MMP's a management problem

By Gordon McLauchlan
Published May 15th 2004 in The New Zealand Herald

The pundits are panicking about MMP, perhaps because they live in packs too close to Government politicians who have suffered from hydrophobia since they fell off their boards riding the big waves into the foreshore debate.

One after another the pundits are throwing up their word-processing hands in horror at what they see as administrative instability brought about by MMP.

What they haven't noticed is that politicians have been managing preferential voting systems around the world for a long time and the problem here is just that - managing it.

Since the days when Richard Seddon played emperor 100 years ago, New Zealanders have liked tough, pushy leaders who give the impression they know what's best for you, you and you. That's why Rob Muldoon could pull people to their feet at election meetings by looking so certain about everything with no shadows of doubt crossing his ferocious brow.

Helen Clark has ridden the crest of an electoral wave by pretending she knows what's better for you than you do because she has been a good judge of the electorate's mood, sensing that most New Zealanders want a balance of lifestyle and growth, without one impinging too seriously on the other. What she has lacked lately, though, is the ability - mostly the patience - to manage Parliament.

For some time she has looked like a woman bottling up emotions that would be better let out in the privacy of her own padded room, hugging a comfort cloth, rather than out here in a world full of imagined wreckers and haters.

MMP was adopted by New Zealanders for very good reasons. They got tired of the possibility of a cabinet of, say, 20 being dominated by one tough, blustering man in the case of Muldoon, or by small determined groups in the case of the 1984 Labour Administration, with no restraint against instant legislation.

The bid by some people to get an upper house which would put the brakes on legislation was a valid option except that it would have been a great deal more expensive than preferential voting.

Those commentators who consider today's situation unstable should think back to 1981 and the end of the 1980s. Now that was instability. Would the Springbok tour have gone ahead had MMP been in place? Almost certainly not. Would we have run reforms in the 1980s like a charging bull instead of cantering into the future the way Australia did? Again, almost certainly not.

And remember, too, the occasions on which up to 20 per cent of the general election vote went to minor parties whose voice was still never heard in the legislature. When politicians and pundits mouth that terrible cliche, "We should celebrate our cultural diversity", they should add next time, "and our diversity of opinion".

A claim has been made that the public is sick of the political turbulence brought about by MMP forcing the Government to consider and reconsider its seabed and foreshore legislation. Well, no piece of legislation in modern times will be more scrutinised and argued about before law is made. Great.

It is up to the Government to negotiate, and if necessary compromise, to set up something acceptable to a majority of the people. This will be a major task for Helen Clark. I think she is capable of arriving at an acceptable solution - much more than Don Brash would because I think there are too many things he wouldn't compromise on.

After you've let the ordinary jokers fulminate about MMP, ask them would they like to go back to the first-past-the-post system and possibly throw up another generation of Muldoons and Douglases who knew absolutely what was right for you without even bothering to ask.

Mostly they hum and haw and either concede the point or claim we should try a better form of proportional representation. And if that went wrong and bad management caused instability we could try another. And another.

I don't believe the invasion of Iraq would have happened if the United States had had proportional representation. Theirs is a winner-take-all system in which two monolithic political organisations filter out the non-Establishment figures and ensure that no sharply different opinion will be heard in the corridors of power.

I still stare in disbelief when I see joint sessions of Congress giving standing ovation after standing ovation to their President when he addresses them. An American once told me the President was half monarch and half politician, but he's treated as 90 per cent monarch.

Proportional voting won't happen in the US because conservative rural opinion is locked into the system: North Dakota, with fewer people than we have in the South Island, has the same number of senators as New York with its population many times greater than the whole of New Zealand.

It seems obvious that politics in the US would be rejuvenated if voices outside the mainstream were heard in congressional debates the way they are heard in their maverick media. Perhaps more than half the people would then go to the polls, and the country with the world's greatest talent base for any form of intellectual or cultural pursuit would throw up great leaders again.