MMP or SM: it's not just a small-party matter

Of the alternatives to MMP on the ballot on November 26, John Key will back the supplementary member (SM) voting system. It favours the big parties while still giving small ones a look in.

Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark opposed MMP. But Shipley got a kick out of successfully running a minority government for two years — and getting some significant policy initiatives through. Clark managed three innovative governing arrangements with skill. Key, too, has got the MMP partner-party spirit.

Key had a dream run from 2008 on, able to call on Peter Dunne in almost every vote and to call on ACT when the Maori party opposed something and vice-versa. The Maori party claims it voted more often than Labour against National in the 2008-11 term.

The main complaint of the anti-MMP brigade — that tails wag dogs — was untrue in the 2008-11 term. The concessions Key made to the three support parties (and to the Greens) were in effect voluntary.

But why make concessions — and go on making them through the term? Because he couldn’t count on a similar easy ride in a second term. He needed insurance.

Even if he wins big on November 26 he will still feel the need for insurance for 2014 if MMP is still with us.

So he told Dunne’s telephone-box conference he wanted Dunne re-elected and last week had a showbiz tea party with John Banks.

Key said afterwards he would “not be unhappy” if National voters in Epsom ticked Banks. But he, Key, would vote for Paul Goldsmith, National’s below-the-radar candidate. Not all loyalties are equal.

National also doesn’t stand candidates in Maori electorates, which helps channel National-inclined votes toward the Maori party.

But what insurance is Key buying with ACT and Dunne this time?

The 2008 election was in a down-year for Labour yet Dunne won by only 1006. This election is in an even more down-year for Labour. On the reasonable assumption Labour will in 2014 not be so down — instead, will probably be up on 2008 — Dunne looks to be reaching the end of his long, tortuous road.

In any case he adds at most one seat and might not even add that, depending how the numbers fall. And National is straining the loyalty of its Ohariu supporters.

It doesn’t look a lot better in Epsom. There is some serious resentment there. Hence Key’s awkward “not unhappy” formula. There is also discomfort through the party generally, some of it at high level, at being shacked up with ACT.

Banks is remembered by colleagues when he was in the cabinet in the 1990s as an ineffective minister. Auckland has twice dismissed him as mayor. And if, as a result of the tea party, Banks brings in Don Brash with him, he will be adding to National’s side a man whom Key has described as “extreme” and “hard core” (the mind boggles) and who in an open letter in May called Key “totally irresponsible”.

Is ACT good insurance? If after the tea party ACT’s vote on November 26 is up on its recent 1 per cent, most of that rise will come from National. Selling assets to buy insurance is a novel idea.

You can see why SM appeals.

SM is not a tweak of MMP. It is a tweak of FPP (first-past-the-post), essentially an electorate-based system with a minority add-on decided proportionally. The proportionality would be of a fraction, not the whole, of Parliament. Under SM the Greens would have got two or three seats in 2008, not nine.

Had SM applied from 1996, there would have been single-party governments in three of the last five elections.

Since National has twice as many electorate seats as Labour — and Labour risks losing another two or three this year — it would start far ahead in 2014 (if the changeover was brought forward). The Maori party, by the way, would have won six seats in 2008, not five.

But what about Labour? It did not need tea parties with Jim Anderton. He had Wigram locked up. But in 1999 Labour did indicate to Labour voters in Coromandel that it would be in Labour’s interest for the Greens’ Jeanette Fitzsimons to win the electorate. She duly did.

Moreover, Labour wants two changes in MMP which would advantage it.

One is to remove the “waiver” which gets a party proportionality if it wins an electorate seat even if it polls below the 5 per cent party vote threshold parties without electorate seats must cross to win any seats.

That change would have cut ACT to one seat instead of five in 2008 and so cut the National’s side’s numbers. ACT got 3.65 per cent of the party vote. New Zealand First got 4.07 per cent but no seats.

The Greens have cleared 5 per cent from 1999 on and are now well established. They are the quintessential MMP party.

Labour’s other desired change is to raise the ratio of electorate seats to list seats. That would reduce the size of electorates and lift Labour’s chances in provincial seats based on cities by reducing the rural surrounds.

So the “improved MMP” the pro-MMP lobby is pushing could end up more improved for some than for others.

It goes to show there is no perfect system.