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Peter Wilson: Minor Party Mayhem Is Bad For MMP

Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson

What is it with small parties? On an MP for MP basis they get into a hugely disproportionate amount of trouble.

Look at the figures. National 58 seats, Labour 43, ACT five and the Maori Party five.

The main party caucuses hum along relatively smoothly, but the Government's two support parties are in damage control.

Within the space of a couple of weeks, ACT leader Rodney Hide managed to make derogatory remarks about Prime Minister John Key to an audience he didn't know included a journalist and was then embroiled in an expenses controversy.

And the Maori Party's loose cannon, Hone Harawira, faces disciplinary action over foul-mouthed comments in an email after taking a day off from a parliamentary trip to Europe so he could take his wife to Paris.

Prime Minister John Key always has to react to events such as these. When he does, perhaps he is grateful for the way his own MPs behave.

They are diversions, which he doesn't like, although they don't have any impact on the stability of the Government.

Key brushed off Hide's remark that the prime minister "doesn't do anything" and described it as light-hearted banter.

It was actually more than that because it was totally unnecessary, inaccurate and indicated Hide's frustration about the Government's agenda.

ACT clearly wants action but it has just five votes in Parliament and Hide should keep his mouth shut, which he very likely will from now on.

As for Harawira, he talks about the possibility of quitting at the next election and that might not be a bad thing for his party. Harawira is the odd one out in a caucus that works hard and does make gains for Maori, although not as much as he obviously wants.

But when it comes to small parties causing trouble, neither ACT nor the Maori Party can hold a candle to New Zealand First.

Winston Peters caused more problems for the last two governments than any other single politician, and Key had the good sense to say before the election he wouldn't have anything to do with NZ First regardless of the outcome.

It was a gamble at the time, and one which Key won when NZ First didn't make the 5 percent threshold to get seats under MMP.

One aspect of this that has to be considered is the effect that misbehaving small parties have on the public's perception of MMP.

There is going to be a referendum at the same time as the 2011 general election, asking voters whether they want to change the electoral system.

It can't be a good thing for MMP to have minor parties embroiled in these controversies. Opponents of the proportional system, and there are plenty of them, can use the situation as a good reason to get rid of minor parties.

The Greens, it has to be said, are exempt from criticism. Their caucus holds together, they don't make waves and they go about promoting their agendas without making a fuss.

Even leadership changes are handled calmly, and the replacement of MPs when one goes.

And the irony is that it would be the Greens who would suffer the most from any change of electoral system. It is MMP that gives them list member seats in Parliament. They don't hold an electorate seat and are extremely unlikely to win one at the next election.

Recent problems within ACT and the Maori Party have also received a disproportionate amount of publicity compared with an event of great significance -- the Government's almost certain decision to repeal the Foreshore and Seabed Act and find legislation to replace it.

Attorney-General Chris Finlayson has been given the task of negotiating new laws which will have broad support in Parliament. Key would like it to be so broad that all the parties will vote for it when the bill eventually reaches the House.

The prime minister says he knows what public expectations are, and has given an assurance those expectations will be met.

It isn't difficult to figure out the expectations -- public access to the foreshore and seabed, absolute and guaranteed, has to be the most important part of it.

That was what the previous Labour government achieved but it provoked a Maori backlash which led to the formation of the Maori Party.

The review of the Act was part of the Government's support agreement with the Maori Party, and now Finlayson has to work out a way to please everyone.

This is an enormous task. The previous government gave it to Michael Cullen, who handled just about everything that was really difficult during Labour's nine years in office.

Finlayson will come up with a formula but the real problem is getting the sort of cross-party support that Key expects.

When the previous government legislated to ensure public access to the foreshore and seabed, which it did by putting it under Crown ownership, there was disagreement across Parliament and it become a huge political issue.

Key clearly doesn't want to go down that track and his plan is to present a deal that already has the support of the parties in Parliament.

Finlayson is highly regarded, although he doesn't have a particularly high profile. If he can pull this off, all that will change.

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