John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Self-serving MPs' strategy plain to see

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Photo / Mark Mitchell
Photo / Mark Mitchell

The word "reform" drips readily off the tongues of politicians. As long as, that is, the said reform applies to others and not themselves. It is a very different matter when political parties' self-interest is at stake.

Witness the self-serving submissions made by National and Act on the Electoral Commission's current review of the workings of MMP, particularly the question of the retention of the so-called "one-seat threshold".

This is the provision - otherwise known as the "Epsom clause" - which decrees that any party winning one or more electorate seats does not have to better the 5 per cent threshold of the party vote to bring candidates off its party list into Parliament.

It has proved to be manifestly unfair. It handed Act three extra MPs at the 2008 election, while New Zealand First was denied any representation despite winning more party votes than Act.

The anomaly is the legacy of the 1980s Royal Commission on the Electoral System. A similar stipulation applies in Germany's version of MMP to ensure representation of geographically isolated ethnic minorities. Why it was deemed necessary here was never made clear.

Act's submission essentially argues that the provision should remain because it has always been there, that its presence has contributed to stable government and those who seek to remove it - Labour and the Greens - are doing so for purely "partisan" reasons.

Those arguments are weaker than a milky cuppa at Urban Cafe, John Banks' and John Key's favourite Auckland eatery.

However, National takes the biscuit in trying to defend the indefensible. According to its submission, the one-seat threshold is "not a rort". It is proportional representation at work. National argues that once a party is represented in Parliament via an electorate seat "it is not the role of the threshold to undermine the proportion of seats that it has been democratically allocated". That statement does not even make grammatical sense, let alone any other kind.

However, while it is easy to pick holes in these woeful arguments, what matters is that the parties are making them.

They are not the only ones. United Future and the Maori Party have also told the Electoral Commission that they favour retaining the one-seat threshold.

New Zealand First, perhaps surprisingly, likewise wants it to stay if the party vote threshold is dropped to 4 per cent.

Unless the matter is determined by referendum, which seems unlikely, the upshot is that the numbers do not stack up in Parliament to get the anomaly removed

That is very good news for Act. It essentially means at the 2014 election that National will again not put up a fight in Epsom in the hope that a rejuvenated Act can bring more MPs into Parliament to boost the centre-right.

On the presumption Banks stands again, it is a pretty safe bet he will win the seat in 2014 with National's help. That means Banks, Act's current sole MP, will be able to credibly argue ahead of the election that a party vote for Act will not be a wasted vote.

This underpinning is crucial in giving Banks, as Act's leader, the foundation on which to rescue and reassert what is left of Act's brand.

Some indication of how he intends doing so will be revealed today at the party's annual conference in Auckland,

Banks' strategy is twofold: first, to reposition Act as National's conscience or, as Banks says, put "more pigment into the National Party blue" by spurring his former party to take the tough decisions such as raising the age of super to 67.

Secondly, Banks wants to make Act's policy package less Ivory Tower and more consumer-friendly. For example, he has identified the struggle of the young middle-class to buy their first home as one potentially lucrative seam of voters to tap.

Act may be the child of MMP, but Banks blames the proportional electoral system for making National soft and indulging in "middle class welfare" such as interest-free student loans, simply because the major parties now have to appeal to more voter blocs to win power.

By the same token, Banks agrees National has moved to the right under second-term pressure to start delivering major policy advances.

This risks pushing Act even more into National's shadow within which the party has sought respite since last year's election.

Banks has kept his head down, and very deliberately so. He knows the only reason he is back in Parliament after a 15-year break is because the overwhelming majority of voters in the seats wanted John Key's Government returned for another term. Keeping a low profile - at least for now - is one way of reassuring voters Act knows its place in the grander scheme of things.

The figures speak for themselves. National registered nearly 24,000 party votes in Epsom to Act's 939.

The near 16,000 who gave their candidate vote to Banks did so as a means to an end - the forlorn hope at the time that Act might have brought in one or two more MPs to bolster the centre right and make National's parliamentary majority more secure.

This gives Banks minimal licence for trouble. It makes his job of maintaining Act's separate identity within the governing arrangement that much harder. It means being judicious when speaking out. It means criticism of National must be constructive.

Banks can take comfort, however, that National's current policy machismo will wilt at some point after the Government reaches mid-term next year and the next election draws closer.

That will give Act more breathing space on National's right. The degree to which National re-adopts a more moderate visage will hinge on the polls, however. If National is polling poorly at that stage, Key may have to do the unthinkable and start making conciliatory noises in New Zealand First's direction.

That will in turn raise questions about whether Winston Peters could be part of any governing arrangement which included Act - and vice versa. But that is for the future. Today's conference is about Act putting a marker in the ground which relegates its recent past to history. It is about demonstrating Act can still play a valid and useful role in the political system - even if it still has to rely on the crutch of the one-seat threshold.

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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