Category: strategic voting

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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I was wrong

Election results before special votes (specials might change one or two seats but nothing substantial)

Election results before special votes (specials might change one or two seats but nothing substantial)

One initial thought: While certain people get up in arms about using the MMP threshold system to gain representation, the real problem is how big parties can use it to deny representation… whether Internet Mana or Conservative. So RIP Internet Mana and even the Conservatives, who earned their right to air their lunatic views in Parliament with 19 times United Future’s votes.

Also, John Campbell is quite wrong to say the deaths of these two shows that “money cannot buy politics in New Zealand.” Who does he think pays National’s extremely successful PR people? What does he think is the force that keeps mainstream media so uncritical, anaesthetising, anti-intellectual, anti-policy and pro-National (despite his best efforts to work against that)? In fact, what it shows is that money is no substitute for good strategy, being in tune with dominant opinion in your society, and/or (in our unjust electoral system) support from a major party.

Anyway, onto how I was wrong…

Of all the blogs I’ve written, I think the most off the mark was this one where I said I was “(tentatively) happy about Internet Mana.” Second would be this one where I underestimated how bad Dotcom’s failure at the Moment of Truth was. I may have been wrong when I backed Cunliffe for Labour leader too, but I don’t know if it would have made much difference if Shearer or Robertson or Jones was in charge (probably the main difference would be that if Shearer had stayed on, there would have been a cleaner break post-this-election).

I still like pretty much everything I previously liked about Internet Mana. I still think the deal is ethically legitimate given the unjust threshold system. And it was a valiant idea to try and appeal to the young, poor and disengaged people who stay home in their droves on election day. But as it turned out, the experiment failed. It looks like turn-out-per-enrolled-voter was only slightly up this time, Internet Mana’s vote was only slightly higher than Mana’s last election, Hone lost his seat so Internet Mana are out of Parliament, and the Key government is returned with an increased majority. So I was totally wrong about the strategic value of the Internet Mana alliance.

I was wrong because I underestimated the backlash of dominant opinion in NZ against Kim Dotcom (not so much when he was a victim of the US-style-US-instigated illegal police raid, but certainly after he started trying to throw his own power around). This felt its effect in a few ways:

  • It looks like for every apathetic Gen-Y-er vote Internet Mana won for the left, they scared several boomers, conservatives and Stuff readers towards the far-right. Though this isn’t 100% clear. Labour started to drop in the polls after the Internet Mana deal. But they also dropped after the WhaleOil + Herald smear on Cunliffe that turned out to be 95% bollocks, but not before doing its damage in the polls. And, bizarrely, Labour dropped after Dirty Politics too.
  • NZers don’t like what they see as “dodgy deals,” though they’re hypocritical about it: they’ll forgive National’s Epsom and Ohariu cups of tea, but when they already didn’t like Harawira or Dotcom (and didn’t understand the ways the two parties are consistent; thinking it was entirely a money thing), the deal was another reason to oppose them and anyone who might end up in government with them.
  • Dotcom and the Internet Mana deal seems to have turned Te Tai Tokerau voters off Hone Harawira enough that they could be convinced by Labour, National, NZ First and the Māori Party to vote for Labour’s Kelvin Davis. Labour had no choice but to oppose Internet Mana, a populist boomer swing voter’s nightmare, given that they rely on the opinions of such voters for success. But they tried to have their cake and eat it too by not unequivocally ruling Internet Mana out of any kind of government agreement, which was understandable given they’d be struggling to form a government without them, but ultimately a big mistake. They were close enough that Internet Mana presumably scared baby boomers and conservatives away from Labour, but far enough away to kill off Internet Mana and waste thousands of change-the-government votes, including my own.
  • Dotcom failed at the “Moment of Truth” worse than I previously acknowledged. He’d been promising for months to provide evidence Key knew about the US plot against him earlier than the day before the raid. Instead, he made the MOT entirely about spying, and leaked a bizarre e-mail without anything to back it up, which didn’t prove anything – I still can’t figure out if it was fraudulent and, if so, whether Dotcom knew it was fradulent or not; but it’s certainly not convincingly real. The annoying thing is it’s quite likely he’s right about the “political pressure” on his case. But his e-mail took credibility away from that theory, rather than adding it.
  • Even without that failure, the cartoonish and manipulative way he went about the MOT made it too easy for people to simply ignore all the genuinely alarming revelations about spying at the MOT, and Key’s dishonest and desperate (yet apparently successful) defence. Dotcom tried to use the event for his ego and his desire for revenge, rather than for the good of the country. If he wanted to raise awareness about spying and really get through to NZers about it, he should have:
    (a) not talked it up but kept it quiet, exceeded expectations and let the revelations do the talking;
    (b) kept revelations from spying separate from revelations about his case, or at least made sure he had proof about the latter before revealing anything;
    (c) released the info months ago rather than five days before the election in a transparent attempt to influence the vote; and
    (d) stayed in the background himself got a respected figure from the left and a respected figure from the right (e.g. Graeme Edgeler) to front it.
    (Possibly Nicky Hager should have followed a similar strategy with Dirty Politics: not just writing about the WhaleOil stuff, but making sure he also focused on some of the dodgier things Labour have done… even if it meant dredging up old news. I don’t say this for ethical reasons – “balance” is an illusion and he’s perfectly justified in having a specific focus on WhaleOil and associates – but for rhetorical strategy reasons. If he’d come across as more bipartisan it would have been harder to write him off as a “left wing conspiracy theorist.” He could have left it to the readers to realise National are so much worse at Dirty Politics than Labour.)

Kim Dotcom clearly has no idea about NZ culture, and the NZers he had alongside him (Laila Harré, the Mana people, Bradbury, Edgeler etc) should have known better, just as I should have.

To Dotcom’s credit, though: tonight he’s acknowledged that he poisoned the party with his toxic brand. (His concession speech is in stark contrast to Cunliffe’s denial. If Cunliffe had said he’d have to go back to his party and see who they wanted to continue leading the party, they may have let him stay on. But saying he’s going to hold onto the leadership probably guarantees he’ll be rolled… the only thing leaving him there is the fact they don’t have anyone better).

I’m not going to say I was wrong to vote Internet Mana, but I was definitely wrong not to realise the experiment would actually make Key more likely to be re-elected, not less.

(Of course, there are other reasons for tonight’s result too: Labour’s bitchy in-fighting, lack of consensus about what they stand for, and general incompetence; National still being extremely good at PR; a docile and blatantly biased mainstream media; dominant “common sense” in NZ being a lot more in line with National’s confident neo-liberalism-with-lip-service-to-welfare-state than anything any other party’s offering; etc. And of course it’s ridiculous that Kim Dotcom and Hone Harawira – whose policies are quite normal in Germany or pre-1984 NZ – are seen as dangerous extremists while ACT are seen as acceptable coalition partners and the Conservative joke party won around over 85,000 votes. But it would be denial to blame the media and dominant ideology entirely – the various mistakes of the left-of-NZ First also played a significant role).

PS: I was also wrong about the polls – turns out they were actually biased AGAINST National this time. Or maybe the media were right that the Moment of Truth aftermath and Dotcom backlash actually gave a bump to National. Or maybe soft National voters / Labour voters without hope freaked out when there was a last minute turn away from National and it looked like Winston Peters or Colin Craig might be in government? It’s impossible to know.

PPS: I was also wrong to spend so many hours writing blogs during the last parliamentary term. This will be my last blog for Cut Your Hair, at least for the foreseeable future. Thanks all readers and sharers and commenters etc; it’s been cathartic if nothing else.

MMP strategy and the big parties: Self-interest, hypocrisy and anti-democracy

Gatecrash
National: Self-interest

In the last few days, many have noted National’s blatant self-interest in ignoring the Electoral Commission and maintaining the MMP status quo. The Commission suggested lowering the threshold to 4% and removing the “coat-tailing” exception, but National refused to do so because they wanted to continue having cups of tea with John Banks, Peter Dunne and (if needs be) Colin Craig. And now their chickens are coming home to roost with the Internet Mana strategic alliance. (In theory, the Conservatives and ACT could follow suit – but I’d argue there’s less common ground between Jamie Whyte and Colin Craig than between Kim Dotcom and Hone Harawira)

Labour: Hypocrisy

Certain Labour members (edit: though not Louisa Wall) are taking a far more critical view of coat-tailing and strategic use thereof. Many have (rightly) criticised Labour for being anti-strategic, anti-small-parties and anti-anyone-further-left-than-them. Some have also (wrongly) suggested they’re hypocrites for not consistently criticising “coat-tailers” on the left and right. In fact, they are consistently criticising coat-tailers – condemning both Epsom and the Internet Mana alliance as “rort[s] of the system,” “ruse[s]” and “scam[s],” and proposing to get rid of the rule that allows them.

So they’re not being inconsistent. But they are being hypocritical, by condemning coat-tailers in the first place – for at least four reasons.

Firstly, because until Jim Anderton retired, they happily let him win Wigram for another party, and received him and any coat-tail buddies he could bring with him into the Clark governments.

They’ll no doubt say the difference is voters “genuinely liked” Jim Anderton (and their ex-buddy Peter Dunne), whereas Epsom voters only vote for the ACT candidate because they want to see his party represented. Perhaps this is true. But under First Past the Post, millions of voters across the country voted for Labour candidates not because they liked the candidate, but because they wanted to see the party represented. And still under MMP, many Green/Mana/etc supporters vote for Labour local candidates because they prefer a Labour local MP to the only other realistic alternative.

So they’re also hypocritical because they’re happy for Labour voters in Wigram or Green voters in Wellington Central to vote strategically for another party’s candidate, but not National voters in Epsom (or Labour voters in Te Tai Tokerau, for that matter).

Thirdly, they’re hypocritical because they call the “cup of tea” strategy a “rort” and in the very same press release endorse their own “reverse cup of tea” strategy: Labour voters voting for National’s Paul Goldsmith in Epsom. The only way this can possibly be ethically coherent is if they see all local seats as “rightfully” belonging to the same party that won the most party votes in that electorate (ie, always either National or Labour)… but in that case they’d have to give up most of their 22 electorate seats from the last election (some examples). And, of course, it would be pointless having a two-tick system if that was how it worked.

Lastly, they’re hypocritical because what is a political party but a strategic alliance of disparate factions and individuals, with some common purposes, banding together to pursue those purposes in elections and government? There’s at least as much diversity of views within Labour or National as there is between the Internet Party and Mana, and considerably more in-fighting (so far). But Labour have inherited a respectable and safe “major party” status that will never be described as an unholy “rort,” due the historical accident of being descended from a party that once represented the labour movement. This means that by condemning Internet Mana, they’re condemning a “sin” they’re not “tempted” by. Like National but unlike anyone else, they’ve never had to work doubly-hard for each vote, by first convincing potential voters a vote for them won’t be wasted. They’ve never had to resort to creative MMP strategies to provide this assurance. Blinding themselves to the privilege the system gives them, they blame the parties the system doesn’t privilege for taking the opportunities available to them.

Fixing the real problem

These days, Anderton is representing a dead fake building instead of Wigram, and Dunne is serving casinos instead of Clark… there’s no small parties left Labour actually likes. So, very nobly, they’re proposing to enact the Electoral Commission’s suggestions if elected.

But these high-minded condemnations and proposed solutions misdiagnose the problem entirely. The problem is that the threshold built into our MMP system stops it being truly proportional. It stacks the system against small and new parties, threatening to waste their votes and making them work far harder for them… thus creating the need and incentive for the so-called “rort” strategies.

That won’t change by getting rid of the coat-tailing exception, or even by lowering the threshold from 5% to 4%. We’d still have small parties banding together – only they’d be doing it to get across the 5% (or 4%) threshold, like the original Alliance. And we’d still have artificially skewed results – like the Labour voters who vote NZ First to make sure they get above 5% (or 4%), or the voters who shy away from small parties because they’re worried they won’t reach 5% (or 4%), often leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The only way to stop disadvantaging small parties and incentivising “dodgy deals” is something neither National, Labour or the Electoral Commission suggest, but the most evidence-based/least reactionary submittersinternational experts and bloggers across the political spectrum do: make MMP fully and straightforwardly proportional, by eradicating the threshold system that causes these problems in the first place. 1% of the votes, 1% of the seats – end of story. No need for the controversial coat-tailing exception, nobody’s vote robbed of effect because the party wasn’t big enough, and no need for creative strategies to negotiate coat-tailing versus wastage.

The Electoral Commission acknowledge that lowering or abolishing the threshold “would be a solution more consistent with the principle of proportionality that underpins the MMP system”… the only reason they won’t do it is because of a fear of a “proliferation of small parties.” Yes; you read that right; a supposedly independent commission are biased towards large parties, considering them “safer” than small parties; even though there’s no evidence high thresholds or few parties brings stability. And, of course, both big parties agree with them – neither of them suggest lowering the threshold below 4%.

The stupid thing is, at the moment we do have a proliferation of small parties; but we also have a proliferation of the strategies Labour condemns, because that’s basically the only way small and new parties can get in. If the Electoral Commission get their way, there may be less opportunities for small parties and their strategies, but (as they admit!) this would come at the cost of true proportionality. Is this anti-democratic knee-jerk response and anti-proportional threshold rule really worth it?

I’m (tentatively) happy about Internet Mana

internet-mana-1200-harawira-kumar-WONG

InternetManatweet

The Mana Movement and the Internet Party have made their unlikely strategic alliance official – the full agreement is here. It will be a new party for electoral purposes, with a combined list for the party vote, but both parties will retain their own separate identities, policies and leaders.

My first reaction was sort of like Sue Bradford’s, but unlike her, I’ve rethought it and I’m now (tentatively) for it. I could change my mind, but I’m quite likely to vote for them in September.

Here’s the main pros and cons hesitations as far as I see them.

Pros

Strategy

The anti-democratic thresholds in our MMP system place very high barriers of entry to small and new parties. It’s a vicious circle – in order to cross one of the thresholds you have to assure voters their votes won’t be wasted, and to do that you have to guarantee you can cross one of the thresholds. Thus, small parties (and their larger allies) usually need to make use of various strategies like the cup of tea, the reverse cup of tea, specialist targeting of Māori seats, and – yes – the strategic alliance.

The right-of-NZ First parties have been much better at these strategies than the left-of-NZ-First parties. If it wasn’t for these strategies last election, we could have avoided asset sales and the GCSB bill, and passed Feed the Kids. iPredict thinks both ACT and United Future‘s cups of tea will remain successful this year, and National has another cup up their sleeve if they’re desperate – Colin Craig. This election is looking even more tight than the last, and the relatively-left bloc need to get better at using MMP strategically (this is welcome news from a strategic perspective, despite the hypocrisy; let’s hope the Greens join in).

The alliance strategy was used fruitfully in the aptly-named Alliance party for about three elections, almost-fruitfully by the Christian Coalition in 1996 and semi-fruitfully by United Future, Outdoor Recreation and WIN in 2005.

The beauty of an electoral alliance rather than a merger is that it enables both parties to maintain separate identities. Under the Internet Mana alliance, the parties have separate policies and policy spokespeople, separate leaders and very clear identities. It even allows the same people to be list candidates for Internet Mana and electoral candidates for their individual parties (are they allowed to do this? Apparently yes). They also have an exit clause – the current agreement will expire six weeks after the election, and they’ll re-assess after the election.

However, as long as they’re aligned they’ll pool resources, campaign together for the party vote, run a Get Out the Vote campaign and develop a shared policy platform of stuff they both agree on and they’ll all vote for.

Mana

I’m a Mana supporter – I voted for Mana in 2011 and was probably going to vote for them again. Mana seem to be the most (arguably the only) genuinely left-wing party in Parliament, and one of the parties who care most about the most vulnerable. I like what Mana bring to this alliance and to Parliament – whether in government, keeping Labour accountable to the poor and Māori, or in opposition as a prophetic voice. And I’d love to see John Minto in Parliament.

This alliance should make that more likely – it’s a great deal for Mana, giving them positions 1, 3 and 4 on the combined party list and an IP leader at #2 who’s another classic NZ leftist from way back (see below). The pooling of financial/human resources means Mana will also benefit from Kim Dotcom’s $$$, which has led to accusations of “selling out” etc. That’s a bit rich given Mana, more than any other party, have stood up for their principles even when they’re unpopular and non-utilitarian. Harawira, Sykes and Minto would not have agreed to this deal if they felt it compromised their principles. Just like with rich amateur sportspeople criticising poor professionals, it’s easy for the party who doesn’t need to “sell out” to criticise those who do make strategic use of offered resources for mutual benefit.

Internet Party

I’m not really a fan of Kim Dotcom, but I like some things about the Internet Party – they’ll be more radical than any other party on certain issues such as spying, intellectual property and (perhaps) free tertiary education. Free tertiary education is normal where Kim Dotcom is from, and was received by most NZ MPs older than about Metiria Turei’s age, but is too “far left” for any other party at the moment.

I’d (tentatively) like to see the Internet Party in Parliament (but see “Hesitations” below). If the rumours are true, it’d be good to see Laila Harré back in Parliament too (see below).

I probably wouldn’t vote for them ahead of Mana or the Greens, but the same goes for Labour, and I’d still want Mana and the Greens to work with them after the election. Why not work with the Internet Party before the election too, if it could get more representation for both parties, inspire apathetic people to vote and avoid wasted anti-John-Key votes?

Common ground

I don’t agree that the two parties have “practically nothing in common.” They have at least as much in common as the unionists and neo-liberals in Labour, or the urban liberal businesspeople and rural conservative farmers in National, or the eco-socialists and eco-capitalists in the Greens, or the libertarians and fascists in ACT.

The central thing Māori, leftists and Kim Dotcom fans have in common is not wanting empires raiding their homes, controlling their lives and oppressing them. None of these groups are fans of US military dominance of our privacy and policy, or capitalist dominance of trade and intellectual property. The spirit of the internet is the spirit of freedom, consensus and self-determination – the opposite of the spirit of colonisation, corporate dominance and inequality.

Of course, there are differences between the groups. That’s obvious. But I don’t think there’s anything in the Internet Party’s policies signalled so far that a Mana voter should oppose. This guy powerfully shows the appeal of the Internet Party idea to a certain constituency, and it definitely sounds like something a Mana supporter get behind. I think the two parties can learn a lot from each other, and (in true Internet spirit) they’re maintaining a lot of autonomy for where they disagree.

The IP are kind of a single-issue party (well: they have about four single issues), so perhaps they could basically provide policy on their specialist areas and let Mana provide the rest – so long as they’ll accept that. I also think it’d be good to get the literal single-issue party, Legalise Cannabis, on board – I think a lot of Mana and Internet Party voters would be sympathetic to their cause. Perhaps they wouldn’t provide candidates, but they’d join the alliance in exchange for a promise that those elected would work towards decriminalisation and eventually legalisation… though maybe that’s too much to ask this time around.

Hesitations

IP People

No Internet Party candidates have been named yet. It won’t be confirmed until 2pm tomorrow, but it’s been leaked that the Internet Party leader will be former Alliance leader Laila Harré. This is an interesting choice – I’m not sure what her internet credentials are, but she’s definitely someone I’d be happy to vote for. It’s likely their leader she will make it into Parliament – they’d only need 1.2% of the party vote, or 2% if Annette Sykes wins Waiariki. The IP leader will be announced tomorrow – it will be someone with name recognition, whom Mana are “extremely happy” with. My money would have been on Martyn Bradbury, given his previous suggestions, but apparently he’s been ruled out. iPredict has no bets on – I expect it’s all too sudden.

It’s possible other IP candidates will be elected too (though they’d need about 3.6%). These candidates are being chosen over the next few weeks – we’ll have to wait and see who they are.

IP Policies

Internet Party policies are similarly “in progress.” Kim Dotcom has signalled support for various policies like better & cheaper internet, opposition to the GCSB and TPPA, combating inequality and free tertiary education, but the actual policies are being developed via online forum. There’s a lot of uncertainty what they’ll eventually look like, and (I expect) a danger of policy being shaped with a post-modern “my opinion is as valuable as yours” mind-set, rather than decent research. I’m not sure how the Internet Mana joint policies will be decided on.

Nonetheless, the strategic alliance strategy works in theory even without any shared policy platform – so long as you don’t hate each other’s policy enough that you’d rather disadvantage your own side’s policy than advantage the other’s.

Te Tai Tokerau

The whole plan is predicated on Hone Harawira having a safe seat to bring in others on his coat-tails; but it might not be as safe as it seems, despite his having won it for the Māori Party, as an independent, and for Mana. Labour’s usual philosophy is to oppose anyone further left than them, and they’re certainly not offering Harawira any cups of tea to keep the seat. Their candidate Kelvin Davis is a strong candidate who’s just made it back into Parliament after Shane Jones’ retirement. He slashed Harawira’s majority in the seat in the last two elections, and he’s hoping to take it off him this time. There’s a danger the whole plan could massively backfire if Harawira’s constituency don’t approve of the alliance, and he loses his seat (of course, Annette Sykes could still take Waiariki off Te Ururoa Flavell).

Voters

This leads into my last hesitation – voters. Other potential voters might not be so supportive of a strategic alliance. While I don’t think Mana and Internet Party policies are really opposed to each other, their voters are another story. Mana voters could be morally opposed to voting for billionaire businesspeople who donated money to John Banks. And the Pākehā cynical/apathetic torrent/Reddit lovers who (I imagine) form many of the Internet Party’s prospective voters might be swayed by the mainstream media demonisation of Harawira. So, again, the strategy could back-fire if it costs more votes than it gains. Time and polls will tell.