That'll Do: An awful lot of Kiwis either do not understand, or do not approve of, the way MMP operates. What we have here is MMP – with FPP characteristics. A No. 8 Wire constitution – that works.
NEW ZEALAND AND GERMANY share a common electoral system, and last weekend both countries went to the polls. That’s where the parallels would appear to end, however, because the Germans draw the line at offering-up hostages to political fortune. Every German voter entering a polling booth last Sunday was well aware that should the far-right Alternative For Germany (AfD) party cross the 5 percent MMP threshold, none of the other parties represented in the German Bundestag (federal parliament) would have anything to do with it.
Left-wing German voters entered the polling booth with even more information. They knew that if the far-left Die Linke party re-entered the Bundestag, then neither the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP) nor the Greens, would have anything to do with it. Bear in mind that, for the last four years, a theoretical centre-left majority has existed on the Bundestag floor. Regardless, neither the SPD nor the Greens wavered in their opposition to Die Linke’s political connections to the remnants of the former East Germany’s Socialist Unity (i.e. Communist) Party.
Now, consider New Zealand’s predicament. Upwards of two million Kiwi voters went into the polling booths last weekend without a clue as to which of the two major political parties NZ First would join forces with in the event that such an arrangement became necessary. Even more astonishingly, neither of the two major parties was willing to rule out entering into a coalition deal with NZ First.
It is difficult to imagine such a scenario unfolding in Germany. Confronted with a political party committed to stripping a vulnerable ethnic minority of their guaranteed parliamentary representation; tearing up the country’s founding document; reducing the number of parliamentary seats by a sixth; and dramatically diminishing the flow of immigrants across the nation’s border; there can be little doubt that it would have been shunned by Germany’s mainstream political parties in exactly the same fashion as the AfD.
Many New Zealanders will, of course, object that no one takes these NZ First promises at their face value – least of all National and Labour. To accept this, however, is to confirm that neither our leading politicians, nor the electorate itself, take New Zealand’s parliamentary democracy all that seriously. By refusing to regard the policies of NZ First and the promises of its leader, Winston Peters, as truthful statements of genuine intent, we identify ourselves as citizens whose understanding of politics is instinctive rather than cerebral.
It points to an electorate whose constitutional sensibilities are overwhelmingly informed by the custom and practice of successive generations of politicians. Not so much Hegel and Heidegger, as “don’t worry, mate, she’ll be right”. We inhabit a political culture in which a generous helping of cynicism is considered essential to getting the democratic recipe right. New Zealand’s constitutional theory elevates good-old Kiwi common-sense well above strict Germanic ratiocination.
No matter how many times our formal constitutionalists insist (quite correctly) that there is no rule which says the party with the most votes gets to form the next government, New Zealand’s common-sense constitutionalists, guided by political precedent, will reply: “Yeah, yeah, we know there’s no ‘rule’, mate, but, at the end of the day, the largest party will be the party that calls the shots in the next government. Wouldn’t be fair, otherwise!”
Most certainly, that is not in “the spirit of MMP”. For the very simple reason that most Kiwis either do not understand, or do not approve of, the way MMP operates. What we have here is MMP – with FPP characteristics. A No. 8 Wire constitution – that works.
The Germans would, no doubt, respond to all this evidence of our simplicity with a sad smile. “Yours has been an extremely lucky country”, they would say. “But what will you do when your luck runs out? What will you do when you are confronted with a politician and/or a party which is deadly serious about the policies it puts before you? How well will your easy-going cynicism about politics and politicians serve you when you are confronted by a party that is fuelled by the most uncompromising idealism? We Germans have experience of such politicians and parties. Which is why, when we encounter them, we shun them, and shut them out. You should do the same.”
“Shut out Winston? Nah, mate, that wouldn’t be fair!”
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 September 2017.