Tuesday 15 November 2011

"The Most" versus "The Majority"

Out Of Many, One: The key constitutional requirement for the exercise of executive power in New Zealand is the confidence of a working majority of members of the House of Representatives. To suggest that the party which received the most votes cast must be a part of that working majority is both unconstitutional and undemocratic.

THE SEMANTIC DIFFERENCE between “the most votes” and “a majority of the votes” is about to become extremely important. Why? Because, constitutionally-speaking, winning more votes than any other party is nowhere near as important as winning more than half the votes cast and/or controlling more than half of the seats in Parliament.

It is, for example, quite possible for a party to hold the largest number of seats in the House of Representatives and yet find itself relegated to the Opposition benches by a combination of parties commanding a majority of the seats. This is because, under our constitution the Government must retain the confidence of the House to go on governing. The Parliamentary Opposition can test this with a motion of No-Confidence, which, to be carried, must be supported by more than half of the participating Members of Parliament.

That even the slightest confusion over “most” and “majority” continues to exist is one of the most pernicious legacies of the First-Past-the-Post (FPP) electoral system.

In order for FPP to produce a majoritarian outcome the electorate must be restricted to a choice of just two parties. If there are only two candidates contesting each electorate then the winner will attract not only the most votes but also a majority of the votes. FPP elections are contested electorate by electorate and the party accumulating more than half of the parliamentary seats is declared the winner and invited to form a government.

In its whole political history, New Zealand fulfilled this requirement for just eighteen years. From 1936 until 1954 our electoral landscape was dominated by two mass parties: Labour and National. No other political organisations came anywhere near them in terms of voter support. As a result, it was not unusual for the winning party to attract more than 50 percent of the popular vote. In the snap-election of 1951, for example, held in the wake of the infamous 1951 Waterfront Dispute, National received 54 percent of the votes cast.

In 1954, however, the Social Credit Political League brought New Zealand’s pure two-party system to an abrupt end. For the first time in our history, the monetary reformers of Douglas Social Credit fielded candidates in a General Election, attracting a very creditable 11.2 percent of the votes cast. Under our current MMP electoral system the Social Creditors would have been entitled to proportional representation, but in 1954 Social Credit failed to win a single seat and it was National, with just 44.3 percent of the popular vote (a whole 0.2 percentage points ahead of Labour) which ended up forming a government.

And so it continued for the next 42 years. Though the Social-Creditors’ support rose as high as 20.6 percent of the popular vote, it never won more than 2 parliamentary seats. More importantly, neither Labour nor National was ever again sufficiently popular to win more than half of the votes cast. In 1978 and 1981, not even winning the most votes was enough to make you the Government. In both of those elections National secured a parliamentary majority with fewer votes than Labour.

It was in this grossly inequitable FPP context of parties winning less than half of the votes cast but securing well in excess of half the parliamentary seats that the voting public’s propensity to confuse “winning the most votes” with “winning a majority of the votes cast” began to take hold. The semantic confusion was in no way lessened when, in the General Election of 1993, the Alliance Leader, Jim Anderton, pledged his support to the party which won the most votes. Fortunately for Mr Anderton, he was never obliged to keep his promise. But, if he had, it would have seen the left-leaning Alliance backing an incumbent National Government which 62 percent of the electorate (including his own followers) had failed to endorse.

The confusion was exacerbated three years later in the first General Election conducted under the new MMP voting system. In spite of the fact that 66 percent of the electorate (including his own followers) had declined to endorse the incumbent National-led Government, the NZ First Leader, Winston Peters threw his support behind the party with the most (33.8 percent!) votes.

With the 2011 General Election less than a fortnight away, alarm is already being raised at the prospect of any party other than the party winning the most votes being allowed to form a government. Already, any combination of parties commanding a majority of parliamentary seats – but excluding the party with the most seats – is being derided as a “Coalition of Losers”. Already, conservative commentators are issuing thinly-veiled threats that such a government would face mass protest action.

Decent New Zealanders will reject such threats. Those making them are behaving undemocratically and unconstitutionally.

If 51 percent doesn’t beat 49 percent – then what does?

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 15 November 2011.


Anonymous said...

One of the interesting things is what the Green Party chooses to do, if it is in a position to decide which major party forms the ministry. It's actually a worry that they may let National continue as a minority government, because of it being so far ahead of Labour's party vote, on the basis of a deal for less road spending, more public transport etc.

Phil said...

Your MMP example is irrelevant - National and NZF in combination held enough seats to govern and recieved (adjusted for 'wasted' votes that failed to receive parliamentary representation) the backing of more than half of New Zealand voters.

For what it's worth, I believe the party that receives the single largest number of votes has the first obligation to attempt to form a government.

Augie said...

"The Parliamentary Opposition can test this with a motion of No-Confidence, which, to be carried, must be supported by more than half of the participating Members of Parliament." I could be wrong, but just as a government can remain in office with a plurality of support in parliament, is it not the case that a government could be defeated by a plurality in a confidence vote, rather than an absolute majority, if some members chose to abstain?

Lew said...

Chris, an important post, well-argued. I wrote something on the same theme (more technical, less eloquent, more hectoring, &c) prior to the last election when the same idiotic "moral mandate" canard was being peddled by the same folks who're peddling it now: at The Standard.

One other important thing: the Governor-General must accept the first petition from a party leader who can demonstrate support to survive a confidence vote. Not the party with the most seats, or the incumbent party, or the party with the largest proportion of votes -- the first party leader who can get an undertaking of support (or abstention) from 50%+1 of the House gets to govern.


markus said...

The very last poll of the 2008 Election Campaign - the Roy Morgan poll of late October/early November - had the Left 2 points ahead of the Right. This led the lovely Tory blue-rinse matrons currently running the New Zealand Listener to write a panic-ridden editorial (the week before the Election) forcefully pushing the whole "moral mandate" bullshit. Apparently, it would have been a travesty of democracy if a Centre-Left government had retained power.

They even tried to anticipate and negate the obvious point that Coalition governments are formed by Second and Third parties (whose support-base comprises more than 50% of voters) all the time in Europe/Scandinavia - apparently we have "a different culture" here.

Sanctuary said...

The only person who doesn't understand this aspect of MMP is John Rougham. Unfortunately, the foghorn of his stupidity includes being able to write (anonymous) editorials in the NZ Herald.

Galeandra said...

Lew, that "same idiotic "moral mandate" canard ... being peddled by the same folks who're peddling it now" is shared by most people I know and talk politics with; and me, too, though I'm clearly being educated here by my elders and betters. Isn't that 'moral' assumption the genesis of CT's discussion, anyway? Trouble is, "peddled" is such a perjorative word. The historical evidence of 'stolen' elections goes some way to explaining the zealotry of the Standardistas.

Victor said...

Lew, Markus and Sanctuary

I believe you are wholly correct as to constitutional propriety.

However, I suspect that Galeandra's view is shared by many and that it's not just the barracking of right-wing pundits that's responsible for this.

It's an attitude that seems to flow instinctively from an FPP heritage of "winner takes all", irrespective of the fact that many FPP governments were not elected on the basis of a majority of the popular vote.

Meanwhile, PR works well in New Zealand because we have adapted it to our purposes and imported into it a whole series of assumptions drawn from our previous parliamentary experience.

One of these is that the government should reflect, at the very least, the mood of a sizable minority of the population. A majority thereof is better still.

I don't think that anyone in New Zealand would want the kind of shennanigens which occurred in the past in both Greece and Japan, when right and left joined forces against the centre, thus providing a government for which no-one would have voted.

So, yes, the "majority" should trump the "most" but it remains incumbent on political parties to bear in mind the expectations of those who voted for them.

Olwyn said...

@ Victor: I don't know if you watched the leaders' debate last night, but toward the end of it Russell Norman said in answer to a question that the Greens would talk with Labour before National, presumably even if National had the greater number of votes. Prior commitments make a difference as well - no one can expect a party to join forces with another when they have committed themselves one way prior to the election.

Victor said...


I thought that Russell Norman's statement in the minor parties' debate was as clear as you could expect in the circumstances.

On the whole, the minor parties made it clear where they stood, with Winston Peters the only real fudger.

This doesn't mean that none of them will subsequently find complex and barely plausible reasons for eating their words.

(If so, they will be seen to be eating them and judged accordingly.)

But it does mean that we're entering the election with a reasonably good handle on where each party purports to stand.

I see this as further evidence of the maturation and domestication of PR in New Zealand.

We seem to have developed an approach that combines proportionality and inclusiveness with the ability to form coherent and stable governments.

This is an achievement that long eluded at least some countries with generations of PR experience behind them.

Keith said...

It is possible, under an FPP system in which all candidates are either National or Labour, for the party with fewer votes to get more seats. If the popular vote is a tie, but the average National winning margin is less than the average Labour winning margin, then National would win more seats. (This had the potential to give the Boundaries Commission a huge influence over election results.)

Also, in the most recent FPP era (1914-93), a single party has only gained 50% of votes cast twice, in 1938 and 1951. Popular majorities were never the norm in the pre-MMP eras.