Returning to first-past-the-post mentality?

Smaller political parties are struggling to survive. Last election the Maori party and United Future dropped out of Parliament, having been a part of the previous government. Greens also had a major scare but managed to sneak in again.

Polls and public sentiment indicate that NZ First are in trouble of not lasting beyond this term. The first time they were in government (1996-1999) it turned to custard in the first term. The second time they were in government (2005-2008) they were kicked out of parliament by voters. They are currently consistently polling well under the threshold.

Rob Mitchell (Stuff): It’s tough at the TOP – no room for the new guys

We have also seen a return to a first-past-the-post mentality, says Massey University associate professor Grant Duncan.

“2002 was the high point for the minor parties,” he says, “but it’s going in the other direction, back to the two-party dominated system.”

That means a lot of smaller but still significant voices are being drowned out. As is diversity.

“The nature of the system does make it difficult for a new party to get over that threshold. And in doing so, if you take the Conservative Party for example, a lot of that was voters who would otherwise have voted for National or possibly for NZ First.”

Since the first MMP election, the only parties to succeed, outside of National and Labour, have been those created or led by sitting MPs; parties headed by political newbies have thrashed in vain against the 5 per cent party vote threshold.

The Electoral Commission has recommended reducing that to 4 per cent; Justice Minister Andrew Little will seek the public’s recommendation in a referendum at next year’s election.

The threshold won’t change for next year’s election. Is it a factor in excluding smaller parties from making it into Parliament? Yes. It is not only a high hurdle for any new party, it deters voters from backing new parties due to the unlikelihood they will make 5%.

Does the demise of small parties indicate that voters prefer a two party system?  I doubt that very much. Under MMP voters have always chosen a multi party government one way or another.

It may be that National and Labour dominate next election, and it’s possible one or the other could form a government on their own. But if that doesn’t work out well voters could easily swing back to smaller parties – if there are any credible parties around to pick up support.

Parties like TOP and the Sustainability Party may contest the next election. It is unlikely they will get into Parliament then, but it could lay the groundwork for a realistic bid in 2023, especially if the threshold is lowered.

The problem with lowering the threshold is that most voters prefer larger parties, so seem to have no interest in making things fairer for smaller parties.

1 News/Colmar Brunton have just polled on the threshold:

  • Too high 12%
  • Too low 13%
  • About right 64%

If there’s a referendum on it that could result in a ‘tyranny of the majority’ decision, where large and existing party voters choose to keep shutting out new parties from serious contention.

I don’t think this is necessarily ‘first-past-the-post’ mentality. It is more like people wanting their preferred party to have all the power.