New Zealand Herald
a management problem
By Gordon McLauchlan
May 15, 2004
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
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
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
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.
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.