Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns


MMP and the 2005 Outcome

25/10/2005

I wonder how many of those denouncing Winston Peters's appointment as Minister of Foreign Affairs voted for MMP? There isn't any point blaming Helen Clark, Peter Dunne, or even Winston himself for the new ministry; those who supported MMP inflicted him upon us. With all its imperfections, the new ministry is probably the best that could have been assembled from the slim election-day pickings. MMP made Peters the queenmaker. Each side needed him to form a government. He could demand what he liked. He did. And he got it. Since Don Brash was faced with even tighter numbers there would probably have been an equally crass outcome. Silly systems produce silly outcomes. It's elementary.

Since the introduction of MMP we've had four elections. Two of them, 1996 and 2005, gave no clear result on election night and eventually produced Mickey Mouse ministries. The Jim Bolger/Jenny Shipley government between 1996 and 1999 fell apart after 20 months, then struggled over the finishing line with just enough ex-New Zealand First MPs supporting National on confidence and supply. This ministry could splinter New Zealand First too. It was divided 4-3 in favour of Winston accepting the baubles of office at the expense of his pre-election promises. Re-introducing the party-hopping legislation is his way of binding colleagues to him long enough to let him prop up the bar as Minister of Racing until he retires. Don't count on it working, however. There are ways around it. In effect, the very instability that critics of MMP always predicted, seems likely to occur at two elections out of every four. The latest outcome looks even shonkier than the first example.

What made 2005 different from earlier elections was that voters showed so little enthusiasm for minor parties. Securing more than 80% of the total votes between them, National and Labour got a bigger slice than at any election since 1990. The minor parties were starved into anorexia on 17 September and have grizzled for sustenance ever since. The Greens with their tired (and tiresome) two, never able to improve their position, or to work out why; Jim Anderton's Progressives: a one-man band named after himself; New Zealand First, fluctuating wildly according to the whims of the politically homeless and those with rattling false teeth; ACT, the victims of National producing its first ever economically literate leader; and United Future, starved of oxygen because its foot soldiers, on balance, also preferred Don Brash, but who retained enough seats to save us from the Greens. The trouble is that MMP leaves the most important decisions to the political flotsam who the overwhelming majority have already discarded. Post-election manoeuvring is now more important than voting itself. We get no say. Can we be surprised that papers like the Australian, and Canada's national paper the Globe and Mail, scratch their heads in bewilderment, concluding New Zealand can't be taken seriously? When a small majority voted for MMP in 1993, they inflicted the likes of Winston Peters on us. If it wasn't him there'd be another phony to take his place.

Although MMP's track record suggests regular chaos, the system can't excuse Helen Clark's candidate selection failures or her over-large executive. Nor her slow change of portfolios. Since she never had any intention of surrendering a cabinet seat to others, key ministers could have been empanelled weeks ago and been learning about their new responsibilities. Instead, they drifted aimlessly for a month. Ministers need all the advice they can get. Especially in big areas like Agriculture, Education, Health and what is called "Social Development and Employment" - or in non-PC terms, Social Welfare. When asked his goals in Education, a startled Steve Maharey could say only that he wanted to encourage everyone to "have expectations" and "to get some results in the system". Oh deary me. What would Labour's Peter Fraser have said about such mush? A capacity to read, write, count and compete in life would have brought whoops of delight from parents nationwide.

Roger Kerr who nicknamed MMP "Much More Paralysis" hit the mark. It's not only the voting system, but the time wasted making it work that retards our economic progress. Having to massage weak brothers and sisters' egos eats into thinking time about long-term national strategy. What is it about New Zealanders that makes us so obsessed with the demands of misfits in minor parties, most with nothing positive to contribute? Is there a rational explanation?