A politicians' pastime: fitting up your election

Here’s a democratic promise John Key could make: that if Prime Minister he will promote a fixed term for Parliament. Republican Helen Clark has clung to the vestige of monarchical power that allows her in effect to set the election date.

This is your election she has been playing with. It doesn’t improve her democratic record that, as Gerry Brownlee pointed out, in July she appointed swags of Labour lags to state-owned enterprise, Crown entity and other boards while she still could.

Key has made one constitutional promise: a binding referendum on the voting system.

Key promotes this as democratic. A referendum engages the people in decision-making. Moreover, many opponents of MMP thought in 1993 there would be a second referendum after a time to review the 1993 decision.

But actually Key’s proposal is self-interested. Any less proportional alternative — certainly the supplementary member system he favours — would advantage the two big old parties. In this election it would have smoothed National’s bid for power.

To see why try these numbers. If Labour can get to 38 per cent, the Greens 6 per cent and New Zealand First 5 per cent, that would add to 49 per cent. Depending how other numbers fell, that could conceivably deliver Clark a fourth term — if she could find a tent elongated enough to contain both Winston Peters and Russel Norman, as she is attempting to save her emissions trading legislation.

In this event National’s huge pre-election advantage could end up in a messy post-election auction for Winston Peters, which Clark would stand a fair chance of winning or, if Peters misses the 5 per cent (and even perhaps if he clears 5 per cent) for the Maori party.

If the proportional vote (the party vote) was just for the 50 list seats, National’s prospects would be looking much more solid, even impregnable. Moreover, that arrangement would banish the nightmare of having in 2011 to scratch a majority from a small-party spectrum that likely won’t include Peters and by when the Maori party might have edged back Labour-wards.

First, of course, Key would need a parliamentary majority for legislation setting up the referendum. He could count on only ACT and United Future. That might be a majority if National can get 48 per cent or more but not otherwise.

But changing the voting system to re-weight the vote in National’s (and Labour’s) favour vis-a-vis small parties would miss the fact that voters are sorting out MMP without waiting for the politicians.

The electorate has been engaged in a two-phase cleanup.

First it has been steadily whittling down the “wasted” vote for parties which get party votes but not seats: from 7.5 per cent in 1996 to 6.0 per cent in 1999, 4.9 per cent in 2002 and 1.3 per cent in 2005.

Opinion polling suggests it will be similarly small this time — unless Rodney Hide loses his Epsom electorate and/or New Zealand First (and/or, conceivably, the Greens) miss 5 per cent.

But if any of those three parties were to exit this time, that would signal that the electorate has moved to phase 2: whittling down the number of parties in Parliament.

Eight parties won seats in 2005 — two big ones and six small ones. If we had a single-vote proportional system (no electorate seats) with, say, only a 3 per cent hurdle, there would have been four: Greens, Labour, National and New Zealand First.

Parliament would look less fragmented and governing would be more straightforward.

The same eight parties might well still be there in the next Parliament, though Jim Anderton is likely to rejoin Labour, cutting the number to seven.

But in time when Hide and Peter Dunne go their parties will go with them. When Peters goes, the party that now acknowledges through its WinstonPeters.com website that it is in effect the Peters party will fade below 5 per cent.

Of course, other parties may emerge — there is arguably space for a party that is conservative on moral issues. But the hurdle is high for a beginner unless it can get a tide running. Take out the Maori electorate seats, as National wants — say, for the 2017 election — and the Maori party would have its work cut out to clear 5 per cent.

So Key’s self-serving referendum may actually be superfluous. The electorate is wiser than he credits it. It owns the party system and it is working out how many parties it wants in Parliament. Germany, the home of MMP, had just three for decades.

If Key wants to play the democrat, he could recognise the electorate’s wisdom and commit to fixed election dates and propose a binding referendum on that.

Across the Tasman the New South Wales, Victorian and South Australian state Parliaments have all adopted fixed four-year terms and former Queensland Premier Peter Beattie is a convert.

Clark herself some years back expressed interest, provided the term was four years, not three. But not yet.

Is Key democrat enough to do what Clark hasn’t? Or will that be too much democracy for the old lags in his party?