Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: What a chance to iron out the creases in coat-tail rule

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There is no one from either NZ First or National to vote for in Mt Albert. Photo / Doug Sherring
There is no one from either NZ First or National to vote for in Mt Albert. Photo / Doug Sherring

It might feel an age ago, but it is less than two years since the Northland byelection, writes Toby Manhire.

Much water has flowed under the bridge in the meantime - or would have done had any of them been built - but it is a curious fact that neither of the two parties that dominated the first byelection of this term of government are taking part at all in the last.

Between them, the sprightly and triumphant NZ First candidate, Winston Peters, and the crestfallen National candidate, Mark Something, amassed 94 per cent of the Northland vote. And yet there is no one from either party to vote for in Mt Albert, writes Toby Manhire.

Back in 2015, of course, Labour made a decision, relatively late in the piece, to effectively unendorse its own candidate, in the knowledge that a Peters victory would not just embarrass National, but diminish its majority in the house.

For 2017, National made a decision not to get involved in Mt Albert, determining, particularly after the red faces of the Mt Roskill byelection, it had pretty much nothing to gain: pray for a Labour-Green scrap, maybe even some miraculous upset, but mostly just let it pass unnoticed.

And that seems to be working: the attention on the campaign so far makes the Wellington Sevens seem popular.

There is no party vote in a byelection, of course, but that hasn't stopped such byelection tactics attracting similar criticisms to tactical postures at general elections. Electoral rort! Dirty deal! Rotten borough!

In the most recent example, condemnations are raining on the decision by the Green Party not to stand a candidate in Ohariu, in an attempt to help Labour candidate Greg O'Connor unseat the entire caucus of the United Future party, Peter Dunne.

TV3's irrepressible political editor Patrick Gower went so far as to decry "the dirtiest electorate deal in New Zealand political history".

But on the cleanliness scale is it really much more than a grass stain? Grubbier than plotting to exploit the "coat-tails" rule that exempts parties who win a constituency from the 5 per cent threshold? Grubbier than cryptically endorsing another party's candidate?

Bill English needn't respond to the Green gambit in Ohariu by reprising the archetypal MMP dirty deal of Wellington Central 1996, when Jim Bolger threw his own candidate, Mark Thomas, under the bus at the 11th hour to clear the way for Act's Richard Prebble - he can just amplify the nudges and winks.

Arguably, at least, to abandon putting up a candidate altogether is a whole lot cleaner than the cup-of-tea pantomimes of yore.

After the teapot tapes debacle of 2011, John Key quit the cafe dates in favour of a more straightforward indication of continued life-support for the Act party in Epsom. He nevertheless persisted with deploying a candidate, for whom victory is achieved by snuggling into the jaws of defeat.

And Paul Goldsmith is undeniably a master of this craft, gliding through the Epsom electorate like the pushmi-pullyu of Doctor Doolittle, urging with one head "Vote for us", while whispering from the other, "Just not for me".

But the Greens do it, too, in pretty much every seat they contest.

Labour ties itself in knots, meanwhile, by scrambling for some moral high ground, to sniff that they're above such shenanigans, but in the "electoral accommodation" of Ohariu and to a lesser extent the felling of Willow-Jean Prime in Northland, they're at it, too.

And why wouldn't they be? If anything they're daft for adopting a just-not-cricket stance: notwithstanding any danger that voters punish parties they regard as adopting underarm-bowl-level gamesmanship, you play, within the rules, to win. Surely.

While it's a bore to hear party leaders fail to treat voters as grown-ups by doing something as radical as saying what they mean - as in Green co-leader James Shaw's refusal to explicitly say that, yes, he'd encourage Green supporters in Ohariu to vote for O'Connor - I'm increasingly unbothered by the so-called "dirty deals". It's all fine. Go for your life.

There is a really serious rort, however, which warrants much greater attention than the endless rotten-borough hyperbole: the coat-tails provision itself. When New Zealanders voted in a 2011 referendum to keep MMP, they did so on the basis that there would be a review of the system, in an effort to iron out some of the creases.

The greatest of those creases, most submitters to the Electoral Commission seemed to agree, was in the coat-tails. It may have hardly reared its head as a problem in recent years, with the victors in Epsom and Ohariu failing to rummage up enough party votes to scoop up a parliamentary buddy - only the Maori Party has benefited of late.

But in 2008, for example, Act got a bunch of seats with 3.7 per cent of the vote. New Zealand First polled higher, but failed to win an electorate, so they were out.

The Electoral Commission, a scrupulously nonpartisan body, pored over all the evidence and announced in its 2012 report that "relatively few changes are required. But those we recommend are important. They would enhance public confidence in the fairness and operation of our MMP voting system and parliamentary democracy".

Those important recommendations centred on ditching the one-electorate rule and dropping the party vote threshold to 4 per cent, with a view to potentially dropping it further.

The current coat-tail rule delivered "arbitrary and inconsistent" results; "Its effect has been to undermine the principles of fairness and equity and the primacy of the party vote in determining the overall composition of Parliament that underpin MMP."

But the Government was having none of this reasoned, intelligent, sensible stuff.

In an award-worthy display of dissembling, then justice minister Judith Collins announced that such changes demanded cross-party consensus and given that consensus could not be reached her commitment to democratic integrity prevented proceeding with the recommendations - while quietly omitting to mention that such consensus was unachievable because the National party had said nah.

Electoral reform is not typically a hot-button topic. It is hard to imagine threshold percentages featuring high in campaign debates. But the political tactics are not the problem. The rules are the problem.

What a magnificent opportunity for the new prime minister to signal a new, evidence-led direction. Because the shredding of the wholly sensible advice to tweak the system to make it fairer is the truly dodgy, dirty deal.

- NZ Herald

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Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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