Why has MMP in NZ failed to deliver?

A troubling phenomenon continues to unfold in NZ under its system of Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) voting. Contrary to its intent it has become a system that is undemocratic, distorts voting behaviour, and prevents the rise of new political forces.

Why has MMP in NZ failed to deliver?

MMP The Theory: The idea was that by denying absolute power to any one party – in effect, requiring parties to negotiate and compromise on key policies – the MMP system would force governments to become more accountable and consensus-driven.

A bonus was that by giving greater power to minor parties, MMP would deliver more diverse representation in Parliament, with all the benefits, in terms of better representation and the creativity, that greater diversity in thinking brings. The two-party duopoly would be broken, opening the way for a much wider range of ideological positions and agendas to be represented in Parliament.

At least that was the theory.

MMP In Practice: What has emerged, since we voted in 1993 to change the electoral system, is something quite different. Using the argument that a threshold was necessary to ‘reduce instability that can flow from the fragmentation of parties.’ and ‘prevent the representation of extremist views’ an unnecessarily high barrier (5%) was introduced. This had the effect of:

  1. Denying representation to a disproportionally large segment of voters who do/or would vote for parties which fall below the threshold;
  2. Dissuading voters from voting for their preferred policies for fear of wasting their vote;
  3. Focusing media and political analysis almost entirely on the main parties;
  4. Effectively reducing policy creation and discussion to a bland, unimaginative contest for the middle ground;
  5. Most importantly, limiting the contest and development of ideas that could address the main, chronic issues that plague New Zealand, namely: poverty, inequality, low productivity and environmental degradation that without change will inevitably continue to worsen under the current system

MMP was introduced to be a fairer and more representative system than FPP; although, that’s not a particularly high bar.  But the operation of a threshold at the 5% level that operates in NZ prohibits those goals being fully realised. Merely because a party falls below an arbitrary number should not deny it, members, in the House of Representatives; to do so is undemocratic and unprincipled. This argument goes to defeat the point about “extremism” made above. It is contended that so-called “extremist” views have a right to be represented in Parliament.

The proper, democratic, way to defeat “extremist” ideas is through reasoned and rational debate, rather than shutting those views out of Parliament so they cannot be heard. If such ideas are so absurd then they should be easy to argue against and simple to persuade others as to their detriments in the “marketplace of ideas.” That is the essence of democracy.

The operation of the threshold means that party votes for parties who do not make the threshold, or who fail to win an electorate seat, remain unrepresented. A particularly egregious example of disenfranchisement occurred in 1996 when the Christian Coalition received 4.3 per cent of all-party votes cast, but no seats in the House. 90,000 New Zealanders’ votes were ignored. Not far behind it was the plight of the Conservative Party in 2014 who received 3.97% of party votes cast and 95,598 voters were likewise unrepresented in parliament.

Notably, since the advent of MMP in New Zealand, no new party has made it into Parliament without a sitting MP splitting off from the party through which they had been elected.

As a result, threshold issues loom large in election campaigns under MMP in New Zealand. Whether or not minor parties will reach the five per cent threshold is a constant focus of media attention. As a result, many people avoid voting for smaller parties on the basis that they will miss reaching the five per cent threshold and thus their vote will be ‘wasted’. In this way, people’s true political preferences are sidelined. To make matters worse the media acts as gatekeepers, refusing to provide coverage or participation in debate to those not polling. Of course, without coverage those same parties do not poll. This same de platforming extends to organisations supposedly providing analysis of NZ political policy such as Vote Compass and Policy website.

The result, we see very little daylight between the major party policy platforms currently on offer to New Zealand voters, and if there is any election where alternative voices and vision are needed, it is this one.

With post-Covid economic recovery front and foremost, both National and Labour are promoting plans which focus heavily on jobs, infrastructure investment and support for small business. The differences between them are in policy emphasis and in the character of their leaders, rather than their vision for what sort of “new” New Zealand we aspire to be when we come out of this crisis. In 2020, originality seems to have taken a back seat.

And so, it is to the small parties we need to look if we are in search of a vision that is different from the mainstream. We need to look beyond the three-year cycle of getting re-elected and talk about the really big issues that are affecting the country long-term. Instead we are governed by career politicians who are primarily concerned about getting re-elected. We see the major-party duopoly advancing their self-interest by controlling the rules around election funding of advertising so that the bulk of the broadcasting allocation (the state fund for party TV, radio and internet advertising) is distributed to the major parties, and severely limited to minor, small and new parties.

Is it any wonder then, that for the first time since the introduction of MMP in 1996 we are facing the prospect of a parliament with only one minor party in it? It is hard for minor and small parties to introduce new ideas, convey competitiveness and convince voters a vote for them will not be a wasted vote.  The strict government control of television and radio advertising denies much of a voice to anyone who isn’t already in power.

To add to the minor and small parties’ woes, the major television channels gate-keep access to minor leader debate screen-time, with the bar to inclusion too high for new and small parties to meet. With few opportunities to get their voice and vision out to the people, the small parties remain starved of the media oxygen they need to persuade the television channels they are worthy of inclusion. It’s a vicious cycle.

Survey after survey confirms New Zealand voters still want to have coalition governments with minor parties at the table. It is therefore hard to comprehend how we could have designed an electoral system to provide for a diversity of voices, cultures and interests and then not put the scaffolding in place to enable them to have their views fully debated in the public sphere.

The result is large parties having disproportionate power by hobbling MMP with a high threshold. MMP in NZ is flawed by design. If small parties, especially new parties, weren’t kept out of Parliament by a ridiculous barrier then MMP would be far more likely to achieve its intended purpose. The overall aim of MMP is fairness and proportionality, to ensure as many people as possible are represented in the House of Representatives. The five per cent threshold is undemocratic, distorts voting behaviour, and prevents the rise of new political forces.