Look at those Greens, trying to stack the deck to ensure they cling to power, eh? Except that argument makes little sense and stops us having a proper squiz at how we should run the country

Politics is an odd kind of game that sometimes requires a ruthless self-interest and at others altruistic self-sacrifice. It's a patchwork of ideals and deals, virtue and vice, gamble and calculation.

It can sometimes be hard to figure out which is which when it comes to the MMP electing threshold, which currently requires a party to win a seat or five percent of the party vote to gain entry to parliament. 

The Green Party has decided to make the case for a four percent threshold, down from the current five percent. They want the change before the 2020 election.

A-ha, cry the critics. A craven ploy by the "endangered" Greens to cling to power, given the party seems to be stuck between four and seven percent in the Ardern-era. Why risk falling off the bottom rung? Better to connive to stay alive. Those sneaky Greens.

It's a knee-jerk response with little to recommend it. The Greens have always backed a lower threshold, even when the polls had them in double digits. And it's arguable that a lower threshold could lower their vote. If centre-left voters are happy with Labour and Ardern, they could feel more comfortable backing the dominant and more centrist party in the knowledge the Greens can stay in power with fewer votes.

Equally, it could open the door to parties that may chip into the Green's support – TOP and Sustainable New Zealand. If, say, TOP start showing up at three percent in the polls, some voters toying with the Greens could start shopping with Geoff Simmons and co. Four percent presents the Greens with some risk.

Party positions have always been curious when it comes to the threshold. In 2012 when the Electoral Commission recommended a drop to four percent, National stalled on it, when they could have benefited from opening the door to the Conservative Party. As it turned out, their bet paid off and they held onto power even though Colin Craig's lot took 3.97 percent. At the same time Labour backed four percent, even when it could have cost them.

New Zealand First has always supported the five percent threshold, even when they were tossed out of parliament for falling below it (and losing Tauranga). That could be a risky position to take again this term, given New Zealand First is stuck in a sub-five percent rut this year.  But you can equally argue that the five percent threshold helps fend off contenders to Winston Peters' monarch-maker title, because no other party can get a toe-hold or has a leader with the political antennae and talent of Peters.

The oft-wise Danyl McLauchlan has made the case that Peters is the very reason to keep it high. To stop rewarding his cynical brand of politics. But keeping or changing the law because of a single person or example is a poor way to decide your democratic path.

Like the cheap shots I'm seeing on social media, that falls into the trap of turning this into a personality debate, when it needs to stay bedded in principle.

You'll get good people and bad people in parliament, regardless of the threshold. It's hard to resist the conclusion that a lower threshold will let in more fringe views. It will make room for people willing to play the system and voters' baser instincts. It's easier to twist four percent of people than it is to twist five. 

But it work both ways. A lower threshold also gives room for the dreamers who are ahead of society, pulling us towards our better selves. It allows exciting new ideas to take root. What's more, if a politician is prepared to play a big con and exploit those baser instincts, four or five percent can be irrelevant. In the US, Donald Trump won an election and has transformed his party while throwing a wrecking ball around his country's democracy. Here, Don Brash was 1.5 percent away from scaring his way into power.

The percentage point one way or another won't stop demogogues or crooks. 

The truth is there is no 'right' number. You can look at Germany with five percent and still see them struggle on for months trying to form a government or you can look at the sway tiny, racist parties are having in Israel where the threshold is a perculiar 3.25 percent. 

Yet you can also see Norway doing fine at four percent and Finland OK with no threshold at all. Five percent has hardly put our democracy in jeopardy and neither would four percent. 

Equally, I have little time for those saying we should lower it because the two major parties are so dominant now. That has changed before and will change again, regardless of the threshold. And vice versa to those saying it must stay high to keep out the nutters.

The argument in favour of lowering the threshold comes down to two main points. First, it opens the doors to new ideas. Under MMP we haven't had a single new party in parliament that didn't spring from a falling out withon one of the old parties. Hardly inspirational. At a time when so many democracies are under pressure, it could even be considered dangerous. Same-old, same-old is being heavily rejected around the world; maybe making room for some diversity and fresh thinking is not just healthy, it's vital.

Second, going by the previous election, the threshold also bans more than 130,000 voters from having the representative they selected. Bryce Edwards has pointed out that in 2008, for exmple, about 6.5 per cent had their party vote "wasted" because they voted for parties that didn't hit five percent.

As the population grows, even though the percentage of New Zealanders unheard is the same, the growing number puts more pressure on the system. Again, the threshold could act as a lid on a pot of boiling voters (if you see what I mean).

So while MMP-New Zealand style is hardly broken, let's not fall into lazy accusations of self-interest. Let's focus on what serves voters, not whose idea it was.

The Greens have done us a favour putting the state of our democracy back on the table for all of us to poke and prod at. Let's debate its current and future state of health and the principles under-pinning that, not the people daring to discuss it.

Comments (9)

by Simon Connell on March 05, 2019
Simon Connell

The Green Party has decided to make the case for a four percent threshold, down from the current five percent. They want the change before the 2020 election.

So I think I agree with what I take as the main argument in your piece: accusing the Greens of making this move out of self-interest doesn't progress the important discussion we should be having about our democracy. But, I also think that that discussion includes talking about how we make changes to our democracy. It's possible to agree with the proposed changes to the threshold but not with achieving that through a Bill that ends up being passed before the next election.


by Tim Watkin on March 05, 2019
Tim Watkin

Good point Simon, quite agreed. I'm not sure this requires a referendum, but understand those who do and am open to being convinced. Maybe a super majority is a reasonable request.

I just think that accusing parties of cynical self-interest in this debate is at odds with wht has always been a rather quirky range of views.

by Raymond A Francis on March 05, 2019
Raymond A Francis

You are the hammer Tim and on occasions you hit the nail squarely on its head.

I feel we should have a threshold that is the equivalent to the numbers required to vote a MP in an ordinary seat if we claim to  being truely democratic.

As you point out different countries using different percentages give quite different results, maybe it would pay to write into the law change that there is a binding referendum after a couple of elections just in case the whole thing turns to s**t as in Israel.

But it is not a good idea for the Greens to try and slip this in using a members bill under a different heading, that really smacks of self interest. 

by Simon Connell on March 05, 2019
Simon Connell

I'm in favour of a referendum for the proposed changes to the threshold, and I think I'd do lowering it and dropping the coat-tail as separate questions. I don't think the two necessarily go hand-in-hand. Like it or not, coat-tailing has been a significant (in terms of affecting the composition of Parliament and also voter and party behaviour) feature of our system and I think the public should get a direct say in whether or not we keep it.

I also think there's a timing issue here, distinct from the pass by majority or super-majority/referenfum issue. My current view is that, ideally, any changes to the thresholds take effect right after an election. That gives the entire term until the next election for parties to prepare for the new environment.

There are two groups in particular that benefit from lowering the threshold: minor parties that have a current presence in Parliament, but might suffer a drop in support at the next election (which tends to be the pattern for minor parties supporting a Government), and minor parties that don't have a Parliamentary presence but might be able to with a lowered threshold (and that includes parties that might not exist yet).

I reckon lowering the threshold part-way through a Parliamentary term advantages both groups, but the former more than the latter. That's because non-Parliamentary minor parties never got a chance to respond to the new threshold rules. If a 4% threshold was already in effect, then we might have already seen more concerted efforts around the formation of ~4% constituencies. Changing the rules now means that they were deprived of that opportunity. The closer the election, the more serious this problem is. We're still a fair way out now, but I'm not sure when the proposed legislation would actually end up passed.

Another way of looking at is that we should change the rules of the game between games, not during. That said, I don't think the same applies to some of the other proposed changes - the prisoner voting issue should be rectified with haste, for example. And, of course, there's the counter argument that it's better to improve proportionality late than never.

So I'm not trying to argue that the Greens timing and method are a result of deliberate self-interest, but I do think there are some fairness issues around the timing.

by Ian Tinkler on March 05, 2019
Ian Tinkler

Split the National list into some form of regional lists.

Allocate regionally (treating the combined Maori Seats as a region).

Have no threshold (there won't need to be one if someone is popular locally then they can represent)

Only recognise parties who win 6 or more seats as official parliamentary parties. See how Ireland works with Technical Groups 

by Tim Watkin on March 05, 2019
Tim Watkin

@ Raymond ... Hmm, 'hammer tim'... I'm only an 'e' away from being a hit! Can't touch this.

It's a fair point you and Simon make. Timing does matter. I don't think the Greens would be the great beneificaries from this, but this pointy end of the stick stuff should not just be muddled through. There should be an emphasis on cross-party cooperation. Of course that can sweing both ways - Judith Collins hid behind that fig leaf in 2012 when there was a clear chance to consider this properly and in the light of proper advice. Still, while it was used cynically then, that doesn't make it any less proper. This needs to be somethinng parliament can get behind and it's up to the Greens to convince others.

by Simon Connell on March 06, 2019
Simon Connell

Based on how various parties are responding to the suggestion of changing the threshold before the next election, it's very unlikely that there will be any changes before the next election, but it seems like everyone's open to discussing the possibilty of a referendum, even the parties that appear to prefer keeping the threshold at 5%.

by Lee Churchman on March 07, 2019
Lee Churchman

I think Tim's main point has a wider application. One of the reasons New Zealand isn't experiencing the problems other democracies are (and this is now up to all the Anglo democracies except us) is, to me, because of MMP preventing a two-party duopoly (I've argued elsewhere on this blog that Jim Bolger turned out to be the unlikely hero of NZ democracy). If a lower threshold is necessary to prevent a return to that, then it should be enacted. 

by Simon Connell on March 07, 2019
Simon Connell

Lee, I agree that lowering the threshold decreases the risk of a drift back to a two-party system under MMP. At the same time, I find myself wondering whether MMP is hampering any government's ability to actually do anything about some of the big challenges facing NZ at the moment: housing, inequality, climate change. Of course, if we'd kept (or gone back to) FPP we might have a slightly different, and worse, set of problems!

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