John Roughan

John Roughan is a Weekend Herald columnist

John Roughan: Still plenty of FPP in MMP

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Former Greens co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons guided her party into a deal with John Key's National after the last election. Russel Norman would be wise to do so again. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Former Greens co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons guided her party into a deal with John Key's National after the last election. Russel Norman would be wise to do so again. Photo / Mark Mitchell

When Phil Goff called John Key a liar on television the election was over for me. Goff has no class. The more difficult decision on election day could be the referendum. Should we keep MMP?

I wish I could see the election result first. There is only one question to ask about any electoral system: will it give a result everyone can respect?

So far MMP has done that. All five elections under MMP have awarded power to the party that has won the most seats - the party first past the post. That is an outcome New Zealanders respect regardless of whether they voted for the winning party. But it is not an outcome MMP can guarantee.

It is often possible that parties finishing second and third past the post will together have enough seats to claim power.

Before the referendum we should contemplate this prospect. Suppose National beats Labour by a hefty margin but not enough to outvote the combined total of Labour, Greens, the Maori Party, Hone Harawira and, heaven forbid, New Zealand First.

The Sunday Star-Times has been eagerly reporting this possibility for the past year and has run polls with an unusual question to support it.

Polls that simply ask the question, which party will get your vote, have suggested for a long time that National will win enough seats to govern alone. But not even National is counting on that.

No poll, no matter what question it asks or how many people it samples, can precisely forecast an election result because casting a vote is quite a different thing.

When a polling firm calls you on the phone you might or might not answer the question, might or might not think before you answer, might or might not answer from the depths of your identity.

When a voter picks up the pencil, though, a number of fundamental allegiances kick in. Personal welfare, family background, old instincts and commitments to what the person feels to be safe, sensible, solid and good.

In the ballot box we revert to type and tribe. Lifelong supporters of a party may vote for it when they don't want it to win. They may sense it is not ready and are content for the governing party to carry on.

For these or other reasons, the result is always closer on election day. National's winning margin this time could be nearer 10 points than 20, which means it could be displaced by a Labour coalition. What would happen then?

I suspect the electorate would feel cheated. The result wouldn't seem right. The government would be held in general contempt. Nothing it did would command much respect.

A small army of MMP's old advocates would come to its defence, reminding us that it had always been possible under MMP for a winner to be defeated by second and third. That would not help at all.

We would resolve to change not just the government at the next opportunity but to elect a party that promised to fix the system.

I like MMP. I like the voice it has given to minorities without giving them disproportionate power. The National-Maori Party partnership has immense potential for the country, especially if National really needs it, as it well might when the votes are counted this time.

I like the way MMP has let governments of both parties run their course and has produced changes of government at the right time. We have preserved far more of the two party system than we expected.

National and Labour remain the only credible governments. Far from tails wagging dogs, small parties have struggled to survive in coalitions. They have found it safer to keep their distance, settling for a few peripheral positions and letting one party rule as a minority government.

Minority government was not supposed to happen under MMP but that is the way it goes. Our political culture was formed under first past the post and it takes more than a change of electoral system to change a culture.

The culture is recognised by third parties when they avoid pre-election commitments to a main party and declare they will talk first to the party first past the post.

The Maori Party and the Greens are likely to be crucial this time.

I couldn't blame the Maori Party if it proved difficult. Three years with National have established its credentials as an independent force capable of dealing with both sides. It doesn't need to prove that again, it can satisfy its voters' preference.

The Greens are the most enthusiastic party for MMP and the only one in Parliament that totally relies on it since they have no electorate seats. They have already softened up their supporters for a post-election deal with National. I think they are wise.

- NZ Herald

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