On exactitude in democracy

The Electoral Commission has to review six aspects of MMP (plus whatever else the public puts before it). Here's my thoughts on the first issue: the thresholds for representation in Parliament.

Of the issues that the Electoral Commission has to look at in its review of MMP, I predict the question of what threshold a party should have to attain before getting proportional representation in Parliament will be the most fraught. In part, that's because I suspect that even though most people think the current rules aren't working perfectly, they will disagree over what a better rule would look like. But it's also the issue that has the most potential to mess with the future electoral prospects of the parties presently in Parliament, hence they'll care a lot about what is recommended on this point ... and in the final analysis, any change to the law relies on them passing it. 

So obviously there's a need for a sensible, authoritative voice to speak out on this issue and put forward a cogent, coherent and convincing picture of what should be done. I guess that's why God invented David Farrar. But as you're here, you're going to have to put up with my half baked thoughts, which you can then pull apart in the comments thread like the vicious, mean-spirited, pitiless animals that you are. Not like those very polite, thoughtful and friendly readers over at Kiwipolitico. Could someone tell me how we can get an audience like that here at Pundit?

But I digress. Currently under MMP, parties can get proportional representation (i.e. a share of the list seats to bring their numbers in Parliament into alignment with their share of the party vote) in one of two ways. Either they must gain 5% or more of the Party Vote, or else have one of their candidates win an electorate seat. The following is a part primer/part reform suggestion on that state of affairs. 

Why have two different thresholds?

The short answer is, because West Germany did and the 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System just copied that country when recommending an MMP system for New Zealand. And as far as I know (based on not very thorough research, I admit) the reason why West Germany had an electorate threshold alongside a party vote threshold was to accommodate regional parties that may be strong in an area but not strong enough nationally to cross the party vote threshold. (West Germany is a federal system, where individual states have an identity somewhat separate from the centralised nation - hence there is reason why regional-based political movements exist there.)

So, West Germany had an alternative 3 electorate seat/5 percent party vote threshold in place. The Royal Commission then recommended that NZ adopt a 1 electorate seat/4 percent party vote threshold ... without really giving any reasons for why the electorate seat threshold should be carried over to here, and choosing 4% as its preferred balance point between allowing small parties into Parliament and preventing undue fragmentation of Parliament that might hamper the creation and operation of effective government.

Parliament then took those recommendations, kept the electorate seat threshold, bumped the party vote threshold up to 5% (why? Well ... why do you think MPs from parties already in Parliament might want to make it harder for other parties to get in there as well?), and passed the Electoral Bill 1993. Then, when the country voted in favour of MMP at the 1993 referendum, this Bill became law ... and we got MMP as we know it.

How have these thresholds worked in practice?

I think it's fair to say, not as expected. First up, the 5% of the party vote threshold has been tougher to crack than probably was anticipated (or hoped for) back in the early 1990s. In the six MMP-era elections, only 7 parties have got over 5% of the party vote at least once. Of these, only Labour and National have done so in all six elections (the Greens only ran as an independent party from 1999 - they too have managed (just) to stay above 5% since then). This difficulty largely can be traced to Labour and National's recent success in dominating the party vote: their combined share of that vote in the past 3 elections has been 80%, 79% and 74%, which leaves precious little for the smaller parties to divide between them. 

Consequently, the electorate seat threshold has become an important means through which small parties have been able to retain proportional representation in Parliament (hence its becoming known as the "electorate lifeboat" option). Four parties (or maybe six, if you want to count the Mana and Maori Parties here, but I wouldn't) have made use of it since 1996 - although three of those parties have on occasion returned only the single electorate MP due to a low party vote. While this outcome has meant that Parliament has remained more proportional than it otherwise would have, the way in which the electorate lifeboat has operated is not without its problems.

First of all, it's been a bit hit-and-miss in its maintainance of proportionality. Most notoriously, Rodney Hide's victory in Epsom in 2008 meant ACT's 3.65% of the party vote brought 4 other MPs into Parliament ... while Winston Peter's loss in Tauranga meant NZ First's 4.07% of the party vote was wasted. Equally, in 2002 Jim Anderton brought Matt Robson into Parliament with him by winning Wigram and getting 1.7% of the party vote. But in 1999, the Christian Heritage Party's 2.38% of the party vote was wasted - not to mention the Christian Coalition's wasted 4.33% in 1996. So at best, electorate lifeboats retain proportionality for only some lucky players. 

Second, the electorate lifeboat option only helps retain proportionality by (ironically) giving the voters in particular electorates a disproportionate say via their electorate vote. So, voters in places like Epsom, Ohariu, Wigram etc are able to "double dip", in that their electorate vote helps ensure one party remains in Parliament whilst their party vote helps elect list MPs for another party. And make no mistake, voters in these areas are conciously double dipping - take a look, for instance, at the split electorate/party votes in Epsom in 2005. In contrast, it doesn't really matter who voters in non-electorate lifeboat seats cast their electorate votes for - this won't alter the overall shape of Parliament one iota.

Third, smaller party reliance on the electorate lifeboat opens the way for inter-party deals over the outcome of the vote. Not that there's anything illegal about the two Johns' cup of tea in Newmarket (or Helen Clark indicating to Labour voters that Peter Dunne was a good candidate for Ohariu-Belmont). However, it seems fair to say that such spectacles have not gone down well with the voting public; indeed, they have been one of the main grounds for griping about MMP.

What to do about these thresholds? 

As may already be clear, I think the electorate seat threshold ("electorate lifeboat") ought to go. Whatever its original purpose was (and this isn't clear in the New Zealand context), it has turned into a de-facto means of evading a party vote threshold that has proven too demanding in practice. And it makes little sense to have such an evasion option available to some parties but not others, depending in large part upon whether other parties are willing to collude in the evasion. So I'd get rid of it.

However, that then brings us to the issue of the existing party vote threshold - which is where the rubber really hits the road. A few preliminaries on this, before I say what I think should be done.

First up, for me the only good reasons for having any party vote threshold at all must stem from claims about the functioning of the legislature or government. In other words, I don't put much stock in arguments that without a party vote threshold you might get "silly" or "extremist" people elected to Parliament. Using a threshold to save the voters from their own (allegedly) poor choices seems overly paternalistic to me.

That said, there still are a couple of claims that I think need taken seriously. The first is the risk pointed to by the Royal Commission back in 1986 - without a threshold, Parliament could become so fragmented amongst small political parties that the difficulties of putting together (and maintaining) a governing coalition will impair effective government. And effective government is a good thing that we ought to seek to preserve.

The second is a bug-bear of my own. MMP is designed to enable parties to place representatives in Parliament to engage in lawmaking/governing. But to be able to effectively engage in lawmaking/governing, you have to be a part of a team of like-minded people and not a lone gunman. Of course, a single MP can act as an occasional flag-waver for his supporters on the floor of the house (Hone Harawira), or may even be able to trade his vote into a measure of executive power (Peter Dunne/John Banks). But their parties are, far all intents and purposes, non contributors to the day-to-day functioning of Parliament.

Now, there is no objective metric for deciding how important these matters are vis a vis the issue of proportionality (which is, after all, what MMP is meant to deliver). And the relative importance of each issue also depends on what you think is likely to happen if the rules on the party vote threshold are changed. Will parliamentary representation really fragment to a significant degree once voters realise that a vote for (say) the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party likely won't be wasted? Or has politics in New Zealand now so stabilised that we've pretty much got the only parties we're likely to see?

Having said all that, my own view (at this stage, subject to revision) is that a threshold of 2.5% is warranted. I think 5% has proven too high a threshold in practice, and that it inhibits the emergence and establishment of new political movements. However, I think that (in the interests of creating a legislature that consists of actual parties (in the sense of teams of MPs) and is likely to continue to provide a stable basis for government) requiring parties to achieve a level of party vote support that will return at least 3 MPs to Parliament is still a good thing to do. So that's what I'm minded to submit to the Electoral Commission.

Before throwing it over to your comments, one last point. Any form of representation of the voters is going to fail to fully include all groups (much less individuals) vying for a share of parliamentary representation. That's because "representation" is inherently a compromise (some would say compromised) concept. So, for example, even adopting a no threshold rule for MMP wouldn't really result in a "no threshold" system - it just sets the level at which a particular group of voters get represented at about 1/120th of the party vote (actually, whatever the Sainte Lague formula dictates, but that's too hard for my head). But why 1/120th of the party vote ... why not 1/150th (by increasing Parliament to 150 MPs)? Or why not 1/2000th (in a 2000 seat Parliament)? What is it about 1/120th of the party vote that just happens to be the right level at which a group of voters ought to be entitled to a representative in Parliament? 

Indeed, if we follow the matter to its logical conclusion, the argument that proportional representation ought to be the overriding imperiative leads us down the path of Borges' cartographers: 

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.

It is worth, then, remembering the fate suffered by this monument to a mania:

The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.