Politics: MMP’s Instability

This is the stability election. Or so Helen Clark would like you to think. You are supposed to give her majority to restore stability after the Alliance screwed up and the Greens went ape.

Hang on minute. According to the theorists who gave you the wonderful German MMP system, it was supposed to give you wonderful German stability.

Trouble was, the theorists did not first examine the reality of New Zealand political culture – except to conclude perfunctorily that MMP’s retention of electorate seats was supposed to continue 150 years of area-based representation.

They neglected to register that our political culture has been one of adversarial combat between two sides, not search for consensus among many.

Sure, romantics have long dreamed of National and Labour forming government of the great majority. But they forget that since the early 1930s Labour and National have fought tooth and nail.

That left no room in the centre, because to win Labour had to take votes from National and vice-versa and that meant fighting over the centre-ground.

Small parties spawned only on the fringes. If they tried to migrate to the centre, as did the originally rightwing Social Crediters in the early 1980s, they got squashed.

So policy switched from right to left to right as power flicked from National to Labour to National.

This may sound unstable. But in fact there was an automatic stabiliser. Too big swing to the right by National or to the left by Labour would leave the centre vulnerable to raiding by the other party.

So swings were moderated. The automatic stabiliser kept the policy swings from going too far in either direction.

Except, that is, in crisis. In the 1980s the forces of revolution broke the stabiliser. Labour swung far to the right; National finessed it. The Alliance occupied Labour’s vacated left ground. Parties split. Voters got frustrated and angry. MMP was the result.

MMP was supposed to force parties into each other’s arms and so dampen the swings. Instead, it has set up an oscillator.

Labour’s potential allies are to its left, National’s to its right. There is no stabilising mechanism in the centre.

When Labour took office in 1999, its coalition partner, the Alliance, and its supporting party, the Greens, were not the sort of parties to hold it back from leftist excesses. Quite the opposite. They wanted leftist excesses.
Were National to take office after July 27, its coalition partner in waiting, ACT, would not hold it back from rightist excesses. ACT would try to tug National farther right.

If this sort of oscillation were to go on long enough, space would eventually open up in the centre. Peter Dunne, the only genuinely centrist force, would logically expand to fill the space. His tiny United Future party might then become the missing stabiliser.

Right now, however, he is squashed between National and Labour, ignored by both as they wrestle with “allies” to their right and left.
The 1986 royal commissioners saw the German economic miracle, saw German stability and worshipped German MMP. The more appropriate Irish semi-proportional STV system, widely used in Australia, was discounted. Ireland, cele-brated now for its economic miracle, was then an economic mess. It was also full of Irish, about whom it was then customary to make jokes.

In office Clark has behaved like Labour mostly did under FPP: she has moved little bit to the left but kept beady eye on the centre. This reticence discounted the Alliance’s desire to go much farther left. So the Alliance disintegrated. Clark-style MMP has not delivered stable government. And she still has the Greens, cruising the periphery. They say: take an extreme position on genetic modification or lose office.

Her only escape is majority in her own right (with Jim Anderton). And the message in that – the real message in this power-grab election – is that Clark can’t provide stable government unless she can in effect revert to FPP.

If that is what MMP has come to, what’s the point?

The point, MMP’s defenders say, is to give small parties say. But if small party can force through policy no other party agrees with or force an election, that is the antithesis of consensus and stability.

How can voters fix this on July 27? They can’t. They either negate stability-through-consensus by reverting to FPP-type behaviour (Clark’s majority) or they endorse another round of instability.

Happy voting!

Colin James is Management’s regular political writer.
Email: [email protected]

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