Is MMP structurally unstable?

After last week’s tumults, is MMP an unstable system? This week Parliament should be calmer. But last week’s high drama about the government’s majority has raised a question: Is MMP an unstable system? If it is, it will be changed.

Consider the record:

* In 1998 the National-New Zealand First coalition fell apart. National survived in office only on mavericks’ votes.

* In 2002 the Alliance fell apart, furnishing the trigger and pretext for a snap election. Labour could have governed on but only by acting out the ugly fiction of a still-together Alliance required by the silly party hopping law.

* Halfway through this third MMP term one MP has left Labour and another stays only on condition Labour pays more attention to her tribe. If she goes, that would force Labour into the Greens’ arms. United Future, the first-choice support party, would not like that.

It hasn’t come to that yet, so it is premature to suggest the third MMP Parliament will add another instability chapter to those of the first two. The flurries around the first reading of the Foreshore and Seabed Bill and Tariana Turia’s departure will now abate. The government has the numbers to pass its Budget.

But the past week’s headlines may well be back with us in November and December when the foreshore bill returns from committee to the floor of Parliament.

And if after that Labour is forced to depend on the Greens for confidence, policy stability would be in question. Genetic modification would change, among other things.

Political and policy instability unsettles investors, a serious matter, and many others besides.

But would they not be happy to see off a Labour government and welcome a Don Brash one? Not if that, too, is unstable.

So, do the numbers. For a stable government National would need a minimum 46-to-47 per cent, by itself or with United Future and/or ACT (if ACT survives). Despite the step-change in National’s poll ratings in the past three months, going from 21 per cent in one election to the low-to-mid-40s in the next is a very big ask, especially if ACT is in the equation because every ACT vote is a potential or lost National vote.

Turn that around, though. Labour plus Jim Anderton plus the Greens plus United Future need the same minimum 46-47 per cent for stable government. And if the Greens are in the equation, United Future might not be.

New Zealand First and any new Maori party are not in these calculations. That is because neither could be counted on for stable partnership.

And even if the numbers are there for one or other side on election night, we could not count on them staying stable.

* New Zealand First split in half and the Alliance split four ways between 1996 and 1999.

* The Alliance split in two between 1999 and 2002.

* This term Labour has lost one MP (Turia, by the way, has not been a financial member of the Labour party anyway this year) and may still lose another. ACT has lost Donna Awatere-Huata.

This is fun to watch but is it what voters sought in backing MMP in 1993?

More likely they were telling the big, old parties not to say or imply one thing pre-election and do a radically different thing post-election. They were looking for stability, not instability. Evidence: since 1996 support for MMP has eroded during unstable periods.

Of course, there was instability under the old FPP system. Bill Massey had far from an easy run through his time as Prime Minister from 1912-25. Coalition was necessary from 1931-35. In the 1981-84 Parliament two Labour MPs defected and then two National MPs broke ranks on the nuclear issue, precipitating the 1984 snap election. From 1989 till 1993 bits fell off both big parties, suggesting that even if FPP had stayed, there might have been minority governments.

The difference, defenders of MMP might argue, is that MMP flexes under pressure, which FPP’s less-representative rigidity does not allow. At times of strain, as in 1935 and 1984, FPP factures instead of flexing, producing wrenching policy changes.

Nevertheless, if this Parliament, like the previous two, destabilises the government, public disenchantment might well embolden the two old parties to gang up in the next Parliament to put a referendum for change.

The most logical would be to apply the proportional party vote only to the 51 list MPs, instead of the whole Parliament. Counting the 1999 and 2002 votes on that basis would have produced single-party Labour majority governments (though, of course, the different system may have produced different voting patterns).

The small parties would be correspondingly smaller: the Greens would have four seats in this Parliament, not nine, and New Zealand First seven, not 13.

They would still be there and from time to time could be effective. But generally stable government through a whole parliamentary term would be more likely. MMP is beginning to look as if it is, in the words of one senior minister, “structurally unstable”.

No structurally unstable system can function well. The small parties might want to ponder that.