Relax - Winston Peters, Negotiations and getting the best from MMP

It has been 21 years since the first Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) election. But we do not seem to be learning how to get the best from the system. We are treating it like First-Past-the-Post (FPP). It is time to relax and play to strengths of MMP. 

It is an unfortunate feature of the 2017 coalition negotiations that the country seems to be a mad rush to form a government. "Here we are", lament commentators, "days after the election and we still don't know who is going to run the country!!' (Actually, it is the job of the public service to "mind the store" in the absence of a government in all democratic countries). 

This and other comments along the same lines demonstrate one thing - we still do not understand how Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) works and how to get the best from it. 

For the record, we held our first MMP election in 1996 (21 years ago) following a Royal Commission on our electoral system, a massive country-wide debate and a referendum. 

Voters chose the MMP version of proportional representation because they had grown weary (and wary) of governments being elected by a minority and then embarking on changes that seemed to do more harm than good. They wanted checks and balances on power and a new electoral system was the only tool available at the time. 

Perhaps it was because the change was driven more by despair than a fondness for MMP that not enough attention was paid to how the new system would work. Voters just wanted to send a message to their politicians. Everything else might have been lost in the mix. 

But we do have a new system and it long past the time when we should be making use of its strengths. 

Some of the strengths, like the diversity we now see in Parliament, have been well covered.  But those that stem from the way a government is formed are less understood.

The new electoral system means that more parties can run for Parliament with the hope of being successful. Once they know the level of their support (it has to be above 5% percent of the vote or result in a constituency seat) they can then look around and see who they might work with to form a government. Negotiations can take place and a programme worked out that reflects the views of at least 51% of the electorate. 

All of this seems straightforward except for the fact that we seem determined to keep on treating campaigns and the formation of a government as if it were happening under the old FPP rules. Then it was essentially a two-horse race that would be decided on the night. 

Because FPP thinking prevails, party leaders are constantly asked who they will form a government with during the election. The aim of the questions is to reduce the complexity caused by the number of parties contesting the election to a two-horse race. By doing this we make it impossible for parties to wait until the votes are in to see what shape a government might take. 

The only party leader that has stoutly resisted the clamour for simplicity is Winston Peters, His resistance is expressed in a way that is designed to antagonise (or entertain) just about everybody - but he is right in what we he says. Let the campaign run its course, see what happen, allow negotiations to take place and a government to ask for the blessing of the Governor-Geeral. 

This year Special Votes made it even more important for this process to calmly play out. On the night of the election National was clearly the biggest party but it could not form a government without New Zealand First (or the Greens, but that had already been ruled out). Labour lagged 10 seats behind National, but with the support of the Greens (already guaranteed) and New Zealand First it could also form a government. The only wrinkle was that Labour could not lead a stable government because the three parties only had 61 seats between them.

So waiting for what was an unusally high number of Specials to be counted made sense. As it turned out, a possible National-led coalition ended up with 65 seats while the Labour-led possibility ended up with 63 seats. Game on. 

But it is a very short game. Under pressure to get on with forming a government, Winston Peters said it would be done within five days of knowing the outcome of the Specials. Having been involved in coalition talks on three occasions, I can say that it is very difficult to work out a policy agenda that will last three years in five days. 

And it is not necessary to move at such speed. Taking the time necessary to work out a sensible programme is, in fact, one of the strengths of MMP we should be using. 

Under the old FPP system the election results came in and off went the government. No one took time to talk about the policies that would survive the heat of the campaign and make a positive difference for the country. That is what coalition negotiations should allow to happen. Parties sitting around a table working through policies, contesting assumptions and hammering out what will work. It is hard to see how a final programme can even be fully costed in the time that is being allowed. 

The question we need to be asking ourselves as voters is - what are we trying to achieve here? Do we just want a government or do we want to make use of the slower process MMP forces on us to get a really good government? I hope it is the latter. 

If that is the case then the favourite word of former Prime-Minister John Key comes into play - relax. We should relax during the campaign and after it. Let the strengths of MMP come out in the hope that we will be get a better deal from the government that eventually forms. 

This, is of course, not going to happen. It can't given the timeframe that has been imposed on the negotiations. Nor can it when journalists are chasing every politician through airports asking them to answer questions that have no answer. The pressure is remorseless and politicians know if they delay they will be seen negatively. 

So we will get a govenment within the week and it will be back to business. 

But, here is a suggestion. Let's not wait until the next election to remind ourselves of why we voted for MMP, how it works, what its strengths are and how we might best use it. Perhaps we could introduce some new rules like having Treasury cost all parties policies. We are doing ourselves a disservice by acting as if we never changed the electoral system. We did it for good reasons but we are not getting the payback for should. Twenty-one years is a reasonable period to have learned the ropes. It is also an age when we talk about being mature. We are at that age - it is time to grow up.