Dampening expectations, John Henderson

New Zealand Under MMP: A New Politics? 
Jonathan Boston, Stephen Levine, Elizabeth McLeay, Nigel Roberts
Auckland University Press/Bridget Williams Books, $34.95
ISBN 1869401387

For the next few years New Zealand will be a fascinating social laboratory for political scientists interested in analysing the effects of changing the electoral system on the wider political and social fabric of a country. This important book explores the “new politics” New Zealand is entering as it abandons the first-past-the-post (FPP) Westminster-type system and adopts a European-style mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system. Detailed analysis is provided of both the new two-vote electoral system (one for the constituency MP and a more important one for the party which will determine overall representation in Parliament) and the impact this will have on key areas of New Zealand politics, including political parties, Parliament, cabinet, the public service and the policy process.

The book is the first of a series of publications expected to result from a major research undertaking, “The New Zealand Political Change Project”, by a group of political scientists at Victoria University and funded largely by a grant from the New Zealand Foundation for Research, Science and Technology. It is reassuring for social scientists that official sponsorship is available for this type of project and the book is early proof that the investment of research funds has been well chosen. Indeed the production of the book within a year of the project’s initiation is a major achievement for both the authors and publishers.

The book presents two competing visions of the impact of MMP. Advocates foresee a more cooperative and consensus style of government emerging, with an enhanced role for Parliament. Critics predict that politicians will be even less accountable under MMP as they succumb to post-election back room deals on the making and breaking of coalitions. Prolonged periods of political instability are predicted. The authors point out that neither outcome is likely and, at least initially, change may be minimal.

While a majority coalition government of two or more parties is most likely (combining for instance National and the Christian Coalition or ACT), a single-party (most probably National) minority, or even majority government is still an outside possibility. So, too, is a fourth possibility of a coalition minority government — combining for instance, Labour and New Zealand First, and kept in power through the support of Alliance members in votes of confidence. The book puts forward no predictions on the election outcome, but makes the reassuring point that under the Bolger-led National government New Zealand has experienced all four of these forms of government.

Although the book strives to provide a balanced view of the pros and cons of MMP, enthusiasm for the change radiates through most chapters. Indeed, I suspect the authors’ hope to be able to remove the question marks from the subtitle (A New Politics?) and concluding chapter (“An Enduring Experiment?”) from future editions! But, while it is clear that the authors consider New Zealanders made the right choice in the referendums that produced MMP, they worry that the politicians may mess it up. The case is made that, if a success, MMP will reflect an important aspect of New Zealand’s national identity — comparable with the anti-nuclear stance. One wonders, however, whether an electoral system borrowed, with adaptions, from Germany warrants the description of an “indigenous crafted style of governance appropriate to a more mature New Zealand identity”.

One of the great puzzles for future New Zealand historians will be why the National and Labour politicians who had been the main beneficiaries of the system allowed changes to be made which were so clearly against the interests of their respective parties. MMP was the recommendation of the 1986 Royal Commission on the electoral system set up by Labour’s then Deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, but very few of Palmer’s colleagues shared his enthusiasm for electoral reform and no major changes were expected. Labour Prime Minister David Lange took everyone by surprise with his promise, made in a televised debate held during the 1987 election campaign, to hold a binding referendum on electoral reform.

The book claims in a footnote that Lange’s statement was based on errors in his speech notes. But this reviewer headed Lange’s staff at the time and I can attest to the accuracy of the briefing papers. The problem lay with Lange’s misreading — or more likely failure to read — the notes. The rest is history, although it is still difficult to understand why the then Opposition Leader Jim Bolger felt it necessary to match Lange’s commitment in the lead-up to the 1990 election. The book suggests the National Party was seeking to highlight Labour’s broken promises — as Lange’s commitment had not been acted on — but it was unnecessary points-scoring as National’s election victory in 1990 was never in doubt.

Whatever the motivations of the political leaders, the general public clearly welcomed the opportunity to bring about change. As the book reminds readers, the public were not converted to proportional representation, but rather sought to take revenge for the “failure of National and Labour to protect the commitment to economic and social justice”. In the September 1992 indicative referendum a massive 85% voted for a change to the voting system, although the 1993 referendum supporting MMP was much closer (53.9% for MMP; 46.1% for FFP).

But while the support for change can be attributed in a large part to the disenchantment of the electorate with the established parties, one interesting point not fully explored is why the long-term effect has been more severe on Labour than National. Indeed, National’s high poll ratings raise questions about the suggestion that MMP signals rejection of the old major parties. National’s support in the polls has been maintained at levels where it could have expected victory under the old FPP system, while Labour has struggled to gain even half National’s party support.

The reasons probably relate to the fact that “Rogernomics” economic reform most offended Labour rather than National supporters and that since the removal of Ruth Richardson from the finance portfolio, National has pursued more pragmatic politics, and avoided further radical change. Meanwhile, Labour has lost supporters to both the Alliance and New Zealand First.

The absence of any constituency for “finishing the job” is evident in the failure of the ACT Party established by Roger Douglas, but now led by his loyal lieutenant, Richard Prebble, to gain poll ratings above the 5% threshold level established by the new MMP system. Labour remains split over whether to denounce or take credit for the Rogernomics changes and the 1996 first MMP election will determine whether or not the party has a future. But the ultimate irony is that if MMP was indeed the result of opposition to Rogernomics, the new system makes it much more difficult not just to further these changes, but also to undo them. The likely end to single-party majority government will make radical change — to the right or the left — difficult to achieve.

The book does not, unfortunately, provide any update on how the public feels about MMP after experiencing the political contortions of the foreplay leading up to the election. Instead an analysis is made of a survey of 1600 “opinion leaders” – drawn from political circles (MPs, ministers, senior public servants and parliamentary staff) as well as the media, business, unions and universities. An impressive overall 71% response rate was achieved, including 85% of the chief executives of government departments. Respondents were questioned on how they considered MMP would affect such vital areas as Parliament, the cabinet and the policy process. The survey found a very high (82%) expectation that National would form the first MMP coalition government. Most respondents expected MMP will result in a weaker cabinet and stronger Parliament, along with a greater role for interest groups. Opinion was divided over the impact of the change on the influence of public servants and overall policy environment. Because no similar survey was carried out on the general public, it is impossible to ascertain how representative these elite views are.

While the chapter on the survey contains some fascinating material, it may have been better placed, in a more detailed form, in an academic journal. Most of the major findings are referred to in other chapters. As presented, the survey chapter is difficult to interpret. It would have helped if a copy of the questionnaire had been included in the appendices. Details should also have been provided on the makeup of the 1145 “opinion makers” who completed surveys. While some of the groups are easily identifiable (e.g. MPs, ministers, chief executives of government departments) readers are not informed about how others — such as representatives of interest groups, unions, lawyers, bankers, insurance company officials, ethnic and community leaders and academics, were chosen and how many of each group actually responded.

There are further problems with the survey. It was administered in late 1995 when New Zealand First was polling around the 5% threshold level, which would account for why only 12% of the respondents considered the party would be a participant in an MMP government. New Zealand First’s recent polling in excess of 20% would clearly effect response and, I suspect, increase concern amongst many of this elite group of the possible negative effects of MMP.

No doubt the authors would ideally have liked to have administered follow-up surveys and compared results with a representative sample of the public. Certainly if the generosity of their sponsors allow this, it would be very valuable material to include in future publications. A more detailed breakdown of results would add to the value and interest of the study, although this may run into problems of confidentiality promised to respondents. For instance, it is fascinating to learn that “nearly half” of the 161 senior public servants who responded intended to vote for the National Party in the next election and only two for the Alliance.

It is possible that the authors wished to avoid too detailed presentation of survey results in case this made the book appear too quantitative and academic and put off the general reader. But one of the problems with the book is that it is neither an academic text nor a publication that can be easily comprehended by the interested public. The book’s value to academic researchers is greatly enhanced by extensive references to the wide literature on electoral systems throughout the Western world, but the detail of this analysis may tend to put off the general reader. A book of this level of sophistication must assume a level of knowledge not present in most of the general public — or even a stage I political science class. But it should be acknowledged that the book is not presented as an introductory text of the new political system — which remains a gap in the market which has yet to be filled.

The authors reveal that they plan a further major work in 1999 to survey pluses and minuses of the first four years of MMP. This will be a particularly important book, because it will help set the scene for the review of MMP which a parliamentary select committee is due to undertake in the year 2000.

A range of possible further reforms are discussed by the authors, including a fixed-term Parliament (to avoid the instability of snap elections), regional party lists, the appointment of ministers from outside Parliament and the implications of becoming a republic.

One subject not adequately covered is the lack of any legal restrictions to “party hopping”, of MPs changing their party allegiance, perhaps in response to the offer of a cabinet post from a party which is a few seats short of gaining a parliamentary majority. Such changes would clearly distort the proportionality on which MMP is based. It seems particularly bizarre that MPs who owe their positions to a party list can change their allegiance to another party. If an MP no longer wishes to belong to the party which put them in parliament, they should resign and their place be taken by the next person on the party list. Assumptions that this is a teething problem which will disappear as MMP becomes established may not prove to be the case. The extent of party hopping that has taken place in the lead up to the first MMP election may be taken as a precedent which legitimises the practice. On the other hand, the failure of the United Party – made up of ex-National and Labour MPs – to even register in the opinion polls may provide sufficient deterrence to MPs who are considering changing parties.

Much is expected of MMP and the overall message of this book, while cautionary in tone, is to further rather than dampen these expectations. While the authors generally predict evolutionary rather than revolutionary change, they do see MMP as moving New Zealand towards a more responsive political system — a better democracy.

MMP was born in a period of political disillusionment. The danger is that if it does not deliver, a further and more serious period of disillusionment may set in. This is unlikely to lead to a return to FPP, but it may provide fertile ground for what the book refers to as political entrepreneurs. To make MMP work requires party leaders committed to, and skilled at, negotiation and consultation. But it also leaves room for populist, charismatic leaders offering simplistic solutions to complex problems. But so, too. did FPP.

John Henderson teaches political science at the University of Canterbury. 

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