MMP magnet for political vipers


The ancient storyteller Aesop told the tale of a man who stumbled across a frozen viper in a wintry meadow. Filled with compassion, the man scooped up the viper and warmed it by holding it to his breast, whereupon the snake bit the man. Dying in the snow, the man realised that he was to blame for his fate.

How could he have expected anything else when biting people is exactly what vipers do?

I wish people would remember the wisdom of this fable when wringing their hands about political manipulation of our electoral system.

MMP allocates seats to Parliament in a complicated way. Parties are generally entitled to a proportional share of available seats based on the party vote. Different outcomes are possible, however, based on the precise mix of parties that cross the 5 per cent party vote threshold or win an electorate seat.

To ensure the best outcome for his National Party, the prime minister has signalled that this year it will neither seriously contest Peter Dunne's seat in Ohariu nor undertake a concerted effort to beat the ACT Party in Epsom. By doing this, he hopes to preserve his parliamentary allies and ensure his party will have enough seats to govern if it falls short of an absolute majority.

Colin Craig has not been so fortunate. While National will work with his Conservative Party, Craig will not be offered safe harbour in the seat of East Coast Bays. One of the reasons the prime minister gave for this refusal is that allowing Craig to win there would involve a sitting National MP standing aside - something that is not the case with Ohariu and Epsom.

I would also bet that John Key has calculated that the costs of assisting Craig - against whom some in media are overtly hostile - would outweigh the potential benefits any such alliance might bring.

The Labour Party has criticised all of this as cynical chicanery contrary to the spirit of our democracy. Such dudgeon seems less than sincere, of course, when one considers that party's own propensity to engage in strategic deals when they serve its own interests. For instance, Labour MPs did not rail against Jim Anderton's Progressive Party bringing Left-wing list MPs into Parliament through his winning the Wigram constituency. It is also hard to recall anyone getting too upset when Labour conceded the Coromandel seat to Jeanette Fitzsimons in 1999 - as insurance for the Greens getting into Parliament that year.

There is even circumstantial evidence that a tacit understanding has been reached between Labour and Internet-Mana to ensure Hone Harawira wins the seat of Te Tai Tokerau this year. Annette Sykes, the Mana Party's president and one of its candidates, claimed this to be the case. More recently, questions have been raised about whether Labour headquarters has kneecapped Kelvin Davis in his long-running quest to win the seat.

There are also David Cunliffe's carefully phrased statements apparently precluding any Internet-Mana participation in his hypothetical government. These are always framed in terms of ruling out ministerial roles for any of the minor party's MPs. What he has not ruled out, however, is making concessions to Internet-Mana in return for confidence and supply.

There is a genuine contrast between this and the way Key conclusively rejected working with Winston Peters in 2008 and 2011 (but not, tellingly, this year).

What may be in play is that Cunliffe realises that to even have an outside shot at power, he cannot afford to turn anybody away, Hone Harawira and Kim Dotcom included.

On the other hand, polling has shown the pair as the poorest performing political leaders in terms of trust and likeability among the wider New Zealand public. That would explain Cunliffe's carefully phrased statements about working with them.

All of this scheming would be grist to the mill for Niccolò Machiavelli, the Renaissance thinker whose treatise The Prince has become a standard reference for political intrigue. To those who think politics should principally be about the contest of ideas, however, it is all an impenetrable and disheartening distraction.

Distasteful as it may be, it is unrealistic to expect otherwise under MMP. Ultimately, politics is about one thing: power. As Jim Anderton had it, "one day in government is worth a thousand in opposition".

MMP rewards well-played gamesmanship with an advantage over one's opponents. In a close result, which most MMP elections will deliver, the advantage could be decisive.

The voting public may not approve of the tactics, but history shows the disapproval does not generally affect voting habits. And if you don't do it, the other side will.

And so artifice has become a prerequisite for gaining power in New Zealand.

Expecting politicians not to behave accordingly is to be as naive as the man who took pity upon the viper.

Manawatu Standard