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Peter Wilson: What Goes Round Comes Round

Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson

So the Brits have landed themselves with a hung parliament.

Excellent. Maybe those commentators who heaped derision on New Zealand in 1996 will remember their words.

The probably won't, but it's gratifying all the same.

The circumstances are weirdly similar, identical in some ways. Substitute the Tories for National and the British Labour Party for our Labour Party, mix in the Liberal Democrats for New Zealand First, and there you have it.

At least Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg hasn't gone fishing, as Winston Peters did after our first MMP election, so that element of farce hasn't been repeated.

It took about eight weeks for our first MMP government to be formed, the ill-fated National-NZ First coalition which didn't last the distance.

In Britain, Conservative Party leader David Cameron and outgoing prime minister Gordon Brown are both striving to reach a deal with Clegg.

To quote one of the most recent reports from London: "Britain remains in political limbo with Cameron holding the most seats in parliament, Brown still in nominal power and Clegg the so-called kingmaker."

The Conservatives won 306 seats, 20 short of an overall majority in the House of Commons. Labour holds 258 and the Liberal Democrats 57. Most of the rest are held by Northern Ireland parties.

It's been reported from London that constitutional authorities are checking out New Zealand's Cabinet Manual as they look for ways to manage their predicament.

In Britain the previous government gets the first shot at forming a new government. That doesn't seem to be working because Clegg has won endorsement from his party to open talks with Cameron. Brown is also talking to Clegg, with the obvious disadvantage of having lost the election.

What has happened is that first-past-the post, the system some British commentators scorned us for spurning in favour of proportional representation, has delivered precisely the situation which MMP does -- neither of the major parties holds an outright majority and smaller parties have to be drawn in to make up the numbers.

The odds are stacked in Cameron's favour because he can form a majority coalition with the Liberal Democrats, which Brown can't.

And the Conservative Party leader seems prepared to pay a high price, his offer to Clegg being described as "big, open and comprehensive". What makes it even more fascinating from a New Zealand point of view is that the Liberal Democrats want a commitment that first-past-the-post will be replaced by proportional representation.

First-past-the-post is a huge disadvantage for small parties because it's so difficult to take electorate seats from the main parties. The Liberal Democrats won 23 percent of the popular vote -- the party vote in our system -- but hold 9 percent of the seats.

Our politicians learned a lot from the 1996 experience. The National-NZ First coalition agreement was far too prescriptive and, after subsequent elections, gave way to support agreements which allowed the small parties to disagree on specific policy issues while maintaining a government majority on confidence and money supply votes, the ones that would bring a government down if they were lost.

Successive governments became more broad-based, and John Key's National-led government is the broadest so far through support agreements with the ACT Party, the Maori Party, United Future and even a co-operation agreement with the Greens in some policy areas.

At our next general election, voters will get the chance to decide whether they want to change from MMP to another system. There will be a list of options, first-past-the-post and other proportional systems, on the paper.

If a majority want to change, MMP will be run off against the most popular alternative at another referendum in 2014.

The British experience could have an impact on the first referendum, because first-past-the-post has been shown to throw up the sort of result that opponents of proportional representation so intensely dislike.

Big business interests don't like it because they know a single-party government is a lot more easily manipulated than one which has small parties in it. There's also the dislike for the "tail wagging the dog" scenario in multi-party governments, and the difficulty the main parties can experience in driving through their agendas.

An example of that, happening right now, is ACT's strong opposition to National's emissions trading scheme.

The MMP supporters have quickly seized on the British election result.

"The British results will remind some New Zealanders of the bad old days of first-past-the-post when Social Credit won 21 percent of the votes but only two seats, or the 1984 election when the New Zealand Party won 12 percent of votes but no seats in Parliament," says the Campaign for MMP's spokeswoman Sandra Grey.

If a majority of voters decide to retain MMP in next year's referendum, the Government will review it and see whether any changes should be made.

There is room for that, because elements of it aren't popular with voters and it could do with a makeover.

Dislike seems to focus on the way a small party that wins an electorate seat doesn't have to reach the 5 percent threshold to get seats in proportion to its party vote, while those that might be just under 5 percent but don't win an electorate get no seats.

Another is the way MPs who have been booted out their electorates get back through the party list system which, in the case of the two main parties, virtually guarantees them a seat.

The first can be dealt with by changing the rules, the second would be much more difficult because sitting MPs expect to be given a lifeline by their party bosses and can be extremely difficult if they aren't.

However, despite the debacle of the first MMP government, proportional representation has worked for New Zealand and voters should think very hard about whether they want to dump it.

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