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Debate: Should the MMP 5 per cent party vote threshold be reduced?

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In our second debate on the Electoral Commission's recommendations for MMP, Graeme Edgeler and Muriel Newman put the arguments for and against reducing the threshold. Join the debate and leave your comments at the end.

Digital image / P.K. Stowers
Digital image / P.K. Stowers

Yes: Graeme Edgeler - A lower threshold gives voters options

My vote should be worth as much as your vote. And your vote should be worth the same as the vote of any other person. This basic principle of democracy isn't a revolutionary concept. It's a good reason to remove the one-seat threshold. And it's also a good reason to lower the party vote threshold as much as possible.

Getting the party vote threshold right isn't about being fair to MPs, or political parties; it's about being fair to the tens of thousands of people who vote for them. Democracy is about voters, and New Zealand's 5 per cent party vote threshold is too high for too many of us. The 4 per cent party vote threshold the Electoral Commission proposes moves us in the right direction, but would still leave the voices of far too many New Zealanders silenced.

Even with 2011's low turnout, 110,000 party votes would not have been enough for a party to reach 5 per cent. In 2008, the 5 per cent party vote threshold meant voices of over 150,000 voters were ignored when the election result was determined.

Our high party vote threshold is bad for our democracy. It gives enormous power to incumbents: the MPs and parties already in Parliament. It protects our major parties from a backlash if they ignore their core supporters, who can't leave because they've got nowhere else to go.

And a high party vote threshold increases the likelihood of a minor party being in a position to exercise disproportionate power.

The influence of a minor party decreases if the government has multiple support options. After the 2008 election, the National Government could pass laws with support from ACT or from the Maori Party. Now, it can get support from ACT and United Future, or from the Maori Party.

In 2002, Labour could ask the Green Party for support, or New Zealand First, or United Future. In 2005, it needed support from any two of them, but could ignore the other. Since 1999, whether National or Labour was in government, the power of any one minor party was diminished because the government has always had other options. If we remove the one-seat rule without also reducing the party vote threshold to 3 per cent or lower, there will be fewer minor parties, but the minor parties that do remain will have much more power.

A 3 per cent party vote threshold would mean a party would need around 70,000 votes (depending on turnout) to receive list seats. All parties would likely have at least four MPs. A party that can earn four MPs can't be dismissed as a joke party, undeserving of representation.

There are strong arguments in favour of having some level of threshold. But the arguments for having a high party vote threshold are much weaker.

A party vote threshold should only be as high as we need to meet whatever real threat we feel we need to guard against. With a 5 per cent threshold (or even a 4 per cent threshold) we will be denying people a democratic voice not because we fear for the stability of our political system, but simply because we don't want a few extra voices heard.

Few of us want a parliament with 10 single-MP parties representing the narrow interests of only a few thousand voters, willing to agree to almost anything to get support for their pet projects. Few want a parliament so divided that it cannot get anything done. And some are concerned that a party with only one or two MPs isn't big enough to cover everything Parliament does, and will miss important issues and debates.

These are all legitimate concerns. And these concerns are all dealt with by a party vote threshold no higher than 3 per cent.

Supporters of high thresholds will often point to countries like Israel (which has a 2 per cent threshold) as showing the problems with low thresholds. That comparison is stupid. The Israeli parliament is fractured because Israeli society is sharply divided. New Zealand is one of the longest continuous functioning democracies. We've been around a long time, with a political system that has a vanishingly small extremist fringe.

A lower threshold will no more make New Zealand a divided society like Israel than it would make us a one-party state like South Africa (which has no threshold at all).

Whatever the rationale for a party vote threshold (stability, effective government, effective Parliament, or something else) it should not be so high as to stop a serious attempt to break into Parliament from the outside. The 5 per cent threshold has failed. At 5 per cent, our system is set up to protect the jobs of the people who are already in Parliament. A lower threshold will give voters options to hold our MPs to account. Any party supported by 70,000 voters deserves to be in Parliament - a group of 70,000 voters is too big to ignore.

* Graeme Edgeler is a Wellington lawyer who blogs at http://publicaddress.net/legalbeagle/

Muriel Newman: No - Risk is the erosion of cohesive government

We know with absolute certainty lowering the threshold would enable more extreme minority interest groups to dictate to the larger "broad church" parties

In the lead-up to last year's referendum on our voting system, New Zealanders were reassured that if MMP was preferred, the system would be reviewed and improved. This promise is likely to have persuaded many people, who might otherwise have voted for change, to vote for MMP.

A key issue of concern is that all MMP governments are coalitions. This results in broken promises, backroom deals, instability, and unpredictable governance. The lower the party vote threshold, the more the door is opened for radical forces to achieve parliamentary representation and have a direct influence on political decisions - at a cost to the greater good of the country.

The Electoral Commission has completed its MMP review and is about to make a final recommendation to government. With respect to the present 5 per cent party vote threshold, their draft report states: "The commission's sense is that 5 per cent is too high and that 3 per cent is the lowest end of an acceptable range. We suggest 4 per cent is preferable ... It is in line with comparable democracies such as Norway and Sweden".

The Electoral Commission didn't need to look at outcomes from overseas jurisdictions to tell us what the impact of lowering the party vote threshold will be on New Zealand. Each political environment is unique and after six MMP elections, we can call on our own experience to see the effect MMP has had on New Zealand politics. We know with absolute certainty here in New Zealand lowering the party vote threshold would enable more extreme minority interest groups to dictate to the larger "broad church" parties like National and Labour in the way the Maori and Green parties have.

We clearly saw the tail wagging the dog in 2007 when the resignation of Labour MP Philip Field from the Government of the day forced then Prime Minister Helen Clark to call on the Green Party for coalition support. The "price" of that deal was the very unpopular anti-smacking law.

The tail is also wagging the dog on John Key's watch. The "price" of National's 2008 coalition deal with the Maori Party (the parliamentary arm of the Maori sovereignty movement), which won only 2.4 per cent of the party vote at that election, was the secret signing up of New Zealand to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (an agreement deemed so radical that former Prime Minister Helen Clark refused to sign), and the repeal of public ownership of New Zealand's foreshore and seabed to open it up to tribal claims.

More concessions were gained in the 2011 coalition deal with National when the Maori Party negotiated a hand-picked panel to review New Zealand's constitutional arrangements - no doubt to recommend the Treaty of Waitangi be given sovereign status . Let's not forget the Maori Party only achieved 1.4 per cent of the party vote. It doesn't even represent a majority of Maori.

Advocates of a lower party vote threshold claim it would encourage wider representation, which of course it would. But representation is always a matter of degree. New Zealand is not short of political choices at election time. In 2005, there were a total of 19 parties to choose from.

By 2008 some of the smaller parties had dropped out but some new ones had emerged including the Family Party, the Kiwi Party, the New Zealand Pacific Party, RAM - Residents Action Movement, the Bill and Ben Party, and the Workers Party, to again give voters a choice of 19 parties.

In 2011, when National was strongly contesting a second term, the fact that only 13 parties challenged the election reflects a similar pattern in 2002 when Labour was riding high, when only 14 parties stood.

Many ardent MMP supporters would like to see a free-for-all with no threshold at all for parliamentary representation. In such a situation, 2008 could have resulted in the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, the Kiwi Party, and the Bill and Ben Party holding the balance of power!

Without a public safeguard to curb the excessive legislative power that minor coalition parties can exert under MMP - such as a citizens' right of veto over new legislation - the risk of lowering the party vote and giving fringe and eccentric or radical minorities more influence than they already have is too great. To prosper, New Zealand needs strong and cohesive government that acts in the best interests of the wider community, not the forever-vocal fringe elements of it.

* Dr Muriel Newman is a former Act MP who runs the New Zealand Centre for Political Research public policy think-tank at www.nzcpr.com

- NZ Herald

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