Key and the moral mandate

Let's be clear, it was Prime Minister John Key who brought morality into it.

‘‘I have always thought there’s an argument that the largest party has a moral mandate to have the first reasonable shot at forming a government; if they can do so they should be able to do so.’’

He was responding to the rapidly ageing chestnut: if National is bigger than Labour (but by implication not bigger than Labour plus the Greens) should it get first dibs on government.

To his credit, Key made it crystal clear that despite the expectation of many, the ‘‘moral mandate’’ was not the reality.

‘‘Constitutionally that’s not actually a valid argument. In the end it’s about getting a majority in the Parliament.’’ 

Quite right too. 

By settled convention Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae will take into account clear public statements by party leaders – including intentions to abstain as he made clear clear  in a speech to the press gallery late last year. He will then invite the person who can win a confidence vote to form a government.

So Key’s scenario could arise only in narrow circumstances such as if, say, NZ First was prepared to back one or other of the parties but was unsure which.

Winston Peters may take the ‘‘biggest first’’ approach, though that is not clear. He certainly didn’t in 1996 when he negotiated with Jim Bolger and Helen Clark in parallel before installing National.

But back to morality.

Keel-hauling it into election deal-making was an odd choice for Key given the dodgy deals he is contemplating to ensure allies win in Epsom, Ohariu and East Coast Bays.

His final decision on those will come close to the election, but in each case he is clearly contemplating handing a seat to an MP who would not otherwise have a bolter’s chance of winning it and whose party will at best struggle to cross the 5 per cent MMP threshold.

The justification for the ‘‘deals’’ to ask National voters to vote for someone else are twofold. 

First is the so-called ‘‘one electoral seat threshold’’. If a party falls short of 5 per cent its vote is essentially wasted unless it also wins an electorate seat. Get 4 per cent and no electorate and you get no seats. Get 4 per cent and win East Coast Bays and collect five bonus seats as you pass Go! It is an anomaly but it does conserve some measure of proportionality by ensuring votes are not ‘‘wasted’’.

If morality can be relative, that is relatively more moral than the second justification for deal-mongering; the so-called ‘‘overhang’’ provision. Win more electorate seats than your share of the party vote and hey presto! the size of Parliament rises above 120 seats to allow for your extra seats. So win Epsom and Ohariu with next to no nationwide support for your party and whoop-de-doo the number of seats in the House increases to 122 and National has a two seat headstart.

If Mr Key goes ahead and purposely tries to give ACT or UnitedFuture an ‘‘overhang’’ seat that would be about as close to the definition of a gerrymander as you would ever see. Ditto if Labour strikes a deal to avoid defeating Mana’s Hone Harawira in Te Tai Tokerau.

Of course it’s all perfectly legal, purely pragmatic, but shameful nonetheless.

It takes you back to the mid-1990s when a ginger group on the Right mooted gaming the new MMP system by setting up a list party – call it National – to win its share of the party votes and seats.

At the same time a parallel rural party with no list presence would contest the electorates.  It could then win a slew of seats and create a massive overhang and ensure a Right wing victory even with less than half the party votes.

It was quickly dismissed by right-thinking Right politicians at the time. But if National in 2014 allows a near-zero party to win a seat to cut across proportionality it is only a difference of degree. Key should rule it out.

Bear in mind that it was Key’s government (on the pretext there was no ‘‘consensus’’ for change) that ruled out the Electoral Commission’s recommendations that would have squashed any benefit from such deals.

In its final report in late 2012 the commission’s recommended that ‘‘The one electorate seat threshold should be abolished (and if it is, the provision for overhang seats should also be abolished).’’

It also called for the party vote threshold to be lowered from 5 per cent to 4 per cent.

(It’s ironical that one of the main arguments against lowering the threshold is the fear small parties will proliferate, yet the deals with mini-parties do just that.)

If Key believes in moral mandates the least he could do is put the commission’s suggestions to a referendum and let the people decide on the rules that elect their representatives and their governments.

That would be far more meaningful than a vote for the colours on a rectangle of material flying atop a flagpole.

Fairfax Media