Don’t blame MMP for bad king/queenmakers

Where there’s voting, there’s a Deciding Vote

There’s a lot of focus on how much power Winston Peters (i.e. NZ First) currently has in coalition negotiations. He can choose which of Bill English or Jacinda Ardern is Prime Minister, and he’ll probably get some generous policy/baubles concessions from whichever one he chooses.

A lot of people seem to be saying it’s MMP that gives Winston this power. It’s obvious why people would say this: he’s had this power twice in our eight MMP elections, and he never had it under FPP. Still, I don’t think it’s the whole truth.

Rather, I think kingmakers/queenmakers (or, in general, people with a lot of power because they hold a deciding vote) are produced by the practice of making decisions by voting.

For example: in practice, the most contentious legislative matters in the United States of America are currently decided by one person: Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy. He was appointed by Reagan, but he’s more left-leaning than the other four Republican-appointed justices and more right-leaning than the four Democratic-appointed justices. So he’s often the deciding vote when the justices vote along broadly partisan lines. For example, he allowed same-sex marriage to be legalised, and he could also strike down partisan gerrymandering.

Of course, he’s not literally deciding by himself: it takes a majority vote to make a decision. However, where majority rules, whoever finds themselves in the position where they can tip the majority one way or another decides what the majority that rules is.

Of course, voting is not the only way things can be decided. In consensus-based decision-making, decisions are reached in much messier but more democratic and empowering ways. In dictatorship, decisions are made by one person or party,  not because they find themselves at the centre of the people’s preferences like Winston or Anthony, but because because they’re in power and people are following them instead of resisting or supplanting them.

But when there’s voting (e.g. the votes that happen in Parliament, as well as the votes for who will be the members of Parliament in the first place), there is what we can call the “deciding vote”. And it’s inevitable that whoever holds the deciding vote has a lot of power: the people on either side of the decision can try to motivate them to vote the way they want. This is especially true when it’s clear who holds the deciding vote and when it’s concentrated in the hands of just one person or party (e.g. Kennedy or NZ First). But even when it’s unclear, parties from either side can still speculate about what the deciding voters are likely to want. This is why political parties try to win the centre over to supporting them.

What determines who has the deciding vote is who has a vote and how they’re willing to use it. Who’s made up their mind to support one side in a vote, who’s made up their mind to support the other side, and who’s undecided. A voter among the undecideds who can make or break a majority with their vote has the deciding vote.

Sometimes the deciding vote is held by just one party/person, and it gives that party/person a lot of power. For example, on the US Supreme Court, if four justices have decided to vote against gerrymandering and four have decided to vote for it, Anthony Kennedy has the deciding vote all by himself. But if four justices have decided to vote against gerrymandering and only one has decided to vote for it,1 the remaining four justices share the deciding vote among themselves: any of them can decide to kill gerrymandering.

 

The Deciding Vote in government formation: the King/Queenmaker

A “kingmaker”/”queenmaker” is someone who holds the deciding vote on who will be Prime Minister. If we directly elected our Prime Minister/government, the deciding vote would be held by members of the general public. It wouldn’t be clear who held it, and it wouldn’t be concentrated in one person’s/party’s hands.

But in parliamentary systems, we don’t elect a PM/government; we elect a Parliament. The members of Parliament elect a PM/government by voting to support the government in votes of confidence and, usually, supply.

So the deciding, king/queenmaking vote is held by an MP or some MPs. (This is the case in all parliamentary systems, not just MMP systems.)

In a way there’s always a king/queenmaker, because there’s always a deciding vote on who the Prime Minister will be. When one party wins a decisive victory in an election, they win the deciding vote, and they get to king/queenmake their own leader. In 1999 and 2002, Labour won the deciding vote; they got to decide how to make up a majority from among the Alliance, the Greens, and United Future. In 2008 and 2014, National won the deciding vote; they got to choose how to make up a majority from among ACT, United Future, and the Māori party.2

It’s only in close elections where neither the left nor the right wins a decisive victory (and when left and right parties aren’t willing to form a grand coalition) that the parties in the centre become king/queenmakers. They get to decide whether to create a centre-right majority or a centre-left majority. And they get to choose which of the two major parties will lead the government and provide the Prime minister.3 And I think I’m OK with that.

When the king/queenmaker is just one party, it gives that party a lot of power. E.g. NZ First currently, or in 1996.

When it’s a group of parties, the power they have is reduced by being shared and requiring coordinated action. For example, technically United Future, the Māori party, and NZ First were joint kingmakers in 2011: if all three had joined Labour and the Greens they could have made Phil Goff Prime Minister with a one-seat majority. But they weren’t willing to do that. Instead, two of them kingmade John Key.

Similarly, Winston is often referred to as the kingmaker in 2005, but technically to kingmake Don Brash, he would have had to bring the Māori party on board too. And that was not going to happen.

 

Why is NZ First currently the king/queenmaker?

Currently NZ First is the sole king/queenmaker. This is because of which parties won seats and who they’re willing to support in government. There are essentially only four parties, and three have essentially made up their minds which way to vote about who the Prime Minister should be. So that leaves the fourth party with a monopoly on the deciding vote.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Germany (whom we copied MMP from) also recently had an election, but they had six4 parties cross the line. If NZ had more parties represented in Parliament, the kingmaking power would be shared amongst various parties (e.g. TOP, Māori, or even the Conservatives might have been able to make or break governments). This is one reason I support eradicating the undemocratic 5% threshold. When the left, the right, and the centre are all dominated by one party each, those three are more likely to find themselves the sole king/queenmakers.

Germany also have more of a tradition of parties being willing to form coalitions across the left-right spectrum. Until this year’s election, Germany was governed by a grand coalition between their equivalents of National and Labour. But their equivalent of Labour have pulled their support. So now it looks like they’re going to have something roughly equivalent to a National-Conservative-UF-ACT-Green coalition to keep the Alternative for Germany (the closest thing to the Nazis in Germany since the Nazis) out of power.

If a “Teal Deal” was a real option in NZ, the deciding vote would be shared by NZ First and the Greens: Either of them could kingmake Bill English, or they could decide together to queenmake Jacinda Ardern. However, a Teal Deal isn’t a real option in NZ right now—for very good reasons. So NZ First are left as the sole king/queenmaker. (This is presumably why National supporters want to promote the possibility of a Teal Deal: to weaken Winston’s power, as well as Labour’s).

 

When a party with 0.22% of party votes was the kingmaker and nobody seemed to mind

It’s not often noted in these discussions, but actually even before this election, a minor party held the deciding vote. Moreover, it was a tiny party with only one MP (and 0.22% of the party vote at the previous election): United Future, aka Peter Dunne.

After National lost the Northland seat to Winston Peters in the 2015 by-election, National lost the deciding vote to Dunne.5 In practice, Dunne usually used his deciding vote to support the National-dominated government. However, on some matters he sided with the parties to his left. For example, he (and all other parties except National and ACT) supported Sue Moroney’s bill to extend paid parental leave to 26 weeks. Dunne’s vote was the 61st vote that allowed the bill to pass its second reading. However, then-Finance Minister Bill English implemented a financial veto to stop the bill becoming law. This means Dunne and the Māori Party effectively voted both for and against this bill: while voting for the bill, they were also voting to support the National government in confidence votes, and therefore allowing National its financial veto power.

 

When this power is a problem, and how it can be addressed

People generally don’t like it when the king/queenmaker is a small party (especially a small party they don’t like); they prefer it when it’s a big party (preferably the big party they like).

People rightly observe that the power of the deciding vote is disproportional to the level of support voters gave that party (whether it’s NZ First’s 186,706 party votes or Peter Dunne’s 5,286 party votes + 13,569 local votes).

This sometimes makes people dislike MMP itself. As I hope I’ve established by now, the deciding vote is not created by MMP: it’s created by the act of voting and distributed by particular voters’ choices. Nonetheless, when New Zealand used First Past the Post instead, we didn’t have this situation. Either National or Labour won the majority of seats every election from 1935 to 1993, even though they rarely won a majority of votes (National only got 35.05% of votes in our last FPP election).

FPP makes it more likely that the deciding vote is held by one of two major parties for one simple reason: because it stacks the deck in favour of major parties. FPP makes it very hard for smaller parties to gain representation: the only way is to earn pluralities of support in certain local constituencies (e.g. the Scottish National Party in most of Scotland, or Rātana in the Māori seats, until they joined Labour).

FPP still doesn’t make small-party king/queenmakers impossible. In Australia in 2010, Labor and the Liberal-National Coalition won 72 seats apiece, and the sole Green MP plus three independents queenmade Labor’s Julia Gillard.6 The same year in the UK, the Liberal Democrats were (technically) kingmakers, because if they’d banded together with some of the tiny parties, they could have kingmade Labour’s Gordon Brown. In 2017, the conservative Northern Irish party the Democratic Unionist Party (1.5% of seats, 0.9% of votes) queenmade Theresa May. They wouldn’t have kingmade Jeremy Corbyn, but nobody else was going to queenmake May, so if the DUP had refused also, a fresh election would have been required. Thus, they had a lot of leverage and won a lot of concessions from the Tories.

Moreover, FPP has other problems that, to my mind, outweigh the greater risk of a small party exercising disproportionate power when it finds itself with the deciding vote. Here are three pretty major problems:

  • Under FPP, the party that wins the most votes doesn’t necessarily win the most seats. Labour got more votes than National in 1978 and 1981, but Robert Muldoon got to remain PM because National had a majority of seats. Similarly in the USA (where the electoral college votes work like Parliamentary seats in voting for the executive), the popular vote winner often doesn’t win: this is what gave George W. Bush and Donald Trump the presidency. Small parties may produce king/queenmakers we don’t like, but big parties produce PMs and presidents we don’t like, even when they only get a minority of votes.
  • Under FPP, parties often receive a large proportion of votes, but few if any seats in Parliament. Again in 1978 and 1981, Social Credit won 16.1% and 20.7% of votes, but they only got one and two seats. In 1993, the Alliance got 18.21% of votes and only two seats. Similarly in Australia, for the last three elections their Green Party has got about 10% of votes but only one seat.6
  • Under FPP, “swing states” or “swing electorates” often receive the vast majority of the attention and policy promises. This is most obvious in the US: in last year’s presidential election, 12 states received almost all the advertising and visits from candidates. The disproportionate power centrist constituencies hold is similar to the disproportionate power centrist parties receive when they find themselves with the deciding vote.

So solving the “Winston too likely to become kingmaker” problem by going back to FPP is undesirable for other reasons.

I would rather address the problem with an approach that’s desirable for other reasons: making MMP more genuinely proportional and democratic. We should eradicate the 5% threshold that lets National, Labour, and NZ First dominate the right, the left, and the centre. We should also introduce elements of preferential voting. Electorate votes should be selected by a Single Transferrable Vote, like city councillors are. And if we insist on keeping a party vote threshold, we should allow people to name a second choice, so if their first choice doesn’t make the cut, their vote won’t be wasted. These changes would make it more likely that NZ First would have to share the deciding vote with other parties in the centre. They would also make it easier for major parties to win the centre and the deciding vote, by giving them more support parties at the far ends of the political spectrum.

I’ve previously suggested that the Opportunities Party should devote their considerable resources to making MMP more democratic in these ways. Their dislike of Winston Peters and desire to strip him of his “monarch maker” powers is yet another reason for them to do so.

 

Footnotes

  1. Gorsuch, I assume, cos he’s a dick. Though, to be fair, he’s not the worst.
  2. Shrewdly, they chose all three even though they only needed one or two, to ensure none of the three had too much power. If they’d just chosen ACT, that would have been enough for a majority, but if ACT ever considered voting against National, the deciding vote would have flipped into ACT’s hands. With three small support parties, all three of them would have had to decide to vote against National in order to seize the deciding vote. 
  3. Technically, it’s not impossible for a junior coalition partner to provide the Prime Minister. This happened in NZ in 1931: the third-biggest party, United, provided the Prime Minister, George Forbes, in their coalition government with the second-biggest party, Reform. This is a very different situation to our current Parliament, because United and Reform ran as a coalition (and eventually merged to form the National party). However, the United-Reform coalition was formed precisely because United, the kingmakers, broke away from Labour and united with Reform. In both governments, United kingmade their own leader as Prime Minister. Anyway, I’d be astonished if Winston will become PM in this case, despite what David Seymour might say. If either National or Labour/Green gave him the top job, the voters would severely punish them in three years. 
  4. Technically seven, but the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union of Bavaria are basically one party. 
  5. Technically Dunne shared the deciding vote with any other party willing to vote with National/ACT. But on questions where Dunne voted against National/ACT, it would have been unusual for Māori or NZ First to vote with them to give them a majority. I don’t know of any votes where this happened. 
  6. Australia doesn’t actually have FPP, but it does have single-seat constituencies in its lower house. They’re distributed via Single Transferrable Voting in each constituency. They almost always go to a candidate from either Labor or the Liberal/National coalition. STV doesn’t really help Green candidates get in, but it does ensure Green votes are redistributed to voters’ second choice (usually Labor candidates, it seems) instead of splitting the left vote and letting the Coalition win every time. 

 

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5 comments

  1. Stuart Macann

    Another good blog. Thanks Caleb. Has anyone from TOP responded to your suggestions about making MMP fairer / more democratic?

    Also just wanted to say I appreciated your explanation of how the political landscape in Germany and NZ is so different regarding the role the Greens play there. I didn’t understand that Germany still have an ‘Alliance’ type party that sits to the Left of their Green Party. Now that I reflect on it I think / hope there is room in NZ politics for both TOP and The Greens. We do need a genuine left voice and at the moment the Greens are it. I actually want an increase in taxation and state intervention so the Greens suit me better than TOP who by being fiscally neutral to whatever the current government is spending allow themselves to be in the centre of the right and left. I like TOP basically because I think they are a better potential deciding vote than NZ First.

    Anyway. Keep up the thoughtful blogs.

    • calebmorgan

      Thanks Stu. I agree with your comments. There was a time when I hoped Mana would establish itself as a prophetic voice on the left, leaving the Greens to be more pragmatic. But now that the Greens are the furthest-left party, I want them to be more prophetic.

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