Brian Rudman: Key's call on MMP stirs sour memories

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There was the National leader bathing in the glow of an opinion poll giving his party 56 per cent of voter support and he suddenly starts babbling about calling a referendum on the MMP voting system.

A repeat of such a poll result come election time will give his party the power to reign supreme in Parliament anyway. So why go and rub it in and scare the bejesus out of his potential rainy-day coalition pals by hinting that, given the chance, he wouldn't mind changing the constitution to sweep the minor parties out of the House forever?

Why also scare off potential supporters by questioning a voting system most New Zealanders are happy with? Even anti-MMP campaigner Graeme Hunt discovered in a poll he organised last August that 42 per cent of us preferred MMP, compared to 39 per cent who still hankered for the old first-past-the-post system.

More significantly, only 19 per cent agreed with Mr Hunt and his Business Roundtable allies who say MMP has had a negative effect on New Zealand. A resounding 32 per cent said MMP had been positive, and the remaining 43 per cent were neutral.

If ever there was a non-issue that can only be trouble for the politician tricked into stirring it up, it's this one. Yet Mr Hunt and his paymaster, businessman Peter Shirtcliffe, who were both fighting MMP when Mr Key was far away speculating in vast amounts of other people's money, have somehow succeeded.

Mr Key says the first referendum will be in 2011 and will ask voters: "Are you satisfied with MMP as a system or would you prefer a change?" He says if there was support for change, there'd be a run-off at some unspecified time, where different systems would be offered.

Trying to be all things to all people, Mr Key says he personally favours some form of proportionality, but refuses to stick his neck out and name one.

Just one, presumably, that doesn't give Labour's fractious allies, the Greens and Maori Party, the strength they currently enjoy. It looks suspiciously like a hankering for the bad old days when Maori and the Greens and women and other so-called minorities were tolerated, in National's eyes, as long as they weren't in positions of power and influence.

A bit like the National Party itself still is, in fact.

Peter Shirtcliffe is one of those puppet masters National Party politicians ignore at their peril. Nicky Hager's revelations in his book The Hollow Men identify Mr Shirtcliffe as the party's top donor in the run-up to the 2005 election campaign.

He says this and other big donations were conditional on the party replacing leader Bill English with right-wing former Reserve Bank governor, Don Brash.

Shirtcliffe was also the mastermind of the 1993 Campaign for Better Government which spent an estimated $1.5 million on its unsuccessful campaign to head off popular support for a change to MMP. Despite spending $500,000 on television advertising alone, the businessmen lost.

With Mr Key's deputy Mr English a constant reminder of how influential this group can be, it's little wonder we're hearing him mouth their desires for another round of MMP referendums.

What Mr Key does risk is turning the coming campaign from just an old-fashioned slug-out between the big two parties, in which he is presently ahead by the proverbial country mile, into something much wider. The squalls of alarm from the smaller parties following the weekend comments show they're aware of the possible consequences.

One suspects there will be less cheeking in coming months of Labour by the Greens and Maori Party, and fewer threats to go flirt with the other super-party. Threatening to jump into bed with a suitor who is talking openly of rolling over and crushing you once the honeymoon is over doesn't sound very smart.

Neither of the big parties wanted MMP, which is one of the reasons the rest of us voted it in. As the Government's own Elections New Zealand website points out, there'd been a growing breakdown of confidence in the old two-party system. In both the 1978 and 1981 elections, Labour won more of the popular vote, but National won a majority of the seats, so ruled supreme.

Minority parties didn't get a look in. In 1981, nearly 21 per cent of electors expressed their disgust with the big two parties by voting for Social Credit, but the "funny money" party gained just two seats. In the 1984 election, Bob Jones' New Zealand Party won 12 per cent but no seats.

In the initial 1992 referendum an overwhelming 85 per cent voted to change the electoral system. In the second part of the poll, 70 per cent favoured MMP. As Labour leader Mike Moore put it: "The people didn't speak on Saturday. They screamed."

As a result, says Elections New Zealand, Parliament has become much more diverse and representative of modern New Zealand society. One could add that MMP has also kept the big two parties in check. No more adventurism of the Rogernomics or Ruthenasian variety.

Do we really want to go back?

- NZ Herald

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