Category: USA

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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Killing civilians

APTOPIX Ukraine Plane Emergency workers carry the body of one of the people killed when Flight MH17 was shot down
military-kill-civiliansA Gallup poll, of Americans by religious affiliation, about whether it’s ever justified for “the military” to target and kill civilians
individuals-kill-civiliansThe same poll, posing the same question about individuals or small groups
gazadeaths
Israeli and Palestinian soldiers and civilians killed in the Gaza conflict, as at July 31
shrinking palestine Palestinian and Jewish/Israeli-controlled land since 1946
afghan-child-killed A 4-yr-old Afghan boy killed in January by US Marines, who said the weather was “dusty” and they assumed he was an enemy.

John Key and the New Zealand Parliament are right to condemn the killing of 298 civilians on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, and the impeding of investigations into it by Ukrainian separatists, and to express condolences to the victims’ families. Assuming it was a “tragic blunder,” it reminds us of the risks unrelated people are exposed to whenever anybody goes to war – a similar blunder was made by the US military in 1988, killing 290 civilians.

It’s a pity our government is not so decisive and unanimous in condemning the slaughter of civilians by our allies (or “very very good friends”).

The most obvious example at the moment is the Gaza conflict, in which over 1000 people (and counting) have died, mostly Palestinian civilians killed by our new allies, Israel. This is nothing new: since 2000, Israel have killed one Palestinian child every three days on average. The latest slaughter includes potential war crimes from Israel, such as deliberately targeting schools, hospitals, power plants and homes.

Here, Key has condemned the violence from both sides, pledged $250,000 humanitarian assistance for Gaza, called for a ceasefire and called the death toll “a blot on the world.” This is a good start, but his refusal to focus criticism on who’s doing most of the blotting (unlike Labour’s David Shearer or the Greens’ Kennedy Graham) makes his response ultimately inadequate.

Language like “Israel and Palestine have to learn to live side-by-side with each other” makes it sound like Israel and Palestine are two naughty kids who can’t stop fighting in the back seat of the car, rather than acknowledging that this is a situation of oppression and resistance (if that’s not clear to you, this video is a good, clear intro). Trying to be “balanced” or “neutral” on Israel/Palestine is exactly like being “balanced” on Australian colonial genocide or “neutral” between blacks and whites in apartheid South Africa. Israel bear the vast majority of responsibility for all those killed on both sides, because they’re in the position of the oppressor, coloniser and aggressor. Without acknowledging Israel’s occupation and domination of Palestine, we cannot understand the Israel-Palestine conflict, and without addressing it, we cannot genuinely hope for peace.

(Please note that I also oppose Hamas and Palestinian rocket attacks, for both ethical and tactical reasons. But it’s also vital to remember that in normal situations, people don’t elect governments like Hamas, or fire rockets at their neighbours. As Shearer, who worked for the UN in Israel, said: “It is not normal for 1.6 million Palestinians to be blockaded into a narrow strip of land, a situation that aptly fits its description as the largest prison camp in the world” and “These conditions will inevitably sow the seeds for further conflict if they’re not resolved.”)

Even worse is Key’s attitude to the killing of civilians by the United States, such as the hundreds of thousands (at least) killed by Bush’s war in Iraq, and the hundreds of children killed by Obama’s drone strikes. Even though Helen Clark ostensibly kept New Zealand out of the Iraq war, and drone strikes are contrary to international and NZ law, New Zealand assists with both of the above by providing intelligence gathered by the GCSB.

On this, we see nothing like the righteous indignation our Prime Minister expressed at the shooting down of Flight MH17, nor even the half-criticism of the Gaza slaughter. Key complained that we were “missing in action” in Iraq, has never bothered investigating whether drone strikes are compatible with international law (hint: they’re not), and is “totally comfortable” with GCSB data being used for drone attacks, even though they sometimes mistakenly kill the innocent, because they target “very bad people.”

If Key was “comfortable” with the killing of 298 people on Flight MH17, we would be appalled – we are rightly extremely uncomfortable with this act. We should be every bit as uncomfortable with the killing of civilians in “conventional” warfare by our powerful allies. In fact, we should be even more uncomfortable with the latter: as the Israel-Gaza example shows, our allies’ military superiority and position of dominance means they are able and willing to inflict far more damage on civilians, even if our media and politicians treat those people as less important.