MMP means much more puzzlement

Dr Oliver Hartwich

COMMENT

If you are familiar with Harry Enfield’s legendary BBC television series, there was a character called Jürgen the German. A tourist to London, he started every conversation with an apology “for my country’s disgraceful behaviour during ze war” – only to then rant on about what’s wrong with Britain.

In writing zis column, sorry, this column, I feel reminded of my poor fellow countryman Jürgen because I, too, wish to apologise – and then rant. Not so much apologise for the war (it really had nothing to do with me) but for two recent gifts of the fatherland to New Zealand: one being MMP, the other one Kim Dotcom’s Internet Party. And as for the rant, as the election campaign is getting under way, the combination of the two is becoming more unpleasant by the day.

Personally, I find it perplexing why any country would import the mixed member proportional electoral system from Germany. Maybe the German political landscape looked superficially stable and efficient around the time New Zealand considered alternatives to its traditional Westminster-style first-past-the-post system. 

However, on closer inspection it would have already been clear in the 1980s and 1990s how, over time, a system built on MMP promotes the fracturing of the political landscape.

The combined share of the three largest parties in Germany (Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and the smallish Free Democrats) peaked at 96.4% in 1965. Effectively, this was a two-and-a-half party system. By 1990, this share had already fallen to 88.3%, and in last year’s federal election the three traditional parties only accounted for 72% of the vote. 

This development was driven first by the appearance of the Greens as a new political force, then the remnants of the East German communist party, and lately a new euro-sceptics party. And, of course, a large number of fringe parties left, right and centre including the Pirate Party, which resembles something like Mr Dotcom’s Internet Party idea.

The main reason why Germany remained more or less governable despite this erosion of the party-political system is the requirement to have more than a single electorate MP (as in New Zealand) to gain parliamentary representation for a party. 

In Germany, with its 299 electorates, it takes three constituencies to get over the threshold. This has prevented Epsom-style deals in which a party voluntarily gives up a single safe seat in order to lift a potential partner into Parliament.

In a way, it is absurd for any political party to abandon part of its likely electoral bounty in order to strengthen its position. Under the New Zealand system, however, it makes perfect sense for National to relinquish two seats to capture both the libertarian and the conservative vote. 

It is reminiscent of the old marketing technique of market segmentation. You tailor your product slightly and sell it under different brands to gain a larger market share in total.

Unfortunately, doing politics is not, or rather should not, be like selling soap or soda. Ideally, it has more to do with ideas and beliefs. This is why such strange deals should not have an impact on an election. 

It would be relatively easy to stop this practice: by lifting the threshold to maybe two or three constituencies. No party leadership in their right mind would sacrifice three of their MPs in order to help a smaller competitor over the line.

One cannot help but wonder what would possess any sane would-be party leader to have a signed copy of Mein Kampf in his private collection. Nor is it straightforward to see the appeal of a party starting out with practically no political programme. But that is what the Internet Party is about, and again this seems to be a carbon-copy of what has been tried in Germany … and failed.

A few years ago, the German Pirate Party started off by promising to revolutionise politics. Driven by a rather naïve belief in the power of the internet, it promised to do things differently from traditional parties. The manifesto was to emerge from an online process of crowd-collaboration. 

The inner workings of the party’s committees were to be streamed live through social media and the party’s leaders had little say in formulating its policies. They were merely meant to communicate the positions collectively reached by online activists.

The approach may have been foolhardy but it even had a name: “liquid democracy.” As it turned out, democracy liquefaction would have been more appropriate. 

The party could not sustain the forces of being pulled in all directions all of the time. There was no intellectual guiding principle behind the party. New Zealand First does relatively well without one but any party without goals really needs a charismatic leader. 

Since the German Pirates had delegated all leadership questions to their online activists, it meant nobody held it together. Everybody was supposed to be leading, which only meant nobody did. As a result, the party’s phenomenal rise in the polls was stopped quickly once the public realised this was a party without either people or policies.

The same could eventually happen to Dotcom’s Internet Party – if it manages to properly take off at all. The only question is when voters will see the programmatic void at the core of the party rather than what they would like to project into it.

I can only apologise for these two unfortunate imports from Germany. At least, we should have also imported the Germans’ higher constituency thresholds for parliamentary representation as well. As MMP is working now, it risks turning New Zealand’s proud parliamentary democracy into a political freak show.

Dr Oliver Hartwich is the executive director of The New Zealand Initiative

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