit and vegetables), ditch all of your policies and issues as soon as the election is over, and use your position in the political centre to maximise your personal power.

It means Peters gets to operate as a de facto co-prime minister, he gets to veto any attempts to regulate his corporate donors, he gets to unilaterally change our long-standing foreign policy towards China without bothering to tell the actual prime minister, let alone the Cabinet, his deputy gets given three billion dollars to just give away to whoever he wants, and none of this has any mandate from the public whatsoever. Nobody wanted or voted for any of this, not even New Zealand First’s voters, but here we all are.

The 5% threshold hasn’t saved us from Peters but this is because he’s one of the most brilliant politicians the country has ever seen. His model is a very successful hack of the MMP system, but you have to be Peters to pull it off – otherwise everyone would do it: after all, you get near total political power with virtually no votes.

But Peters was kicked out of parliament after his last shambolic tenure in government and, based on the current polls, he’ll be wiped out at the next election, so it is (hopefully) not a sustainable model, even for him. The 5% threshold is what protects us from countless imitators reproducing the hack and wrecking our government. That is what the fence is protecting us from. We’d be fools to lower it.


*This article first ran on The Spinoff here and is used with permission. Danyl Mclauchlan is a contributing writer for The Spinoff.

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47 Comments

I wasn't in NZ when MMP was introduced. So I assumed it wasn't to stop 2 party politics but to let every voter have a vote that counts; most constituencies are a foregone conclusion for one party.
The 5% limit designed to stop Nazi and other populist parties? Europe has seen many new parties exceed that limit - it would be good to see these popularist parties in Parliament when they only have a few MPs. For example if ACT hadn't had MPs in recent years they might have been more popular.
I'm not Green but I hope their proposals are accepted.

.. in the 1984 general election , Bob Jones " New Zealand Party " received over 12 % of the vote ... 235 000 votes ... but didn't win a single seat ...

It was clear back then , that First Past the Post was not delivering governments in the manner that the electorate were voting ...

I would like to see the threshold increased.
The Greens and NZF are mostly liars and hypocrites.

15
up

You could raise the MMP threshold to 75% and Parliament would still be full of liars and hypocrites.

And National and Labour are upright straight-talkers? How about increasing the threshold for parties that are Chinese Communist Party glove puppets - I'd increase it to 101%?

No it wasn’t entirely to stop two party politics. Rather it was a vote against the status quo. It has not outturned as many had hoped, including me.First of all the Royal Commission decreed that there was absolutely no need to increase the number of MP’s from the then, 90 or so. Those wonderful bunch of representatives then thought “hah, if they don’t like what they have got with the lot of us now, they are hardly likely to vote for more of the same.” Thus we now have a 120 or so parliament. David Lange recorded that that was the most appalling and cynical act he ever witnessed any government execute. The problem is, based on that, if any changes are made, things are likely to end up as own goal, as far as the electorate is concerned.

The average number of people per electorate was about 35,000 historically. It jittered around a bit.

If we still used that proportion, we would now have 137 seats in Parliament, based on a population of 4.8 million.

The problem is the copying of the MMP model from Germany was done half-assed. Instead of the party that had the largest amount of votes trying to form a government first like Germany we had now-a-2% Winston First going back and forth to get the most for himself while ignoring the 94% of the population. What is the point in listening to the troughers promising the world when they can just cop-out and say the promises were for "if we were solely in power". Need to vote on policies not on the trougher'ss BS coming out of their mouths. I would be in favour of lowering the threshold if we get rid of all the list MPs.

how can you have MMP without list MPs?

Yes, the party that gets the largest number of votes should get to choose the government. Having list MPs is just a travesty.

Having list MPs is rather essential to MMP.. Perhaps STV would be better?

Yes indeed, I voted for STV, the superior alternative.

Well, it sure delivers the goods for Austral....... oh wait

An unsustainable political system

... even so , it's still better than China's !

Let the voters decide. I propose 10%

4% is still too high, distortionary and undemocratic.
The threshold should be 1/number of seats.

... Winston was the King-maker with just 7 % of the vote .... how will we feel if he gets to call the shots on just 3 or 4 % ...

I think the ideas is there would hopefully be several potential kingmaker parties.. So the party thats needs one or two extra votes to form a govt can negotiate with several minor parties making smaller concessions.

The thing this article misses is that the world has fundamentally changed, becoming far more partisan and polarised. Nowadays there are fringe parties on the left and the right and two large parties to left and right of centre with almost no viable smaller alternatives in the middle anymore Greens and Labour poach each other's votes, as do Act and Nats and Conservatives (if they ever manage to show up electorally again). NZF is the last survivor from an earlier age driven by a charismatic charlatan able to swing a few low information/confused elderly voters and when it is gone it won't be replaced. I happily await that day, it really can't come soon enough.

1.6667% = 2 seats. One is a just a little too low, to easy to get nutters in on a single issue party. Ban 1080 party or the anti-vaccine party might manage to get 0.8%, or a religious nutjob party..

Presumably, you think a situation where a bloke with 7% of the vote determines the govt is non-distortionary and democratic.

Presumably, you think a situation where a bloke with 7% of the vote determines the govt is non-distortionary and democratic.

Its up to the parties to come to an agreement over the terms and conditions of any coalition/governing agreement.
They can agree to form a coalition
They can agree not to form a coalition - WP would have then gone with National
The largest party can govern as minority government on an issue by issue basis.

WP is a character & I'd never vote for him, but previous main parties in NZ government have wreaked more damage than he ever will.

Just have the one party that will deliver the results and was successful in running the country for 9 years.
We now have a so-called government comprising of 3 loser parties pitted together and are clueless!
Why have people running the country when none of them have been successful in business?
National is the only choice going forward!

Running a country and running a business are quite different. A successful business leader has to be trustworthy.

Nurse! He’s forgotten his meds again!

Yes the ex National leaders are so competent Man!
https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/111020215/dame-jenny-shipley-stands-dow...

If it’s too small you would end up with too many cooks in the kitchen and as a result unstable governments resulting in an unstable country. Imagine Jami-Lee Ross as a standalone party or other fringe parties (Think McGillycuddy Serious Party) controlling the balance of power it would be chaos. 5% is a good weedout threshold.

... Switzerland is politically stable ... and their Federal Council has 5 parties on it ... works for them ...

But there's the canton system - subsidiarity - and a sub-machine gun in every household's broom closet...the right to Arm Bears (stolen, unashamedly, from Jasper Fforde)....

Let's just wait: if this government doesn't survive the election, the system is working.

It's a good old fashioned American-style Gerrymander. Seems to be the left's go-to: Get into power, make partisan changes to electoral law for their own benefit.

"Why should 131,508 voters (5% of the turnout in the 2017 election) have their votes translated into seats into Parliament."

is not far off saying:

"Why should voters have their votes translated into seats into Parliament?"

130,000 is a lot of people in the context of NZ. We give electorate seats for less than 20,000 votes.

A party with a marginal hold on it postion wants to lower the threshold to 4%. They are just crooks.

Does no-one recall the review of MMP we had in 2012, if memory serves. We were all able to contribute to it and out of it came a few recommendation from the review committee as follows
The one electorate seat threshold should be abolished (and if it is, the provision for overhang seats should also be abolished);
The party vote threshold should be lowered from 5% to 4% (with the Commission required by law to review how the 4% threshold is working);
Consideration be given to fixing the ratio of electorate seats to list seats at 60:40 to address concerns about declining proportionality and diversity of representation;
Political parties should continue to have responsibility for selecting and ranking candidates on their party lists but they must make a statutory declaration that they have done so in accordance with their party rules;
MPs should continue to be allowed to be dual candidates and list MPs to stand in by-elections.

You will notice that in there is the recommendation that the threshold should be lowered to 4%, however, I believe that most people wanted the removal of coat tailing along with that.
The other issue that divided people a bit was dual candidacy, I felt that was one of the very best things about MMP as it meant parties could stand strong candidates in electorates that were strongholds for another party, as they could give a good account of themselves, offer voters real choice and still be able to be in parliament.
Anyway, that's all by the by now, most seem to have forgotten it even happened, which I suppose is understandable, given the speed that Judith Collins consigned it to the bin, it never saw the light of day in parliament to be acted on.
If any changes are to be made to MMP, it should be all of those recommendations.

Sounds good to me.

So why do I, a born Kiwi have only the same power (to choose my representative)......
....... As some Johnny-come-lately who may have real allegiance to a foreign government.

Oh, then maybe he/she has fronted with some dodgy cash for the Nats or Labour.

Maybe a bigger question than some silly percentage.

Agreed. The recent Nats saga showed this where donors were basically trying to buy list MPs...

People eventually always give away their democratic rights, it is a process that’s repeated throughout history. Example, some believe that because “only” 52% voted for Brexit, this is not a “true” majority and it should be more like 75%. Then the simpletons vote in laws that require 65-75% voting majorities and, voila, you get 10-15% of the population (previously called a “minority”, now some other snowflake term) ruling the majority, once you take into account voter turnouts, etc. We get what we deserve, and we are simply not intelligent enough collectively to advance to the next level....maybe in a few millenia.

We have the wrong electoral system, it should have been STV but thats too sophisticated a system for your average kiwi to bother with. MMP needs a lower threshold to allow more diversity. On current settings its too high for a minority party to get a foothold.

It needs ALL of the changes that came out of the review of 2012 (see above). They never even got to be debated in parliament about after Judith Collins summarily binned them.

"Too high for a minority party to get a foothold" Currently we have a party that 93% of the country did not vote for as Kingmaker. How much more power do you want to concentrate in minority parties than that?

For all who have made a comment to date!!

JUST REMEMBER THIS...
THE ONLY PERSON TO EVER ENTER PARLAIMENT WITH HONEST' INTENTIONS
WAS GUY FAWKES....

And like the vast majority of politicians before him and since ..he failed in his intentions and we the populace have had to suffer the consequences ever since...

Dead right

John Key was right about Winston Peters, he said he would not have him in his Government because he could not be trusted .

I voted for Peters because I he said he would "hit the pause button on immigration" and I was angry with National for not reigning in immigration ( causing a massive housing and infrastructure backlog ) and not stopping foreigners using cheap overseas money to buy up our assets (causing an Auckland property bubble) .

I thought MMP would work to make a National Government more accountable .

Instead , we have ended up with a chaotic shambolic administration, one that we could well do without , that bumbles or lurches from one self induced crisis to the next , including :-

Buggering up our relations with trading partners
Angering the Aussies
Creating unrealistic expectations in Unionised jobs leading to more strikes than the 1970's
Creating undeliverable expectations among young people that they would miraculously get a house for the price of a latte with a smashed avocado side order , paid for with a credit card .
Giving residence to convicted drug dealers
Banning oil and gas exploration with no consultation whatsoever
Planning an massive life changing overhaul of our tax system , a knee jerk reaction to Auckland house price increases , and a false perception that the 130,000 Kiwis who own a rental property are "rich pricks "

The list is endless

The only good thing about politicians is that we can vote them out again. Try doing that with Mr Xi. Even his ex-communist authoritarian buddy Mr Shootin Putin is about to change the Russian constitution to rule forever. The CoLabour incumbents are pretty bad, granted, but the previous lot were tired & idea-less after 3 terms. What we've got is not perfect, but it's okay. Stick with the 5%.