Newman On-Line The Big Double-Tick

By Dr. Muriel Newman
Published July 15th 2004 in The Scoop

This week, Newman On-line looks at National’s plan to win the next election, and examines the options available for the voting public. At its annual conference over the weekend, the National party boldly announced that it intends to ‘go for gold’ at the next election – meaning that, from now until the next election, National will claim that it can win over 50 percent of the party vote and govern alone.

The assertion that a major party can govern alone under MMP is just as disingenuous now as was when Labour first mooted it during the 2002 election. The only difference is that, when it made the claim, Labour was consistently polling above 50 percent.

The reality is that, under our style of MMP, no party has ever governed alone. While it is theoretically possible, it just does not happen in practice. It would be like claiming that our Parliament could one day be made up entirely of women – while it is not impossible that 120 women could be elected, the chances of it happening are zero.

New Zealand’s MMP proportional voting system is most closely based on the German model, which was first introduced into West Germany after World War II. As well as New Zealand, Scotland and Wales have now apparently adopted the system. Under MMP, there are no examples of parties governing alone.

That is why claims that voters need to give both their votes to a major party, thus allowing it to govern alone, a gross misrepresentation. In reality, that claim is simply code for that party wanting to gain control of the all-important list votes.

It is the list votes that determine how many seats a party gains in an election. Under our MMP system, if a party gains fewer than the crucial five percent threshold – and doesn’t hold an electorate seat – it will fail to gain the critical mass needed to get it into Parliament. In that case, all of its party votes are wasted.

If, on the other hand, a party gains fewer than five percent of the party votes, but wins an electorate seat, then all of its lists votes count and contribute towards gaining list Members of Parliament.

The Labour Party’s strategy at the 2002 election was to claim that it could govern alone. Accordingly, it campaigned for the all-important party vote in a manner similar to First Past the Post. Further, given that Helen Clark had called a snap election – and become the only Prime Minister in our history to call an early election when there wasn’t a national crisis – the major election focus and attendant publicity was Labour.

On election night 2002, Labour collected only 41 percent of the party vote – nowhere near the 50 percent it claimed it could achieve. The reason is that, under MMP, voters take an interest in the additional representation that minor parties bring to Parliament. They support the minor parties with their party vote – in fact, it is the party votes of Kiwi voters that shape Parliament and ensure that it is truly characteristic of New Zealand society.

That is essentially the reason why – in a country that recognised that the two old parties had largely fallen into the ‘born to rule’ trap, and were no longer listening – they voted to introduce MMP.

An analysis of the polling results since MMP’s introduction shows that, while the two main parties’ combined poll is often over 80 percent between elections, it drops to between 60 and 70 percent during an election campaign. Since our present election cycle appears to be no different to previous cycles, the winning party at the next election could be expected to poll somewhere in the vicinity of 40-45 percent.

This, of course, means that the winning party will once again need the support of a coalition partner – whether in government like the Progressive Party, the Alliance and New Zealand First, or sitting on the cross-benches delivering confidence and supply, like ACT, the Greens and United.

A new style of polling has recently been carried out to assess the shape of a National or Labour-led government. It showed that, as far as a National-led government was concerned, 87 percent of people favoured ACT as National’s coalition partner – with 67 percent favouring New Zealand First. The preferred coalition partner for a Labour-led government was the Greens on 76 percent, with New Zealand First on 58 percent. New Zealanders are an independent people, who like to give things a go – which is probably the reason so many voted for MMP. As we approach our fourth MMP election, surely it is now time that MMP came of age. To do that, more voters should be opting to exercise their own independence by choosing not only the best MP to represent their electorate in Parliament, but using their party vote to strategically choose the minor coalition partner they would like to see support their major party of choice.

Strategic voting is the bane of the large parties. They don’t like to see voters splitting their vote. Instead, the major parties – which will overwhelmingly win the majority of the 69 electorate seats – want to be given the power to choose their coalition partner themselves. The problem is that sometimes that choice is not one that the electorate feels comfortable with – as was certainly the case when National chose New Zealand First as its coalition partner after our first MMP election in 1996.

In other words, the debate over the party vote is a one about electoral power. If voters want to give their power away to politicians, they should double-tick the party of their choice. If, on the other hand, they want to retain that power themselves, then they should use their party vote to support the minor party they would like to see as a coalition partner in government.

In light of the increasing unease over the Labour Government’s agenda, a change in government at the next election looks increasingly likely. If National is to lead that new government, it will need to recognise the voting public’s ability to see through simplistic double-tick campaigns. National will also need to realise that no party is big enough – or will do well enough – to govern alone. Labour was arrogant in assuming it could in 2002. I don’t believe that National will be that arrogant and assuming.