Is MMP too badly flawed?

Inevitably after an election, especially an election with an uncertain outcome, those who probably never wanted MMP say how flawed it is.

Any democratic system involving more than one person has flaws.

It’s fair to keep questioning whether New Zealand’s system of MMP is too badly flawed, or whether a few tweaks will make it a bit less flawed than it is now and less flawed than most if not all alternatives.

But now, while we wait for the formation of our next government, is not an ideal time to jump to any conclusions.

Karl du Fresne writes: Voters lose control when the coalition negotiations begin

Voters hardly ever have much if any control over our politicians.

Anyone having second thoughts about MMP?

I’ve argued for years that we swapped one set of flaws for another when we voted in 1993 to change the electoral system. The events of the past 10 days have done nothing to reverse that perception.

So he seems to have never wanted MMP. Why should the events of the past 10 days change anyone’s mind about MMP? There may be a bit of limbo but there is no crisis, there is no urgency, there is nothing particularly abnormal or alarming about waiting for the final results in a close election.

The theory was that by denying absolute power to any one party – in effect, requiring parties to negotiate and compromise on key policies – the MMP system would force governments to become more accountable and consensus-driven.

A bonus was that by giving greater power to minor parties, MMP would deliver more diverse representation in Parliament.

At least that was the theory, and to some extent it has been proved right.

Under MMP, we have certainly had far more diverse parliaments.  The two-party duopoly has been broken, opening the way for a much wider range of ideological positions and agendas to be represented in Parliament, from the old-style populist Muldoonism of NZ First through to the environmentally-driven Greens and the race-based sectional interests of the Maori Party.

There have been definite improvements.

But has MMP delivered greater accountability, as its idealistic (and mostly Left-wing) promoters promised? Hmmm. That’s another matter entirely.

Here we encounter two problems. The first is that under MMP, 49 of the 120 MPs in Parliament are not directly accountable to voters. They are elected on the all-important party lists and have no constituents to answer to.

Rather, they owe their loyalty to the party organisation, on which they depend for their ranking on the lists and therefore for their career prospects.

In other words, it’s a system that prioritises loyalty to the party over any obligations to voters.

That’s a potential weakness, but the old FPP system also prioritised loyalty to the party, as does the electorate part of MMP. Sure things go to the public for a vote every now and again but the influence of parties dominates.

But arguably an even bigger flaw is the one that we again see in play following the recent election.

Not for the first time, New Zealand finds itself at the mercy of NZ First and its vain and fractious leader, Winston Peters. A man whose party won only 7.5 per cent of the vote on election day will determine who governs us for the next three years.

Whatever this is, it’s not democracy. It’s a travesty, and it’s made worse by Peters’ egotistical posturing.

Peters is posturing, but is it a real problem? If the media just left him alone until the final results are announced we would see no posturing.

New Zealand is not at the mercy of anyone. We are waiting for an election result, and Peters is sensible to wait for the result too.

But even without a rogue politician like Peters in the mix…

There is no evidence of peters being a rogue politician, yet at least. Grump and secretive, but he has not done anything undemocratic. Claims if using disproportionate power are unproven – power is currently on hold, it is not being abused or overused. We may or may not have reason to complain in a week or two, but for now things are very benign.

… the system is deeply – perhaps fatally – flawed. Because regardless of the result on election day, all bets are off once the votes are in.

So what? That’s what happened after every election in the past. We have a system of representative democracy, that’s how it was under FPP and that’s how it is under MMP. We vote, then we largely leave it to the politicians for three years. Changing back to FPP won’t change that markedly if at all.

At that stage the public cedes total control to the politicians, who disappear behind closed doors to decide which of the policies they campaigned on can be jettisoned and which bottom lines no longer matter. We, the voters, have no power to influence what concessions will be made in coalition negotiations.

We have no power to influence policies developed by parties either, unless we belong to one party, and even then an individual’s power is minute.

Whatever this is, it’s not democracy.

It is democracy as we have it.

What would be more democratic – allowing us all to vote on what parties should form a government? Allowing us to vote on what policies are decided on? Allowing us to vote on who will be Prime Minister and who will be deputy? Vote for every minister?

That may take two years to work things out rather than two weeks or two months.

Should all of us be able to vole for every bit of legislation?

A good case can be made for more public say in what legislation passes through Parliament, but most people don’t care most of the time what our politicians do. We vote, then we largely leave it to them, apart from having the occasional grizzle.

The almost comical paradox is that the MMP system, which supposedly returned power to the people, is virtually guaranteed to produce a result where one or more minor parties end up wielding influence grossly disproportionate to their public support.

This is often claimed. We have had seven governments formed under MMP and there is little or no evidence it is true. I don’t think we have ever came anywhere close to grossly disproportionate influence.

The politicians have become thoroughly acclimatised to it too and either fail to see, or don’t want to see, its fatal flaws. But I reckon we were sold a crock in 1993, and I want my money back.

If du Fresne wanted to take things back to ‘the good old days’ he should have voted for NZ First.

MMP has obvious flaws, but not as du Fresne claims.

Large parties have disproportionate power by hobbling MMP with a high threshold. MMP is flawed by design.

If small parties, especially new parties, weren’t kept out of Parliament by a ridiculous barrier then MMP would be less flawed.

It would still have it’s flaws, because flawed humans use it, often to their own advantage more than for the good of all people. But there is no democratic system that does any better for the people.

The biggest problem with post-election limbo is not MMP, it’s the impatience of journalists and opinion writers, who concoct unsubstantiated gripes to fill their columns and attract a few clicks.

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29 Comments

  1. Blazer

     /  October 4, 2017

    No ,its not.

    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  October 4, 2017

      Why blame MMP for people who vote for idiots?

      • Patzcuaro

         /  October 4, 2017

        Are you referring to National voters in general or just the ones in Epsom?

        • Corky

           /  October 4, 2017

          I’d wait for Winston to make his mind up before calling a group of voters ”idiots.”
          I didn’t vote so such musings are academic for me.

        • High Flying Duck

           /  October 4, 2017

          Perhaps he’s talking of the “wasted vote” voters who don’t achieve anything.
          Epsom voters are perhaps the ones who best understand MMP and use it to their advantage.

          • Blazer

             /  October 4, 2017

            Goodfellow and co want FPP back.Notice all the comments questioning the efficiency of MMP ,post election.No Govt formed yet and life goes on irrespective.

            • Gezza

               /  October 4, 2017

              Anybody I’ve spoken to have said they’re happy about it – nothing changes while we wait, & that’s fine with them. (Survey of 3 NW staff, 1 neighbour, & Sir Gerald.)

            • High Flying Duck

               /  October 4, 2017

              Yep – no chance to stuff things up when you can’t pass legislation.
              FPP has simplicity on its side, but that would be about the only plus.
              MMP is representative but has the “tail wags the dog” problem.
              Also – as PG has mentioned a few times over the campaign – there is a responsibility for balanced coverage. The media mob tend to have bandwagon tendencies and to marginalise the minors and minnows.
              A slight drop in the threshold and more balanced coverage would help right things.
              Then there is the fact NZ is essentially a centrist nation and there isn’t much appetite for the fringe parties.

          • High Flying Duck

             /  October 4, 2017

            Ohariu vaters also understand MMP very well. Peter Dunne however couldn’t reconcile the fact he was being propped up in parliament by National voters and so eventually got turfed when he acted as fly in the ointment too many times.

      • Alan Wilkinson

         /  October 4, 2017

        The assumption is that the MPs we elected can’t be trusted or are not competent. If so, blame the voters.

        • Gezza

           /  October 4, 2017

          Less true for List MPs, & for newbie electorate MPs, perhaps.

    • Gezza

       /  October 4, 2017

      I agree with Blazer & PG. MMP’s working ok. Winston may be a nonce at times but he hasn’t ever made the system bad or unworkable – just jinxed the parties he signed up with at the next election.

      • Patzcuaro

         /  October 4, 2017

        I’m happy with MMP, I know that my vote will directly count towards the result and everybodies vote is of equal importance in deciding which parties are represented in parliament. Under FPP if you were in a marginal electorate your vote had a much greater effect on the outcome.

        I think that the threshold should be set by the independent electoral commission just as they set the boundaries for the electorates. It probably should be about 2.5%, but the commission would be able to set it using a similar process to setting the boundaries.

        • High Flying Duck

           /  October 4, 2017

          The problem with MMP is that minor party votes can (as is the case now) take on far greater importance than they deserve to. 7.5% should not decide the Government.
          That said, FPP was a worse system.
          No voting system is going to bring a perfect result, and at this stage MMP is as good as any. STV may bring some further improvement, but voter understanding would be important in making that work.

          • Patzcuaro

             /  October 4, 2017

            The smaller parties may seem to have more power but the voters always have the final say at the next election. If they over play their hand they are more less likely to get re-elected.

  2. Zedd

     /  October 4, 2017

    MMP just needs some tweaks.. (maybe lower thresh-hold & the way ‘specials’ are dealth with/counted ?)
    BUT, the two ‘major parties’ dont want to touch it, because it keeps all the ‘new’ parties & so-called ‘crazies’ out !
    Also; all the non-binding referendums & Independent/NGO reviews are just effectively ignored by the ‘POWER brokers in Wlgtn’ 😦

    All the rhetoric about it ‘being flawed’ is often just excuses by those who preferred FPP, to try & take a major step backwards.

    • Gezza

       /  October 4, 2017

      FPP is inherently & patently undemocratic, especially when it’s a close election and /or one or more other parties get more votes than the single party with the most. We’ll never go back to FPP.

      • Gezza

         /  October 4, 2017

        Gee – I mucked that up.
        * … and /or other parties get more combined votes …

        (Pretty sure I was accidentally dropped on my head as a baby – probably by dad.)

  3. PDB

     /  October 4, 2017

    If you want more people to risk voting for smaller parties then you need to include some sort of preferential voting system into the mix that allows any ‘wasted votes’ (those going to parties that don’t meet the threshold) to then go to a person’s 2nd or third choice party (their highest ranked party that is in parliament).

    Knock the threshold down to a minimum of 3.5% and I think you’d see a change in voting habits & more smaller parties in parliament.

    • Gezza

       /  October 4, 2017

      With more smaller parties in Parliament does that increase the likelihood of more minority governments & their getting hamstrung by Opposition minows?

  4. Geoffrey

     /  October 4, 2017

    What about the elephant? No-one above has mentioned the fact that MMP was supposed to be a trial followed by a promised referendum to consider the other (and in many ways better) Preferential Voting concepts. The party in power (then National) was fearful of losing its majority if MMP was canned so did not hold the referendum. Neither has Labour, with usually only a tenuous hold on power, done so either. It simply does not suit the two major parties to change things – even if they promise to do so.
    Barry Soper on NewsTalk ZB this morning has so forgotten our recent history that he declared that “MMP was exactly what we had voted for”. Not so.
    MMP does allow small parties to exert undue influence from time to time. National failed to hold its promised referendum on the future of the Maori seats because it was dependent on the Maori Party to retain power.

    • Gezza

       /  October 4, 2017

      Last sentence, no I don’t think that’s true. I think they haven’t done it & probably won’t because those in charge of National at the moment are just not that fking stupid.

    • David

       /  October 4, 2017

      They did hold the promised referendum and with other options and mmp was retained.

    • David

       /  October 4, 2017

      At the 2011 election as was promised

  5. I am inclined to think this drive for government to “represent the people” introduces more problems than it solves, and still fails to properly address the long-standing Voter’s Dilemma – do I vote for the Party I want in Government or the MP I want in Parliament?

    As an Englishman I was brought up to view politicians as tradesmen, employed by the people to run the country for them. I don’t want a plumber to “represent me”, I want him to do the plumbing; my lawyer can represent me. Likewise, I want the Government to govern, and the Opposition to represent me.

    A major concern with a Government that tries to include everyone can be seen in Angela
    Merkel’s much-lauded Grand Coalition, which was recently described by a respected German commentator as so lacking in real accountability as to be effectively a One-Party State. Even the consensual Germans are waking up to the democratic need for adversarial debate.

    Perhaps we should tweak the current system so that the Government is formed solely from the Party Votes, and the MPs we want to represent us in Parliament are automatically allocated to Opposition. All these local MPs – who must thus be Independents – then form an official Opposition, whose job is solely to oversee the Government on behalf of the people. It is this Opposition, not the Government, that should represent the people.

    The Opposition would then be a powerful People’s Union instead of just a bunch of failed politicians sitting about wishing they were in Government. And I think it would be a hugely more effective brake on even the most powerful Government than naively shoving everyone into a coalition in the hopes of making it so weak and indecisive as to be incapable of making a decision that someone might not like. But see para 3 above.

    A bit off the wall perhaps, but that is my take on it. The idea of being “represented” by the very people you might have a beef with seems somewhat ridiculous to me. Note that PR has another meaning.

    • Gezza

       /  October 4, 2017

      I can see what you’re getting at, why, & conceptually how it could operate – but I can also see that our crop of pollies & probably voters, couldn’t manage something as mind-bending for us as that.

    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  October 5, 2017

      Not sure what this Opposition would actually do. How would it differ from what journalists are supposed to do?

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