Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Just one MP may call the shots

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It's on the bus for parliamentarians who lose their seats - and their perks. Photo / Sarah Ivey
It's on the bus for parliamentarians who lose their seats - and their perks. Photo / Sarah Ivey

I know you may think it's too early to think about politics, particularly as we are all in switch-off mode after the Christmas and New Year stress period. How many resolutions have you broken so far? Are you looking to your 2014 career prospects with dread or optimism?

It's election year this year. It's life and death for our politicians.

When the clock struck midnight on Tuesday, every MP - apart from the handful of MPs voluntarily resigning from Parliament - would have thought: "I want to keep my job and perks". Then they would resolve to get themselves better prospects in 2014.

Here's the challenge for them. Under our adversarial electoral system, for any MP to get a job, someone else has to lose theirs. For any MP to get promoted, someone has to lose their job. All MPs must watch their backs to keep their jobs (they really are trying to knife each other) and they have to kill someone to get their next promotion. It's a kill or be killed environment.

Opposition parties' official job really is to defeat the Government parties. If they are successful, the Government ministers lose their power, perks and pay. Their staff go, too. Instead of having a chauffeur on call they have to catch cabs. If they lose their seat they get to wait for a bus. For many politicians, the thought of getting a real job is worse than death and they'll do anything to prevent it.

Winston Churchill said democracy was a terrible way to run a country, until he considered the other options. Fascist or theological dictatorship? Absolute monarchy? Authoritarian one-party rule? Dysfunctional anarchy? Local warlord fiefdoms? Military junta?

Under our system of government, we preserve some semblance of individual liberty and the collective good by electing leaders and then regularly dumping them. As a consequence, power never accumulates permanently into the hands of a few. We also mandate an organised parliamentary opposition so when we decide we've had enough of our current leaders we have an alternative government ready to start work immediately.

Under the old first-past-the-post voting system it was strictly a two-party duopoly. Power was easily determined by us voting between the two local main candidates.

If National or Labour got a majority of their candidates elected, they were the dictator for three years. Campaign strategy for politicians and voters was simple.

MMP changed all of that. Once, elections were like playing draughts. Now it's chess - with multiple players. The two main players have to woo other parties at the same time they are wooing us.

Here's the complication. Two parties are viable coalition partners because they have policy compatibility. But that also makes them electoral competitors. The better they work together the bigger party gets the kudos.

Meanwhile, the smaller party suffers from its supporters' disappointment at not getting enough. Consider National and Act; and Labour and the Alliance.

NZ First was tossed out of parliament and was lucky to get back. United Future has dropped to one MP. The Maori Party is unlikely to survive National's bear-hug. Even the Greens are starting to suffer in the polls as Labour's fortune rises.

The 2014 election will rest on a handful of votes and may even be decided by a single MP from a minor party.

Churchill was right that parliamentarism is a maddening way to govern.

But isn't there something delicious in that while our leaders rule for 1095 unfettered days we get to go into a booth later this year and decide whether our MPs' New Year resolution is granted?

Debate on this article is now closed.

- Herald on Sunday

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