In 1999 most voters thought there was every chance we'd have another referendum on the electoral system in 2002. When the legislation establishing MMP was passed early in the nineties, provision was made for a parliamentary select committee to examine the new system after two elections. By then, it was reasoned, MMP would have had a reasonable opportunity to demonstrate its worth. In the event, something else occurred. The select committee met, but a cosy club of beneficiaries from the existing system gave it a gentle once over, and decided to keep MMP.
Yet, ever since that decision, we have been reminded of MMP's shortcomings on an almost daily basis. Helen Clark's purported reason for calling a snap election for 27 July can be laid squarely at MMP's door. And now that the campaign is under way we are being treated to the spectacle of a prime minister who once vigorously opposed the new system's introduction, saying she wants to keep it, yet pleading with the voters for an outright majority that MMP was designed to make a virtual impossibility. If she does get her majority she should realise that it will in part be because many are sick of MMP's factional politics, and want a return to stability using the only means left open to them at this election.
On 11 June Helen Clark told us she had recommended that the Governor-General dissolve Parliament. Since the Alliance split earlier in the year, the House had become "a farce", she claimed. The Opposition were to blame. Of course she was right about the farce. The Jim Anderton pantomime as he split from yet another band of jaundiced apostles while attempting to stay on the right side of the party-hopping law he'd so sanctimoniously promoted, invited ridicule. Nothing is more guaranteed to produce parliamentary high jinks than a preacher caught sinning.
What commentators have overlooked is that the House need not have been held in thrall to this parliamentary bit-part player. Had it not been for MMP, Jim Anderton would be a solitary, grumpy, ageing back-bencher, nursing his nostalgia for the 1950s. He could have sat there till the people of Wigram came to their senses. Instead, MMP pumped an electoral nobody into a somebody. All his erstwhile colleagues within the Alliance with whom he picked a fight, were also there courtesy of MMP. Same with the Greens. Sure, Jeanette Fitzsimons narrowly won her seat of Coromandel, but like Jim Anderton, she'd be there alone, musing harmlessly about the virtues of recycling human waste, had it not been for MMP. And we'd have been spared the sight of her ragged tail of colleagues planning to wag the Labour dog in October 2003 over GE.
Virtually all the shenanigans Helen Clark complained of on the day she sent parliament packing can be attributed to MMP. The system has crowded the place with more parties than necessary, and produced tiresome combinations of single-issue fanatics and troublemakers. Do we really need three parties to the left of Labour? The last two parliaments contained more than thirty MPs who had stood in electorates for various minority causes in the days of First Past the Post, only to expire at the hands of the voters. After 1996 those same failures were miraculously resurrected on party lists ordered by backroom girls and boys without prior reference to anyone much. Predictably, these tribunes from MMP have been the ones causing the Prime Minister most angst. They slowed the legislative process, and were the ones engaging in political tom-foolery. The Prime Minister's response is odd. Instead of accepting that the system is to blame, we have her pleading for an FPP result from MMP. She wants to keep the system but not the results it was designed to produce. Wouldn't it be more useful to include on the ballot paper next month a binding referendum on the electoral system? The public could have what they expected they'd get in 1999: another choice over electoral systems. There's still time, and adding the extra questionnaire would cost little.
But of course it won't happen. Under MMP, common sense is at a premium. The system rewards sleight of hand and will give us more game-players in the next Parliament. The transparent system MMP replaced has given way to clandestine calculations and backroom deals. Worst of all, it has "elected" the otherwise unelectable. If the last two polls are any guide, political discourse will still be about pettiness, not principle. If Helen Clark wants an FPP result that frees her from dependence on the Greens, Laila Harre, Jim Anderton and Winston Peters, surely she could let us choose the system most likely to deliver it? Last year she had the chance. It's a bit rich to be asking for an outright majority now when she rejected the chance last year.
Historian and author Michael Bassett was a Labour MP for 15 years (under FPP).