Enhancing MMP — and on to a republic?

John Key thinks MMP is working well. So why is he going to put you to the expense of two referendums to decide whether to have a different voting system?

Once a Prime Minister had only his party’s caucus to whip into line. Patronage and party discipline usually sufficed, though there were occasional rebellions. One over proposed potato regulations in 1979 was the first shot in what exploded into the 1980s economic deregulation revolution.

Now Prime Ministers have to assemble majorities with other parties. That is not straightforward, as the ACC schemozzle of the past two weeks has shown — MMP has at times been More Muddle in Parliament. But even Helen Clark, a stern disciplinarian and the leading MP campaigner to retain first-past-the-post (FPP) in 1992-3, got a kick out of stitching deals to keep her cabinet’s programme on the road.

The result is policy which, for better or worse, is supported by parties representing a majority of voters or close to it (depending how many vote for parties which don’t get seats). Under FPP this was very seldom the case and from 1978 to 1984 a governing party voted for by fewer than two-fifths of voters passed laws over the opposition of parties supported in total by far more voters.

MMP has also proved better at representing women and ethnic and other minorities.

So why did National promise last year a binding referendum on whether to keep MMP, which it has now translated into two referendums at the 2011 and 2014 elections?

Many of its members, particularly older ones, and of many of its business backers don’t like MMP.

This dislike is based on two main reasons, apart from tradition. One is that list MPs are not thought to be “real” MPs because they are not elected by a geographical constituency. The other is that MMP hampers decisive government action.

Actually, some electorate MPs are lazy and inattentive. Some list MPs make themselves in effect into additional electorate MPs and some represent “lateral” constituencies, such as gays or law-and-order enthusiasts. Top people like Tim Groser and Steven Joyce can be recruited via the list.

Also, single-party governments can as readily produce the “wrong” result as the “right” one. Under MMP minor parties can derail a “wrong” vote just as much as a “right” one. In 2002 many National voters, fearing rampant Labour-Green rule, gave United Future enough votes to act as a brake.

ACT’s presence in this Parliament is driving a deregulatory agenda National would be too timid to embrace on its own. Business can thank MMP for that.

So if voters decide to switch from MMP over the next two elections, what will they choose?

The 1992 options were: FPP, Australia’s preferential FPP, Ireland’s (and Tasmania’s) single transferable vote (STV) and Key’s preference, supplementary member (SM) under which the proportional vote would be for the list only, not the whole of Parliament.

All would advantage the two big old parties. SM would have delivered single-party governments in 1999, 2002 and 2008. The Maori party would have six, not five seats, in this Parliament.

But is SM the most likely alternative?

First, note that the electorate has been fitting MMP into the electoral culture of electing or un-electing a government (or protest-voting). Voters progressively cut the “wasted” vote for parties which don’t win seats down to 1 per cent in 2005, then in 2008 started cutting out parties in Parliament by dumping New Zealand First.

So Labour’s alternative, “enhanced MMP”, might just turn out to be the most logical.

Labour’s conference voted to eliminate the “threshold waiver” so that a party doesn’t get a full proportion of seats just by winning an electorate seat.

Without the waiver, ACT right now would have one seat, not five — it got only 3.7 per cent last year and the party vote proportionality threshold is 5 per cent. A softener some in Labour have mused on is to lower the threshold to 4 per cent. (Last year New Zealand First got 4.1 per cent.)

Labour’s conference also voted to raise the ratio of electorate seats to list seats. Key has mused on a 90-30 ratio; today it is 70-50. Labour also voted to entrench the Maori option but that is not an MMP-or-not issue.

That’s for starters. Labour’s conference also voted to put to voters in 2014 a binding referendum on a republic. There is strong sympathy for that in the caucus.

As a pipe-opener, Labour’s MPs are likely to support parliamentary study of Green MP Keith Locke’s bill for referendums on electing the head of state (now the Governor-General).

Key, too, is at this game. Last week he backed fixed four-year parliamentary terms to end prime ministerial cat-and-mouse on election dates. Voters would probably prefer three years but would likely back fixed terms.

Over the past 30 years we have made many piecemeal changes to the constitution. Key will set up a constitutional working group early next year as part of his deal with the Maori party. Your guess where that might take us.