Against Mike Moore, but in support of him too

If we're going to have to have a vote on MMP, we should begin talking about it honestly.

Mike Moore recently published an opinion piece in my local rag, the Otago Daily Times (it appears to have run in the Dominion-Post as well). It combined (yet another) somewhat rambling attack on MMP with an eminently sensible suggestion that any decision on the electoral system's future only take place in the context of a broader review of our constitutional arrangements.

Obviously, I think he is wrong-headed in his first views, and splendidly clear-thinking in his second.

Let’s begin with Mike Moore’s complaints about MMP. As far as I can tell, because he really does jump all over the place like a cat on a hot tin roof, they boil down to three quite familiar claims.

MMP allows small parties too much sway over government. MMP encourages “sordid deals” between parties. MMP makes MPs unaccountable to the voters.

These are three claims frequently raised by MMP’s critics. But just how accurate are they? Because if the National Government does follow through on its promise to hold a referenda on MMP, it's important that we start thinking seriously about these sorts of issues.

Before addressing Moore's critique, however, two initial points need to be made. When we assess how well an electoral system works, the comparison must not be with unrealistic perfection.

No method of electing MPs will make flawed human beings into saints. No voting system can eliminate the need for compromises between differing viewpoints. Any way of choosing representatives invites voters to make strategic decisions about how to cast their votes.

Indeed, many of the current concerns regarding MMP probably stem from the way it originally was over-sold as a panacea for all ills in our body politic. It didn’t turn out to be this, precisely because no voting system can be.

The second initial point is that the onus now is on proponents of change, like Mike Moore, to explain how any different voting system would work better without reproducing the shortcomings of our previous First-Past-the-Post voting system.

The fact is that the only alternative to the “compromises” between parties so derided by MMP’s opponents is a single party, majority government that is able to ram whatever policy it wishes through a quiescent Parliament at lightening speed. The country rejected that form of rule for very, very good reasons.

Indeed, there is something of an irony in Mike Moore criticising Helen Clark for offering Winston Peters the Foreign Minister’s role on the ground that for “generations” Labour had opposed Peters’ policies of “attacking foreigners”. Such past commitment to political principles did not seem to bother Mike Moore whilst he was a member of the Fourth Labour Government, busy reforming all aspects of New Zealand with the support of well under half of all voters.

So what, then, of Mike Moore’s actual criticisms of MMP? Does it give small parties “too much” sway over government?

Well, that depends on what you mean by “too much”. Yes, small parties gain some policy leverage over the bigger party that they support in government. And why shouldn’t they; after all, they are in Parliament because they represent the views of a considerable number of ordinary voters.

But the strength of that leverage is constrained by two important factors. First, successive Labour and National governments have made sure they have more than one option with which to negotiate, to avoid being held to ransom by the demands of a coalition partner.

Second, all small parties know that if their demands make government impossible, they stand to lose the most. The fate of New Zealand First in 1999, or the Alliance in 2002, shows the electorate will punish minor parties seen to be getting too big for their boots.

Well, how about the complaint that MMP produces “sordid” deals between parties? Once again, it depends what you mean by “sordid”.

All politics is about deal making, as Mike Moore well knows. Like sausage making, the process of forming policy and enacting it into law is not pretty. Even under First-past-the-post, the policies that each major party announced or implemented were the result of furious horse-trading between the various factions of the party.

All MMP has done is make some of that process of negotiation, compromise and concession, a little more open to public scrutiny. Why this is any more “sordid”, as opposed to just a bit more honest, than any other sort of politics is beyond me.

Finally, has MMP made individual MPs less accountable to the voters? Granted, the existence of list MPs does make it harder to “throw the bums out”, but it is important not to overstate this issue.

Even under First-past-the-post there were some electorates where a particular party could run a yellow dog as a candidate and still win. (The electorate now called Dunedin South, for example, faithfully has returned whomever happens to be the Labour Party candidate to Wellington since the 1930s.) Further, under First-past-the-post the party leadership of all parties had considerable say over who would be the candidate in a given seat. Mike Moore, as a past leader of Labour, well knows this.

And it is simply not true that, as Mike Moore claims, the existence of list seats guarantees the same faces return after each election, thus preventing parties from regenerating. For example, more than one-third of Labour’s current 43 MPs have entered Parliament since 2008.

So, yes, MMP is not perfect. No voting system is. But the criticisms raised by MMP’s opponent tend to be overblown, while weaknesses in the alternatives conveniently get glossed over.

That said, Mike Moore is right in his larger point: holding a stand-alone referendum on MMP’s future without considering other issues of constitutional change is plain silly.

How we elect our MPs has a large impact on how our whole system of government works. And how our system of government works is (as my fellow Punditeer Tim Watkin has noted) a matter we as a country have for too long approached in an ad hoc, issue-by-issue manner.

Rather than just sticking to what was a rather pointless election promise by holding a referendum on MMP, National would be better served taking the issue seriously and doing just what Mike Moore suggests.