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Key to defeat

New Zealand’s PM is overwhelmingly popular, yet he stands to lose this year thanks to a shocking electoral system

29 March 2014

9:00 AM

29 March 2014

9:00 AM

John Key is the most popular leader in the western world. Not by a little, but a lot. His net approval rating (approvals minus disapprovals) has consistently been around 50+ per cent. That compares with Tony Abbott at 10+ per cent and Bill Shorten at 8+ per cent. Julia Gillard was somewhere down in the -20 territory. Barack Obama and David Cameron are both around -10 per cent. So why on earth will Mr Key and his government struggle to get re-elected on 20 September? The answer is simple: Mixed Member Proportional.

This electoral system, reconfirmed at the 2011 general election, is a blight on New Zealand politics. In the same way the Hare-Clark system in Tasmania delivered the recent Mickey-mouse, tail-wagging-dog government, so MMP does in New Zealand. It entrenches minority government at the expense of stability and introduces obfuscation where accountability should reside.

So how does this complicated system work? Each voter gets two votes: one for a local candidate and one for a party. In theory, only the party vote matters for the final make up of parliament. If a party gets 15 per cent of the votes, it gets 15 per cent of the seats. There is no upper house.

There are 120 seats in parliament. Sixty-three of these seats are general electorates, seven are Maori electorates. The remaining 50 are filled from party lists drawn up by party bosses. Because there are two big parties, the number of electorate seats they win is usually less than their proportion of the vote would warrant. The numbers are then topped up from a party list. A party must win 5 per cent of the vote to be eligible for any seats in parliament, however if an electorate seat is won, the threshold is waived. If you are an MP in a marginal seat, you hope to be high on the party list.

But the result is not always entirely proportional: if a party wins more electorate seats than its party vote warrants, it keeps them and the size of parliament increases by the extra number of seats.

If you are confused, don’t worry, so are around 48 per cent of Kiwi voters according to the New Zealand electoral commission.


As with many historic events, New Zealand ended up with MMP quite by accident. At the 1984 election, the then Labour opposition promised a royal commission on electoral reform. The commission churned out MMP as a good option, but Labour intended to ignore it — until the 1987 general election campaign. A tired Prime Minister David Lange, stressed by his increasing alcoholism, loss of Methodist faith, and an affair with his speechwriter, misread his notes during an election debate. He promised a referendum on the concept. Leader of the opposition (and later Prime Minister) Jim Bolger, put on the spot, agreed. Neither party leader wanted MMP at all, and Lange later said, ‘I made a pledge, which I deeply regret, and I am responsible for introducing the concept of MMP by accident, which it undoubtedly is.’

In theory, according to its advocates, MMP is great. As it is extremely difficult to get a majority of the primary vote (1950 was the last time it happened) there can be no ‘elective dictatorships’. Because you vote for an electorate and a party, you can split your vote and elect a local candidate you like, without necessarily voting for their party. Party lists allow highly competent people with little political appeal to be elected. Parties have to constructively get along, and no government can get too far ahead of the people.

The reality, however, is quite different. MMP has been a disaster for public life in New Zealand. It has empowered political parties, bosses and factions at the expense of electors, as all MPs on the party list are ultimately accountable not to the people for political future, but the beneficence of their party hierarchy. It has also diluted the parliamentary gene pool: about 45 per cent of MPs no longer have to face voters ever. It also means that loser MPs that are powerful factional players can stick around far longer than they could otherwise.

More pressing than that though, is the lack of accountability and transparency inherent in institutionalised coalition rule. Whose fault is it a promise was broken? Under MMP all pre-election promises have caveats, and in a perverse way broken promises are a sign the system is working, because of the compromise involved.

MMP is also, as its proponents point out, proportional. Your national vote equals your seats in the house. What could be fairer than that!? Well, MPs being elected by and accountable to actual voters, not their parties for a start.

But it’s not just the deficiencies of the system itself that are irritating but the moral grandstanding that goes with it. Right through the education system, the political elite and public life, the generally received wisdom is that New Zealand was a terribly unfair place where large swathes of the community were not represented until MMP came along. While this claim doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, it is a classically progressive view of the world, that New Zealand history inevitably moved toward MMP and now we are there, we are all very virtuous indeed.

In fact, we aren’t: our politics have become more mercantile than ever. Not to mention that basing your electoral system on one designed to prevent the rise of a new Führer in post-second-world-war Germany hardly says much about the architect’s view of the nation’s collective morality.

In the upcoming election, what this all means is that a man called Winston Peters, New Zealand’s urbane version of Pauline Hanson but with less principle, could decide, for the third time, who the prime minister will be. Peters’s NZ First Party is a marginal proposition, but if it gets 5 per cent of the vote, there is no electoral maths under which he will not decide who governs. Peters was Treasurer under the National Government of Jim Bolger in the late 1990s and Foreign Minister for Helen Clark from 2005 to 2008. If history is any guide, he is available to the highest bidder.

The most popular PM in the West and his very popular ruling party might lose to a ragbag coalition government of leftists who no one actually voted for, with a joint policy platform of: TBC.

Some system indeed.

Luke Malpass is a regular contributor to the Australian Financial Review.


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