Mixed Message Politics, Geoffrey Thompson

From Campaign to Coalition: the 1996 MMP Election
Jonathan Boston, Stephen Levine, Elizabeth Hickey and Nigel Roberts (ed)
Dunmore Press, $29.95
ISBN 0 86469314 1

Voters’ Victory? New Zealands First Election under Proportional Representation
Jack Vowles, Peter Aimer, Susan Banducci, Jeffrey Karp (ed)
Auckland University Press, $39.95
ISBN 1 86940180 8

Why MMP Must Go: The Case for Ditching the Electoral Disaster of the Century
Graeme Hunt
Waddington Press in association with NBR,
$29.95
ISBN 0 47394842 6

In an avalanche of surveys, tables, opinions and prejudices these publications tell us a great deal about how New Zealand abruptly changed its electoral system for the 1996 General Election. Each book tries to draw conclusions. However, the most appropriate is Paul Harris’s reference to the remark attributed to Mao Tse-Tung when asked about the lessons of the French Revolution: “it’s too early to tell”.

Each publication will attract interest from different groups as the purposes of each book are different. Graeme Hunt is explicit in his distaste for MMP, but his book contains an ironic contradiction between an extravagant and largely fictitious foreword by National Business Review editor Neville Gibson, and the introduction provided by former MP and Minister of Finance Ruth Richardson making a strong case for a different form of proportional representation from MMP.

Voters’ Victory? is the most academic of the publications and while being largely limited to an analysis of a nation-wide post-election survey of electors and candidates, does contain a wealth of material and pointers to the future, especially in respect of split voting and the Maori vote. It is heavy-weather reading but a useful reference text.

From Campaign to Coalition collects a wide range of contributions most of which were made very soon after the election and before the present coalition was formed. There are many snap judgements about the party campaigns and the outcomes of the election. It will be a useful reminder of how the 1996 election was conducted but it really needs a follow-up from the contributors. They include senior party representatives, experienced journalists, academics and others involved in putting the new system together. As with Voters’ Victory?, the publication resulted from an ongoing political research exercise.

Graeme Hunt lightly sketches New Zealand electoral history before engaging in his brief but sharp criticism of MMP. His views are summed up in a quoted premise that MMP was promoted to prevent any government effectively managing the country’s affairs. He conveniently ignores the point that proportional representation is the most widely used electoral system in the democratic world. He fails to analyse the adverse effects of MMP as a proportional system in comparison to other models of PR.

For critics of MMP this book has to be a major disappointment. It lacks vigorous analyses of the two-vote system and the hugely variable effects of split voting. It concentrates on the faults of personalities rather than the system. No significant evidence is advanced for the conclusions he draws and Mr Hunt drifts into sweeping criticism of proportional representation generally by reference to the alleged failings of the current crop of list MPs.

Fortunately, his conclusions are balanced to a modest degree by Ruth Richardson’s introduction, which concludes that a Supplementary Member proportional system in a smaller Parliament would be better than MMP. Ms Richardson clearly has her political antennae better tuned than Mr Hunt when she makes her observations about future possibilities. Her current political favourite, the ACT Party, would of course disappear without a proportional voting system providing a list system entry for many of Parliaments MPs.

Supplementary Member is a voting system now gaining widespread interest. Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, amongst many others, favours a smaller Parliament and small Executive. She recognises that a simpler system which retains the emphasis on constituency representation but has a small list to ensure representation from minority groups and providing greater diversity, would be a reasonable compromise. The two-vote Supplementary Member system was studied by the 1996 Royal Commission on Electoral Reform but lost out in its recommendations to MMP because the latter was closest to a pure proportional system.

All the books give extensive coverage to the build-up to the 1996 MMP election and the period of “phoney MMP” between 1993 and 1996. Looking back over this period of extraordinary political change, it is apparent that the National Party leadership, in Opposition in the late 1980s and when in Government from 1990, made some tactical errors about the electoral system. In its manifesto for the 1990 election, National promised a referendum on MMP, then – almost it seems out of guilt felt for some broken promises in the welfare field – it kept the referendum promise.

The academic community and fringe political activists seized on this opportunity to break the political hold of the main parties and promote the Royal Commissions recommended MMP system with great vigour. In another radical blunder, National kept out of the debate as a party although a number of its activists recognised the dangers and helped the anti-MMP campaign.

Then the 1993 Referendum was held before the details of the new system were settled in law and a number of gaps and imperfections resulted. This referendum campaign is well covered in the academic books, and seasoned Waikato University observer Jack Vowles makes some telling observations in his brief but accurate sketch of the build-up to the change.

One of the great legacies of former Prime Minister Jim Bolger could well be his recovery from the mistakes that led to the adoption of MMP; by his intuitive understanding of what a coalition-based government would require. His 1993 election night speech, composed as he took a long drive from his farm to the gathering of the faithful in the Te Kuiti Hall, was a masterpiece. It recognised that the unexpected and very close result required a new form of consensus and co-operation in Parliament. Between 1993 and 1996 he was very skilful in his management of a fractious caucus and the breakaway MPs positioning themselves in new parties for the MMP era. The construction of the National Party list in 1996 was heavily influenced by the need to maintain stability in the current caucus and provide vulnerable MPs with safe list positions, to get through to the 1999 election. The same considerations are not expected to apply in future.

The substantive analysis of the build-up to the 1996 election is contained in Voters’ Victory?. It could be best described as an academic resource but a few exceptions to the dry presentations are included. British Columbian Professor Richard Johnston captures the intensity of the final campaign period with sharp phrasing. A turning point of the campaign was the use of the “worm” in the first televised leaders’ debate. Prime Minister Jim Bolger was unwell and not briefed by his staff so, being caught off guard, fumbled the debate. Labour Leader Helen Clark from that night was seen as a credible leadership option. Johnston’s word colour nicely describes the fortunes of two anti-government parties whose support fell steadily during the campaign: “The story for both NZ First and the Alliance was one of modest decay” and National’s rather patchy campaign progress is captured by “National bled from several small cuts”. Descriptive, accurate and quite readable.

However, even this academic’s analysis gives insufficient attention to the deliberate and ultimately very telling series of TV advertisements by National warning of the risks from a combined Labour, Alliance, and NZ First coalition. Alliance strategist Matt McCarten admitted after the election that this negative advertising was very effective; but National loyalists are uncomfortable with the use of American – or Australian- type negative campaign advertising.

Another very interesting chapter is provided by Waikato University public policy lecturer Ann Sullivan and by Jack Vowles. Ms Sullivan has a particular interest in Maori politics and traces the long-term Ratana Church-based allegiance of the Maori roll voter to Labour. She notes the first cracks in this allegiance with former Labour Cabinet Minister, the late Matt Rata’s stand in Northern Maori leading to NZ First candidate Tau Henare winning the seat in 1993. There is particular interest now in what Maori MPs could achieve as a united group, beyond the current five Maori electorate MPs of NZ First. The authors analyse the significant change in the electorate to date but are not prepared to say that a permanent realignment has occurred.

A fascinating feature of the research is to find that NZ First Maori voters were on the whole older than average and provincial, not the angry young urban Maori that the five new “warrior” MPs seemed to personify. The heavy reliance on the post-election survey for this book may also have led the authors of the Maori chapter to miss the extraordinary “Messiah” effect that Winston Peters was achieving in his pre-campaign trips to Maori headlands.

Both Voters’ Victory? and From Campaign to Coalition record the high incidence of split voting in the General Election (38%), but no strong conclusions can be drawn from the research or analysis. There were a few obvious cases of strategic voting. In Wellington Central 10,000 National Party list voters split to cast their constituency vote for ACT’s Richard Prebble. Simultaneously, large numbers of National supporters in Epsom, Tamaki and North Shore were giving ACT their party vote; in both cases to try and ensure that National had a potential coalition partner. In effect, ACT won on both fronts by this rational use of the vote-splitting opportunity available under MMP.

Apart from these examples, there is nothing particularly insightful or unexpected about vote splitting in these books. Party activists suspect that vote splitting has the potential to lead to odd results and can undermine long-standing loyalties, because the double choice is poorly understood. Basically, this is uncharted territory and speculation about future behaviour with two votes is unrewarding.

Finally, the Coalition. Each book deals with the protracted, intensely secret negotiations and the outcome which seemed to confound seasoned politician watchers. They also seemed surprised to concede that MMP denies voters the opportunity to choose a Government, merely allowing them to vote for a Parliament which then goes into a huddle to decide who governs. A new feature that is missed is the fact that every party vote counts. The protest vote now has different implications and the effect of this will take some time to sink in.

Raymond Miller in Voters’ Victory? adopts an indignant tone about the power exercised by NZ First in the coalition negotiations and the choice of National as the senior partner with which to govern. He gives insufficient weight to the fact that Labour needed Alliance MPs as well, to secure a parliamentary majority. This would have been a difficult trio of parties or leaders to manage under one umbrella. The importance of arithmetic in assessing political possibilities is not given enough weight by commentators. They also give insufficient attention to personal dynamics. The choice of National rather than Labour by NZ First had as much to do with personal antagonisms and an arrogant, patronising attitude by Labour negotiators as with detailed policy positions. The NZ First team often commented on the easy relationship that quickly developed with National. From such a myriad of influences a government was and remains established.

Each of these books in its different way usefully records this major event in New Zealand political history. None is able to predict the effect of the change in the long term, but there are many practitioners who are working on it. If I had to make a choice to buy one of the books, Voters’ Victory? would be on my shelves, as a political resource, but not as a relaxed read.

Geoffrey Thompson is President of the New Zealand National Party and a Wellington solicitor.

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