It looks as if the public will sensibly vote to retain MMP in the referendum on electoral systems. After all, proportional representation has improved New Zealand's ideological diversity and parliamentary representation. Yet during this election year the country has failed to have a proper debate about MMP's merits and drawbacks.

What criticism there has been of MMP has often focused on electorate deals - an aspect of the system that isn't actually an intrinsic part of MMP at all. It is, in fact, a distortion of the true proportional nature of MMP.

Electoral deals are certainly not a good look for democracy, with their overtones of manipulation by political parties. But contrary to popular belief, the electoral deals we see in places such as Ohariu, Epsom, Wellington Central, or even Sydenham are not a product of MMP itself but of the way MMP is currently configured. Put simply, political parties need to use whatever mechanisms they can to get around MMP's biggest problem: the 5 per cent threshold required for parties to gain representation.

The threshold acts as an antidemocratic element in the system because for many supporters of minor parties their vote simply doesn't count - in 2008 about 6.5 per cent had their party vote "wasted" because they voted for parties that didn't meet the arbitrary 5 per cent threshold. In 1996, 4.4 per cent of voters chose the Christian Coalition, the Alliance gained 1.3 per cent in 2002, New Zealand First won 4.1 per cent in 2008, and so forth. All these parties were kept out of Parliament by the threshold, and their voters marginalised. If the threshold was abolished, parties would simply need about 0.8 per cent of the vote to get one MP.


It is precisely because the 5 per cent threshold is so blatantly antidemocratic for minor parties that politicians in the 1990s were forced to allow a threshold exemption for any party that managed to win an electorate seat. But the incumbent parties made sure they retained the actual threshold in order to keep smaller parties from being elected. That original decision was the "rort" - not the more recent attempt by minor parties to gain the exemption by entering into "dirty deals".

This exemption has led to all sorts of problematic scenarios, such as when Act gained seats in Parliament in 2008 with 3.7 per cent of the vote, when the more popular New Zealand First did not.

Phil Goff's recent campaign against electorate deals, and his call for the exemption to be abolished, is nothing but populism, self-interest and ignorance of the need for proper democratic proportionality. There is in fact no "smuggling" of MPs into Parliament as Goff would have it. In the case of Act, for example, if the party gets 2 per cent of the vote, under proportional representation it should be entitled to at least two seats in Parliament, including Don Brash as number one on the party list.

The 5 per cent threshold has also artificially inhibited change in New Zealand's party system. It has meant that new parties face a near impossible task getting representation, and in fact no party since 1996 has been able to break into Parliament without already having representation there. This is a tragedy for voter choice. It means that the party system never had the shakeup that was promised by MMP.

Instead, it has been the same old parties dominating elections, and the minor parties have been hamstrung by the threshold - forced into a very cautious approach to avoid slipping below 5 per cent. This is a factor in parties like the Greens and Act attempting to survive and prosper by moderating their politics so as to appeal to mainstream voters.

If voters don't like the deals that are done in seats such as Epsom, the simple answer is to demand that the MMP threshold be abolished, making the current electorate-seat exemption void and unnecessary. We could then have a fully proportional voting system without all the shenanigans and farcical cups of tea.

Dr Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in politics at the University of Otago. He writes a blog at: