Lobbying for centrism: is that what business wants?

The big business lobby against mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) is backing John Key’s preferred alternative, supplementary member (SM), in Simon Power’s cumbersome double referendum on the voting system. That effectively inters the pre-1996 first-past-the-post (FPP) system, the one the lobby really prefers.

But if business gets SM, will it get what it wants?

In 1984-92 under FPP Labour, then National formed two radically reforming single-party governments. A folklore grew up in business circles that MMP, by putting an end to single-party governments after 1993, also put an end to the reforms and to governments’ capacity for firm, crisp, business-friendly policy.

Actually, FPP doesn’t always produce single-party governments. From 1911 to 1935 there were minority or coalition governments for all but nine years and a coalition was formed to battle the Depression. In the wake of the 1984-92 reforms both National’s and Labour’s votes plunged to the mid-30s and minor parties won 30 per cent in 1993. There was a real possibility minor parties would have held the balance of power in 1996 even without MMP.

And there is a point in FPP — between 21 and 25 per cent — when a party on the way up suddenly gets a big haul of seats and one on the way down plunges to irrelevance. Had National’s 21 per cent in 2002 been under FPP, it might have won only the same two seats Social Credit got for 21 per cent in 1981 — in 1993 in Canada the Progressive Conservative single-party government plunged from 169 seats to two when its vote fell to 16 per cent.

Britain appears to be about to put a minor party into the balance of power in its FPP election on Thursday. The Peter Dunne-like Liberal Democrats have been running second in opinion polls, ahead of Labour, which has governed single-handed for 13 years.

The British chattering classes are in a tizz. The BBC was in Wellington late last week to learn about minority and coalition government.

The lesson for the BBC is that a voting system doesn’t determine how “good” or “bad” a government is or which main party runs it.

The American system, which is designed for gridlock and features a corrupt, hidebound Senate and breathtaking gerrymandering of its House of Representatives seats, cohabited with the world’s most dynamic and powerful economy in the twentieth century. The German MMP system, which we have adopted, did not get in way of its post-1950 economic miracle. Likewise Japan’s (in-effect) one-party system. The Irish single transferable vote (STV) system line-danced alongside a mediocre economy till the 1980s, then a “miracle” economy for a decade and a-half, then recently an implosion, with the worst fiscal deficit in Europe.

Here FPP accompanied both near-top economic placing in 1950 and in 1984 a badly distorted economy which made reform inescapable.

The 1992-93 votes for MMP were not a flight from FPP as such, but reaction to what large numbers of voters felt were Labour’s out-of-character destruction of jobs in 1984-90 and National’s out-of-character radicalism in 1990-92.

The 13 per cent falls in Labour’s and National’s votes in 1990 and 1993 respectively left an indelible mark on both parties. Labour emphasised moderate economic policies in office after 1999 and chose centrist support parties in 2002 and 2005. National’s Bill English, a new MP in 1990, was seared by Ruth Richardson’s “mother of all budgets” in 1991. Richardson left Parliament in 1994. John Key is explicitly centrist.

Neither Key nor English will “finish the job” the way the anti-MMP business lobby wants. The party which wants to do that is ACT and leader Rodney Hide has had significant influence in pushing market-oriented, property-rights policies. National would not, as a single-party government, be doing some of the things Hide has persuaded it to do.

Under SM ACT would have got between two and three MPs in 2008, not five, depending on the ratio of list seats to electorate seats — two on Key’s preferred 30-90 ratio and three on the present 50-70. National would not have needed ACT — or any other party. It would be governing on its own and plotting to win back Hide’s Epsom.

That is, under SM right now the government would be more centrist — which also includes being less ingratiating to the Maori party, except to the extent National recognises and acts on its need for more brown votes over time.

Moreover, when Labour next wins office, SM would likely make it a single-party government, with no centrist brake on making business-unfriendly policy.

So — in part thanks to Power’s no-holds-barred legislation on electoral finance — we will see next year a large amount of money spent by the anti-MMP business lobby in support of a system that might actually be less open to its ideas. Is that what business wants?

Politics is full of irony. Which the British, who invented the Westminster system we have modified beyond the BBC’s quaint cognisance, may be about to find out.