The Herald's post-2014 election fantasy

Some nameless person at the New Zealand Herald thinks either Labour or the Greens may have to support National after the 2014 election. And that person gets a salary to write this sort of stuff!

I don't normally read anonymous postings on the internet, but yesterday's NZ Herald editorial about the prospect of a "coalition of the losers" government forming post 2014 has been brought to my attention. It's a topic that both Tim Watkin and I have posted on before, but the Herald's treatment of it is so annoying that I'm revisiting it in a cut-paste-and-comment format.

The anonymous writer begins:

As they stand in our poll today, Labour and the Greens together would have 49 per cent, probably enough on paper to form a government. But Labour's leadership contenders last month all acknowledged that a party needs a "4" in its score to lead a credible coalition.

That's one interpretation of the contenders' positions. I'd suggest that saying Labour has to get back into the 40s was pretty mandatory campaign rhetoric; no-one putting themselves up for Labour's leadership was going to say "we're doing fine as we are ... just a couple more points in the polls and the Greens will pull us over the line in 2014!" Equally, of course every prospective leader of Labour would love to go into Government in 2014 with a dominant polling edge over their support partners - it would make their job that much easier.

But to turn this into some sort of tacit admission that Labour won't be able to take charge of the country unless and until it gets into the 40s by November of next year is, with respect, attributing a meaning to the contenders' words that I doubt they intended.

Politicians understand this better than academics and commentators who simply add up the seats won by parties of the left and right. Instinct tells politicians the public would not respect a government formed by those that finished a distant second and third at the election, though their combined seats outnumbered the winner's.

Yes, well ... we silly academics and commentators who insist on pointing out that "common wisdom" is not always an accurate reflection of the world. Let's accept that the NZ public has some sort of nebulous, unexamined belief that the biggest party after each election "ought to get to govern". What should we do about that - simply sit back and say "the public gets what the public wants", or try to suggest to people that their views rest on a misconception?

After all, as a country we go to great lengths to educate people about how MMP works in terms of casting votes. We pump millions of dollars into advertising to try and make sure that they understand that it's the party vote that ultimately determines the share of representation in Parliament. So why so blase about potential public misunderstanding of the results of all those votes once cast?

Anyone who doubts this should take note of what is happening in Germany, which also uses MMP. Chancellor Angela Merkel's party clearly won the election held at the weekend though she did not win an absolute majority of seats and her previous coalition partner has failed to clear the threshold this time.

Or, of course, they could also take note of what happened in (the then West) Germany in both 1976 and 1980, when Governments were formed by a SPD and FDP coalition despite the CDU/CSU parliamentary bloc having the most seats in the Bundestag. In other words, the model for MMP that the Royal Commission on the Electoral System looked to in its 1986 report had on two occasions within the previous decade seen "coalitions of the losers" take power. So it's not as if the possibility this might happen in New Zealand was unknown at the time.

Alternatively, they could watch Borgen and see what a government run by an "electoral loser" in a proportional representation system looks like. Actually, they should just watch Borgen, full stop. It's great.

On paper, Germany's centre left parties could form a government but since Mrs Merkel's party won 41.5 per cent and her nearest rival, the Social Democratic Party, 25.7 per cent, there seems to be no question that her party remains the rightful Government. The only issue to be resolved in the next few days is whether it forms its next coalition with the SDP or the Greens, who appear to be open to the idea.

Sure, "on paper" the centre left parties could govern in Germany. But such a claim "simply adds up the seats won by parties of the left and right" (remember how that is a bad thing?) without bothering to look at the actual political context.

Any centre left Government in Germany would require the involvement of Die Linke (the Left Party). Here's what The Economist's European columnist has to say about them:

Via four name changes, Die Linke evolved from the communist party of the former East Germany. It might astonish you that anybody anywhere would want to perpetuate that legacy, but that is what a faction of the party does. In eastern (ie, ex-East) Germany, The Left trades on Ostalgie (ie, nostalgia for the old East) and a certain homey we-know-how-you-feel appeal to all those Ossis who still don't quite feel at ease in the new Germany.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the main centre left party in Germany, the SPD, has emphatically and repeatedly ruled out any sort of governing relationship with the Left Party. Meaning that the only way the centre left actually could govern in practice (as opposed to "on paper") would be for the SPD to go back on its word and enter into government with a party that most German voters view with horrified contempt. In other words, the SPD would have to commit complete political suicide ... which it ain't going to do.

So it's not that there is some baseline assumption in Germany that Merkel's strong result gives her a moral claim to govern. It's that there is no viable alternative governing arrangement that could exist. Much as was the case in, say, New Zealand in 2002.

Every election New Zealand has held under MMP has awarded power to the party first past the post. The next election is unlikely to be an exception. Leaders of the main parties know a government needs more than a paper majority, it needs what Helen Clark called moral authority. That comes from winning.

And that's because every election held under MMP has produced an outcome in which the largest party has been able to find the additional support needed to allow it to govern. (Although it's worth remembering that in 1996, this didn't look to be the case at all - it required Winston Peters doing a 180 on his pre-election campaign rhetoric and agreeing to enter into a coalition with National.) 

However, the past is only a partial guide to the future - history only rhymes, it doesn't repeat. Meaning that if we are presented with very different circumstances in 2014, what has happened in earlier times won't necessarily give us much of a steer on what do do then.

For here's the real question for the Herald's editorial writer. Imagine a post-2014 election world where National has received 44% of the vote, while Labour has 35% and the Greens 15%. What exactly does the claim "the biggest party has a moral mandate to govern" mean in this situation?

Is the writer really suggesting Labour should refuse to enter government with the Greens, and support National instead? Or that the Greens should do so? What does the writer think "instinct" will tell the politicians in each party about how their supporters will view such a move?

For it is all very well pronouncing seemingly authoritative platitudes ("the public would not respect a government formed by those that finished a distant second and third at the election"!; "Every election New Zealand has held under MMP has awarded power to the party first past the post"!) But when those platitudes cash out into a claim that either Labour or the Greens will be required to support National in government after 2014, just because it got more votes than them ... well, that's just silly.

And that's why you shouldn't read anonymous postings on the internet.