Voilà! Lance, Laila and Lucy can vanquish neoliberalism
Undemocratic, unnecessary and now, in Germany, unconstitutional.
In last month’s European Parliamentary elections, most member countries, and for the first time that included Germany, faced no explicit electoral threshold.
In February, Germany’s top court had found a 3% threshold unconstitutional, in respect to the European elections. Last year, the same German Constitutional Court had ruled against a 5% threshold, however, a threshold of that level still applies in respect to the country’s federal elections, where, as the court acknowledged, a case can more reasonably be made for a threshold as conducive to parliamentary efficiency, that is, the government of a country.
The current focus in Aotearoa on coattailing is at the expense of closer examination of the validity of explicit electoral thresholds. Many electoral systems utilise explicit thresholds with the overt and reasonable-sounding objective of denying fringe political parties the opportunity to exert undue influence on governments. For a more tragic example, it would hard to surpass unedifying spectacle of Al Gore sharing a podium with mining magnate Clive Palmer, who narrowly won the electorate of Fairfax—the Palmer United Party’s only federal parliamentary seat, and with a mere 26.49% of the primary vote—to help kill Kevin Rudd’s carbon tax in favour of some undefined emissions trading scheme at some undefined future date.
The legitimate electoral solution to such instances of tail wags dog, however, is not explicit thresholds, anymore than it would be to prohibit disgraced, egotistical and oxymoronic independents. If a parliament was functioning democratically, individual representatives would not be able to pervert its decision-making. The problem arises from the two-party thinking and practices that predate proportional electoral systems. As much as the Mahurangi Magazine is arguing for a change of government in September, if the National Party is narrowly defeated, the prospect of the representatives of nearly half of voting New Zealanders being sidelined from decision making for the next term or two is both unfair and a recipe for long-term parliamentary inefficiency—what one lot builds up, the other lot tears down. The dumping of first-past-the-post should have seen an immediate end to the deeply unpopular two-party politics, with which it was part and parcel. The major parties ensured, however, that the two-party system was replaced with a two-coalition system, aided by the brazen self-interest a minor party:
[Jim Anderton] Is the member going into a coalition with National?
[Winston Peters] Oh no we are not.
The depressing succession of business-backed, nominally left- and right-wing rule that serves major parties so well, but the people and a liveable planet so poorly, is not fit for service, certainly not fit for climate action, as Mr Gore demonstrated so spectacularly when he was gifted a shot at the United States presidency, only to suddenly go mum on anthropogenic global warming—an epic case of losing (or to be fair, tying) an election for the wrong, its-the-economy-stupid, reason, and one that David Cunliffe appears determined to emulate, in respect to any condemnation of neoliberalism. In wartime, the public has no patience for partisan politics, and parties avoid the unseemly tolerated-in-peacetime pettiness, by entering into grand coalitions. But although the prolonged planetary crisis of global warming will dwarf that of both world wars combined, politicians prepared to acknowledge its enormity are in about inverse proportion to the climate scientists—the 97% consensus in the peer-reviewed climate literature that global warming is occurring and is anthropogenic. The non-partisan, already more than 17 000-strong, Climate Voter alliance that launched a week ago Sunday will help make it safer for politicians to come out on climate, but the support by both National and Labour for offshore drilling, and the expedient opposition to it, is indicative of how far even organisations like Greenpeace have to go before confronting fossil fuel use head on—oil spills are a threat, but warming is a promise that is already ravaging millions.
Given that political parties are yet to break free from the two-party paradigm, it is arguable that the threshold should not be removed overnight, but should, over, time, be lowered and tested, lowered and tested. But this can only be done, without being undemocratic, by making the party vote transferable. Without the right to rank parties, supporters of minor ones are faced with an unreasonable quandary: Vote for the minor party and risk that vote being wasted; or vote for the next preferred party. This violates the right to fair representation, which is as important as the right to vote. Since the introduction of proportional representation in 1996, had it not been for the coattails provision, an average of 9.4% of the vote would have potentially been wasted on parties polling below the 5% threshold. In 2008, a whopping 14.37% went to such parties. Sadly, the 2012 Review of the MMP Voting System was superficial and only addressed the most egregious features of mixed-member-proportional’s implementation—the unnecessarily high threshold and the deeply unpopular coattails provision. Then, disgracefully, Prime Minister John Key, arrogantly disrespected commissioners Jane Hūria, Robert Peden and Sir Hugh Williams, and the more than 5800 submitters, with his spurious excuse that there was no consensus amongst the political parties for change.
But while the electoral commission failed to face up to the imperative for ranking, the larger elephant in the room it likewise refused to acknowledge was the lack of direct voter influence over coalition formation. It is hardly surprising that 75% of New Zealanders want parties to declare which parties they will or won’t work with ahead of the elections in September, and chronically obstreperous on the part of New Zealand First leader Winston Peters that he, yet again, positions himself to be his own kingmaker, despite repeatedly being punished in subsequent elections for doing so. Similarly, the Māori Party is facing annihilation for thwarting its supporters’ distain for propping up a National-led government. But no one politician has done more to manipulate the mixed-member-proportional system, from the first election in 1996, to the present, than Peters. Voters alone should have the right to direct their party—the party that receives their primary vote—to join or remain outside any coalition to which the party has provisionally agreed to, or to participate in a grand coalition, should one be formed. So while mixed-member might be the Rolls-Royce of proportional systems, by itself, it doesn’t begin to provide an adequate means of controlling the coalitions that were the inevitable outcome of empowering more than two parties.
The particular risk in September is that up to 5% of the party vote for change could be wasted, if Hone Harawira fails to win Te Tai Tokerau, and an additional hurdle that the Internet and Mana parties face, despite the savvy Internet–Mana vehicle, is where an Internet Party voter, for example, votes for an Internet electorate candidate, only to party-vote Green. Because while that is not a net loss for change, there will be none if the Internet–Mana vote falls below the 5% or one-seat threshold. Treating the party vote as a sort of second preference is very common mistake—only about 50% of voters understand that, except for a handful of electorates, the electorate results have no bearing whatsoever on the make up of a parliament. It is a persistent problem where mixed member proportional replaces a first-past-the-post system—it is strongly intuitive for voter to imagine it is important for their electorate to be won by the candidate of the party they most strongly support.
The same simple tweak that would prevent the waste of party votes, the right to rank parties, would render the electorate misconception largely immaterial. Voters should have the right to rank electorate candidates. That way the hypothetical Internet Party voter can rank the Internet candidate 1, the Green 2, and Labour’s 3, assuming the that was the voter’s order of party preference. This would also allow the Green Party to start winning the occasional electorate seat, at the expense of National.
Fortunately, given how slowly the wheels of electoral reform turn, a workaround is available. It would benefit all parties pushing for action on climate, poverty and privacy, even Labour, if it is serious about providing policies substantively different to the neoliberal ones it unleashed on an unsuspecting Aotearoa in 1984 and has shared with National since. The workaround involves extending the Internet–Mana combined list to include the Green Party and Labour (GLIMmer of hope!) The parties would divvy up the combined seats won, in proportion to party-vote share. An additional advantage is that the residues of votes from the individual parties that would otherwise wasted, given that part members cannot be elected, could be combined to potentially gain an extra seat at National’s expense.
Although a combined list of the Left would refresh the electoral landscape, it is doubtful that the venerable Labour Party, or the Greens for that matter, could respond sufficiently quickly for the concept to impact September’s election. But what could add zest would be for a charismatic independent candidate to pick off an electorate seat on behalf of change, without cannibalising the Left’s party vote. It is essentially a trick that Peter Dunne’s been performing since 2008, but in the last election he also cost National the best part of the 13 443 party votes cast for his ‘Dunne’ United Party. In 2008 it was 20 497, but possibly fewer of those were meant for National that year. If New Zealander of the Year Dr Lance O’Sullivan, for example, were to win the seat of Northland, standing as ‘minister of Health for All New Zealanders’, there would one less list seat to be divvied up. Similarly, also in the Reader’s Digest ‘100 most trusted’ list, albeit 69 places further down, Lucy Lawless could potentially pull off the same feat in the new electorate of Kelston. Alternatively, if she played the Warrior Princess role to the hilt, she could wrest the adjoining new electorate of Upper Harbour from its hypocritical and vindictive pretender, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett—a symbolic poke in the eye of National indeed, if she were to deprive it of the on-paper safe seat.
Not only has neoliberalism failed to deliver the trickledown prosperity it promised, creating in its heartless wake a gyre of impoverished, sickened and jailed lives, it has no plausible climate-action answers. If Lance O’Sullivan and Lucy Lawless, Laila Harré and Hone Harawira were successful, and the Greens and Labour were dragged kicking and screaming, neoliberalism could be swiftly vanquished and climate action could commence that would make Al Gore’s eyes water.
But for that to begin to happen, the Left should party-vote Internet–Mana, or up to 5% of the vote could be wasted, and with it, any hope of climate action for another three years.