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That 'undemocratic' New Zealand election result

By Philip Lillingston - posted Thursday, 26 October 2017


The result of the recent New Zealand general election had been over three weeks in coming, and to fill the void some media commentators had been complaining about the Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) electoral system utilized there.

Karl du Fresne, writing in the Spectator Australia asked why no one “question[s] the morality of a political system that allows [Winston Peters] to wield influence grossly disproportionate to his party’s” 7.2 % share, with the result that “despite winning 46 percent of the vote on election day, National doesn’t have the numbers to govern on its own.”

Jamie Walker, Associate Editor of The Australian wrote that “it would be a travesty of the democratic process” if the New Zealand First defied the “near-majority of voters” and helped install Jacinta Ardern as Prime Minister.

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Apparently, what defines a good electoral system is to, as quickly as possible, have someone form a new government, whether that someone actually has majority support. To dare to ‘exploit your balance of power, monopolistic position’ (in fact National has technically two other options: forming a coalition with Labour, or holding another election) by asking for whatever you can get is claimed to be immoral, but to rule with no more than a “near-majority” is not.

In the main, the criticism seems to be more with the proportional representation (PR) part of MMP rather than the single member aspect. When a government is formed from a house of representatives elected with single member voting (SMV) a clear winner, quickly chosen, is the norm, while with a full or hybrid proportional system it is a rarity.

But before giving the laurels to SMV it might be worth asking how it is that such a political diverse society of New Zealand, comprising supporters of National, Labour, and small parties Green, New Zealand First, and ACT would suddenly become majority harmonious if the electoral system returned to SMV.

The unpalatable truth is that the stability and faux harmony of SMV comes from a deceptive “majority” won by any new government. They may have won the majority of seats but with all electorate seats in the New Zealand First-Past-The-Post [FPTP] system, the victor needs only a plurality, that is, the most votes, even if less than half (which is very often the case). Unlike in Australia, there is no opportunity for small party voters to distribute secondary preference votes. In most electorates they have no influence at all and might as well stay home on election day.

OK, one might say, if New Zealand installs a SMV preferential system, as across the ditch, the problem is solved. You have the stability and now the small parties give their preferences to their preferred major party before the election, rather than after with PR, so what’s wrong with that? 

A lot. First, when you give your support before the election you get nothing for it. You are surrendering all to the least worst option. But after the election you engage in what is derogatorily called “furtive horse trading” to gain the best promises for your supporters, promises that are guaranteed by the threat of support removal. And if you are a part of the coalition that makes a majority, why wouldn’t you warrant part of that executive and legislative process.

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Secondly there is the gerrymander; the curse of SMV voting which allowed John Howard in 1998 to win thirteen more seats than Kim Beazley and thus government, despite gaining over 200,000 fewer preference votes; the curse which has enabled vote-winning parties to lose four of the last seven South Australian state elections. Currently there is a case involving gerrymandering, Gill v Whitford, before the United States Supreme Court which, it is said, will be the most important opinion of the term. The probable reason for this is that even though the gerrymander can occur, and often does, with malice aforethought, it also occurs by accident, and in fact there is no way to guarantee the absence of it. With the average voter making no commitment to be constant in address or political affiliation, the undemocratic effect of the gerrymander falls by happenstance.   The conundrum for the court can be expressed by an earlier decision in Vieth v. Jubelirer (2004) where it was held that there was no workable standard to resolve the issue. 

 Apart, of course, from swapping SMV for proportional representation, either pure or mixed member.

With the problems, real or imagined, of the need for a coalition of parties to form a majority for government, there has always been a very simple solution which surprisingly is seldom raised. As in Indonesia, South Korea, the Philippines, Argentina, Colombia, Zambia, Mexico, France and the United States, why not simply allow the executive to be directly elected by the people at the same time they elect the House of Representatives. Abiding by this truer application of the concept of separation of powers would guarantee stability for the length of the term, as well as granting all the discordant parties, big or small, their fair representation in the legislature, and without obliging them to make uncomfortable coalitions for the duration of the term.

But even without this modification, MMP still creates government which is much more representative to all the citizens’ concerns rather than just the biggest minority, and much less susceptible to the flukes and malfeasance of the SMV system.

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About the Author

Philip Lillingston, has previously taught political science and now maintains the website Why Not Proportional Representation?

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Philip Lillingston

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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