Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Winner take all? Not under MMP

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Prime Minister John Key, with his wife Bronagh, favours replacing MMP with a Supplementary Member system. Picture / Brett Phibbs
Prime Minister John Key, with his wife Bronagh, favours replacing MMP with a Supplementary Member system. Picture / Brett Phibbs

Glory of the system is that even the biggest party must still negotiate.

Poor John Key is getting all nostalgic for the good old days of the First Past the Post voting system, even though it had long been replaced by MMP when he first stood for Parliament in 2002.

After National's success on Saturday, he said it was "weird" he still had to negotiate with Act MP John Banks and United Future's Peter Dunne to ensure a majority in Parliament. "It's a funny system when you can poll this massive number and still theoretically be wondering whether you've got a government. If this was First Past the Post and there were 100 MPs, there would be roughly 65 National seats and 35 Labour, so it would be a massive majority."

Which, no doubt, is why the Prime Minister wants MMP ditched in favour of the FPP lookalike, Supplementary Member.

Last Saturday was the sixth general election using MMP but still politicians and commentators alike resort to the language of the old gladiatorial contests of old.

The glory of MMP is that the winner no longer does take all. Gaining 47.99 per cent of the election night poll is not the "massive" majority it would have been under FPP. If we want to be pedantic, it's not a majority at all. It's an outcome that means the biggest party - National in this instance - still has to negotiate with others before it can take office.

That's not to deny Labour got an old- fashioned thrashing. Between election night 2008 and last Saturday, it somehow lost 165,000 votes. By the time specials are counted, some are estimating that will rise to 200,000 or more. Which was very careless of the leadership. Half of these people seem to have joined the one million strong army of voting age people who either didn't register to vote or were on the roll but couldn't be bothered turning out. The other 100,000 of Labour's lost supporters appear to have deserted to the Greens or to New Zealand First.

Which was bad news for Labour, but not, as it would have been under the old system, good news for National.

The good news under MMP is that deserting one or other of the two main parties for a minor party doesn't mean a voter is effectively throwing away their voice as it would under FPP.

They're just transferring their backing to another parliamentary party. The Greens, boosted in part at least by Labour defectors this election, got 10.62 per cent of the party vote and as a result 13 seats - four more than in 2008. New Zealand First got 6.81 per cent and have returned from a three-year enforced sabbatical with eight seats.

Under FPP it was very different. In 1981, for example, Social Credit scored 21 per cent of the vote but got just two seats. In 1984, Bob Jones' New Zealand Party got 12 per cent of the vote, but no seats.

Despite the opposition of popular Mr Key, voters appear to have ignored his advice and narrowly decided to retain MMP. Final results from the referendum won't be revealed until December 10, but if the 290,233 votes cast by "advance voters" matches the pattern of the overall return, MMP will survive without going through another referendum in three years' time.

To avoid a run-off, MMP had to score more than 50 per cent in Saturday's poll. As of now, 53.7 per cent of advanced votes supported it. Of the four alternatives offered, Mr Key's SM scored just 14.5 per cent.

Labour is now going through the ritual disembowelling that tends to follow a major defeat, replacing leader Phil Goff with a new face. They should then proceed to give the party structure a big shake-up as well.

As an Auckland Central voter I was impressed on election morning to first get a phone call from a Labour Party worker checking that I knew there was an election on that day, then an hour later there was a knock on my door from a Labour worker asking if I'd voted yet.

This apparent strength on the ground in this closely contested seat didn't translate into support at the polls. Labour's Jacinda Ardern ended up 535 votes behind National's Nikki Kaye.

Worse for Labour was how poorly it did in the party vote.

Ms Ardern got 11,823 votes to Labour's 7125. Most of the missing Labour vote seems to have ended up with the Greens, who scored 6024 in the party vote, though its candidate got just 2188.

Out west in Te Atatu, Labour's Phil Twyford received nearly 4000 more votes than the party. In this case, the missing party vote seems to have gone to New Zealand First and National.

Up and down the country, this pattern was repeated. For Labour to bounce back in 2014, the leakage has to be reversed.

The election campaign strategy of playing down the leader and the party - particularly on campaign billboards, backfired.

Emphasising a one tick for the candidate instead of pushing two ticks, for candidate and party, only encouraged vote splitting.

As for the party organisation, party sources say there has been no corporate fund-raising since the Helen Clark-era president, Mike Williams, bowed out after the 2008 election. Act and the Conservatives demonstrated this time that money doesn't necessarily translate into votes. But it sure helps.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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