10 Dec 2017

Insight: MMP - Democracy or Power?

From Insight, 8:10 am on 10 December 2017

National Party MPs are still smarting at their failure to form a government despite winning more votes than any other party in the September election.

Parliament and Beehive

Parliament and Beehive Photo: RNZ

For the first time under MMP the highest polling party is not leading the government. Despite winning 44.4 percent of the party vote, easily ahead of Labour's 37 percent, National could not win the support of New Zealand First to form a government.

The former government minister and Tasman MP, Nick Smith, said National won the election and questioned why it was not still in government.

"The convention has been in most MMP parliaments for the party to get the largest vote to form a government and that is where the convention that has been set with this election is unusual and, in my view, concerning," Dr Smith said.

The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, dismisses concerns raised by Nick Smith and others.

"I think it's one thing to have a hope that the outcome would be different. It's another thing to question the legitimacy of MMP because there is no question that we form the majority. We would not have been able to form a government and have the Governor-General accept that we were able to form a majority without having the votes in place and that of course means we were supported by the popular vote.

"What they may be referring to is whether or not those votes coalesced around one party versus three parties but that's MMP," she said.

Constitutional lawyer Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a former Labour Prime Minister, has no sympathy with Dr Smith's view. He said to form a government a party or group of parties had to be able to command a majority in Parliament.

"That is actually the essence of democracy. The majority rules. That is the rule and that is what happened here," Sir Geoffrey said.

Jacinda Ardern sworn in as the 40th Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Jacinda Ardern sworn in as the 40th Prime Minister of New Zealand. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

But journalist Karl du Fresne, who wrote a column in the Dominion-Post questioning the outcome, disagrees.

"You'll never convince me that this was anything but wonky, absolutely wonky. This is not a liberal democracy in action," he said.

Mr du Fresne was particularly upset New Zealand First was able to go back and forth between Labour and National during the post-election negotiations before deciding which party it would support. It is a view shared by the former United Future leader, Peter Dunne, who believes a party with just 7 percent of the party vote was effectively able to manipulate the situation to its advantage.

Steven Joyce, National's campaign manager during the campaign, said it had been a long time since the party with most seats did not form the government but he recognised that under MMP that was possible.

"It is an historic decision and a lot of people would have been surprised by it because they didn't expect to have it happen, but they certainly can't say that wasn't anticipated under MMP because it was," Mr Joyce said.

Columnist Karl du Fresne

Columnist Karl du Fresne Photo: Supplied

Karl du Fresne said he was not upset by the new government just the process under which it was formed. He believed a rule or convention should be put in place giving the party which won most votes the first opportunity to form a government.

Peter Dunne agrees but Sir Geoffrey Palmer dismisses the idea.

"Trying to enact rules about how the negotiations will proceed is not sensible, not workable and not practical," Sir Geoffrey said.

Steven Joyce is also sceptical.

"People say 'oh well maybe they should be forced to negotiate with the largest party first' and that's one option but in practice does that change anything because people are free to talk at anytime. And so if you made a smaller party negotiate with the largest party first they might do that in a perfunctory manner and then say 'well that was too difficult, I'll go off and talk to these guys and then maybe come back'. So trying to prescribe how this will occur is tricky."

Mr Joyce said he did not believe having such a rule around negotiations would have led to any different outcome in this case.

No caption

Photo: RNZ

Meanwhile, Peter Dunne thinks the process has shaken people's confidence in MMP. But polling by UMR Insight, which does political polls for the Labour Party, does not support that.

It polled 750 people after the coalition agreement was announced. The poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percent, found 50 percent of respondents were in favour of retaining MMP, while 38 percent wanted to change the electoral system. Back in October 2011, the last time UMR polled on what people thought of MMP, only 43 percent wanted to retain it while 37 percent wanted change.

Labour's coalition agreement with New Zealand First and its support arrangement with the Greens were signed on 24 October. Under the more formal coalition agreement New Zealand First has four ministers in Cabinet while the Green Party has three ministers outside Cabinet.

Jacinda Ardern said she wanted to run government differently so it reflected more accurately the reality of MMP. That included ensuring ministerial positions better reflected the interests of all parties involved in the government. In New Zealand First's case it got regional development and the Greens climate change, both areas where those parties had campaigned strongly.

As well, in a change from previous arrangements, New Zealand First ministers sit alongside their Labour colleagues on Parliament's frontbench. Their backbench MPs sit behind them in seating which, until now, has been the sole preserve of ministers from the largest party in government.

"We had a chat about the common sense of it all that we were two parties in coalition. Let's demonstrate that," New Zealand First leader, Winston Peters said.

He said he had never liked the structure of Parliament ever since MMP was introduced in 1996. The seating of the House reflected an adversarial, first-past-the-post environment and should have been changed long ago. More change could come as part of a review of Parliament which Labour and New Zealand First have committed to in their coalition agreement.

No caption

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The Green Party leader, James Shaw, supports the move, saying the way Parliament operates still has not fully adapted to MMP.

Mr Peters does not just want to change seating arrangements in the House. He also wants to strengthen the role of select committees.

"We have people here who go to the select committee and hear the evidence, but ask a party caucus - who never heard the evidence - what do you think? Now we've got too much of that going on here. We haven't got enough people prepared to elevate the job of being a Member of Parliament and to see that issues of principle and policy are important, not just where you stand in the power circle of things," he said.

Tthe Prime Minister has only ever voted in MMP elections. For her MMP politics appear to be more instinctive than for those politicians who experienced the old first-past-the-post electoral system.

While it is unlikely any rule will be introduced directing how parties should negotiate after elections, the government does appear to be foreshadowing more change at Parliament. If select committees are given more power and if Ms Ardern is serious about consultation then the National Party might have more influence than any opposition has had in the past.

But just how far will Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens go? It is easy to talk about sharing power, much more difficult to do it. This three-party administration, which is working hard to finish off the year's business, is under pressure to demonstrate it is not only a truly MMP government but an effective one.

The National Party, no matter what concessions are made to it as the Opposition, has little incentive to make the government's job any easier.

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