Polity by Rob Salmond


Government votes not to improve MMP

Last night, Parliament voted down a bill from Labour’s Iain Lees-Galloway that would have dropped the 5% MMP threshold to 4% and got rid of the coat-tailing rule.

These changes didn’t come of thin air, or out of Labour policy. They were the main recommendations of the Electoral Commission’s own independent, non-partisan review of MMP. There were multiple rounds of public consultations and expert testimony behind that review. It was a good piece of work, and former National MP Simon Power deserves a lot of credit for running it.

Then Simon Power left Parliament, Judith Collins took over, and the review died. That’s why we’re reduced in New Zealand to implementing an independent, non-partisan review of the electoral system via a private member’s bill. It’s shameful, really.

The changes themselves are entirely sensible. For the party vote threshold, the trend overseas is that more advanced democracies tend to have lower thresholds:

  • Only three PR countries have a higher threshold than New Zealand: Turkey, Russia, and Liechtenstein (which in that country means approximately 1,000 people!).
  • Most of the countries that share New Zealand’s 5% threshold are former communist countries, plus Belgium and of course Germany – more on Germany in a moment.
  • The other northern European democracies all have lower thresholds than New Zealand, most have 4%, although the Dutch have no formal threshold at all.

Counter to this trend, one of the claims sometimes made about lowering the threshold is that it could lead to instability – citing Israel and Italy as examples. I addressed this in my submission to the MMP review:

2.3  There is not rigorous evidence to support the claim that a lower threshold is likely to lead to instability in New Zealand.

2.4  To look for such a relationship, I used data from the University of Berne on the number of changes in the makeup of a government that happen each year in the OECD, a good measure of government instability. I combined these data with Arend Lijphart’s data about the national-level legal thresholds and effective thresholds for party representation. The total number of countries under examination is 23 and the total number of country years is 826. The chart below shows that there is no obvious relationship between the threshold for party representation and instability in government, either in all years or in non-election years.

 2.5  Further analyses show there is not a statistically significant relationship between the threshold for party representation and the level of government instability, measured using annual changes in government composition. For the technically-minded: simple bivariate correlations between thresholds and instability in PR countries were only significant at 0.514, and this significance drops further to 0.952 if election years are discarded from the analysis to give an estimate of between-election instability. In non-technical terms: for every unstable low-threshold country like Israel, there is a stable low-threshold country like the Netherlands (where there were only thee between election changes in government composition over almost forty years).

For the lifeboat rule, everyone knows the arguments around fairness between parties. The commission agreed with those arguments, which is why is wanted to ditch the rule. But its also worth remembering where we got the rule from – Germany. In Germany, there remains a lifeboat rule, but you have to win three districts, not just one, to bypass the normal threshold. That has the benefit of protecting them against basically one-person parties bringing in their friends on the basis of single idiosyncratic district.

If government parties wanted to keep a lifeboat rule to legitimately protect regional-based parties, then I certainly would have been open to amending the rule to two or three seats rather than dumping it.

But National-and-current-friends didn’t want to have that debate. Not even a select committee consideration. Not even after an independent, non-partisan review.

The biggest shame here is that National started this process really well. Simon Power did a good job overseeing the MMP Review, and he’ll be quietly seething at what Judith Collins and others have done to his initiative.

What we’re again seeing in this example is the transformation of this government from an ambitious first-term government to a tawdry third-term administration that abuses the democratic process to further its own survival. New Zealand’s democracy deserves better.

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