National must absorb MMP changes

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 13:05 03/11/2012
John Banks and John Key
ACT leader John Banks and Prime Minister John Key.

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Tracy Watkins

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OPINION: Things you won't see on the campaign trail in 2014:

Don Brash.

A straight answer from Winston Peters.

Teapots, tea cups or teabags.

John Key and John Banks gasbagging while a suspicious looking black pouch sits right under their noses.

Mr Key and Mr Banks posing together for a stage-managed photo-op anywhere in Epsom full stop. Leaving aside the likelihood that both Mr Banks and his ACT party will have retired by then, any stage-managed event that looks like an attempt to gerrymander the vote in Epsom risks turning into such a circus it won't make it past the ninth-floor smell test.

So National could easily claim the moral high ground by letting self-interest and public interest collide in changes proposed by the Electoral Commission, the final shape of which are likely to be unveiled next week.

The commission earlier proposed scrapping the coat-tail rule allowing small parties to bring in extra MPs if they win an electorate seat and circumvent the need to win at least 5 per cent of the electoral vote. The balancing proviso is lowering the 5 per cent threshold - probably to 4 per cent.

Since the weight of public submissions were in favour of both proposals, that leaves National in an apparent quandary, as the party formally opposed both changes. However, there is no advantage for National in opposing change, especially when there is no obvious gain.

The commission argues that the one-seat rule should be scrapped to restore public confidence in MMP. National can hardly nod its head in pious agreement given it was the instigator of the deals that led to that loss of public confidence in the first place.

But National's immediate problem is winning in 2014. And there is no upside for the party dying in a ditch over a rule that is now far too tarnished to be useful. The lesson from Epsom has been a tale of diminishing returns, and spectacular own goals.

Ever since 1996, when Jim Bolger pulled the rug out from under his candidate in Wellington Central, Mark Thomas, National has used its blue-riband seats to help prop up potential allies ACT and, to a lesser extent, UnitedFuture's Peter Dunne.

Some would argue Labour did similarly in Wigram, though there was never any likelihood of loosening the former Alliance and Progressive leader Jim Anderton's barnacle-like grip on the seat.

But in the case of ACT and National, the fact that relations have never risen much above healthy mistrust, and often descended into visceral dislike, has only fed deep cynicism about the practice.

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National has always been motivated by two fears. The first is that ACT would just fail to make the 5 per cent threshold and votes on the centre-Right would be wasted. The second is a recurring nightmare in which National wins the most votes on the night but is relegated to Opposition because of a lack of allies.

The reality of the coat-tail rule is that far too much political capital has been burned up by doing electoral accommodations in the likes of Epsom, for far too little gain. It reached such high farce in Epsom in 2011, in fact, that it probably did National more harm than good.

The ultimate pyrrhic victory would have been Mr Banks celebrating a win there as ACT's sole MP as National suffered a narrow election loss on the back of the "teapot tape" fiasco surrounding a secret recording of Mr Key and Mr Banks at an Epsom cafe.

The main value of electoral accommodations, of course, has been the reassurance it offers to wavering supporters or tactical voters that theirs won't be a wasted vote. Arguably, Jim Bolger's tacit endorsement of Richard Prebble in Wellington Central in 1996 helped lift ACT's vote above the 5 per cent threshold on election night.

However, it is also inherently unfair because it gives some minor parties an unfair advantage over others and allows the big parties to game the system.

The commission's proposal to lower the 5 per cent threshold evens the playing field.

Officially, National might oppose the change also, but its quandary is that it would probably also be helped by the threshold being dropped. The Colin Craig-led Conservative Party looks to be on a trajectory that will propel it into Parliament and a lower threshold would grease the wheels. It would also make it easier for NZ First to be re-elected, though the minor party backs itself to cross the 5 per cent threshold and opposes lowering it - understandably, since that would make it harder for the likes of potential rivals like Mr Craig.

Economically, the Colin Craig party may lean in Labour's direction, particularly around the issue of asset sales. But its big-C conservatism, particularly on moral issues, suggests it leans more naturally towards National. And with no ACT, and a potentially diminished Maori Party, National is on the hunt for friends.

It has already started laying the groundwork for a rapprochement with potential kingmaker NZ First. In doing so, it is giving itself a better-than-even chance.

Labour may already be counting NZ First's votes as its own in an equation that sees it winning in 2014 with the Greens. But it is no secret how Mr Peters' brain ticks. Given the choice between being first cab off the rank with National and second behind a hugely powerful Green Party, we all know which he would choose. As for NZ First's insistence that it won't give its support to either party, that would last about as long as it takes to count the votes should it end up holding the balance of power.

The Government's most likely response will be to accept the Electoral Commission's recommendations and pack them off to a select committee to find consensus.

Of course, history suggests that any call for consensus is just another way to nip electoral reforms in the bud. In 2001, the status quo remained after a select committee failed to reach consensus on issues, including whether MMP should be retained, the number of MPs, retaining the Maori seats, retaining the one-seat threshold, and state funding to political parties.

There is an argument in favour of status quo this time - namely that voters supported retaining MMP in last year's referendum.

But the numbers game and realpolitik might be served by accepting change this time around.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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