It's time to ditch the MMP threshold
OPINION: MMP hasn't had a great 2017. It hammered the minor parties on election night then got hammered itself for presiding over such a hammering. If voting systems had feelings, New Zealand's would be doing it tough right now.
One change can fix this. It's time to dispense with the 5 per cent threshold. Not just lower it, ditch it altogether. The rule that under MMP political parties must win at least 5 per cent of the party vote to enter Parliament is holding us back.
The threshold exists to ensure the right mix of stability and proportionality in government. Right now it is providing neither of those things. After last month's election, Parliament is home to four political parties and the rump of a fifth – the lowest-ever total under MMP – and one of those parties is wielding a decidedly disproportionate amount of power.
Ditching the threshold would have three big advantages. First, it would greatly diminish the spectre of the wasted vote. That is, do I bother voting for a party that might not make it in? If you were mulling your support for, say, Democrats for Social Credit (2014 party vote 0.07 per cent) that's a question you should have to consider, but it's an unreasonable dilemma to force on the 5 to 14 per cent of voters who have backed a below-threshold party in each MMP election, only to see many of them fall just short.
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In 2017, this best applied to The Opportunities Party (TOP), a new political player with a high-profile leader and populist, evidence-based policies. Media coverage was often framed in the will they-won't they context of the threshold, an immediate turn-off for swing voters. TOP polled 2.2 per cent on election night but would surely have got more were it unencumbered by the threshold stigma. The same goes for other minnows like the Māori Party and ACT.
Without the 5 per cent requirement, entry to Parliament would be via a 'natural' threshold of about 0.8 per cent (i.e. 1/120 of the vote, enough for one of Parliament's 120 seats). Barring a big change with the special votes, that would have put TOP and the Māori Party over the line this election and in play as potential coalition partners.
Which brings us to the second advantage. More smaller parties in Parliament means less chance of one of them holding all the cards after election day, which is exactly what has just happened to New Zealand First. The only reason Winston Peters was able to so cantankerously grandstand at a press conference last week was because National and Labour need him a lot more than he needs them. He is their only realistic option to form the next Government. Greater plurality would help avoid this.
Lastly, it would be an opportunity to simultaneously ditch the unpopular "coat-tails" clause, whereby below-threshold parties that win an electorate seat are entitled to cash in their meagre party vote share for a handful of list MPs. Rivals with similar support but no seat miss out, which is doubly unfair considering many such electorate wins are engineered by a major party on behalf of a small ally to game the system. Ditch the threshold and you can ditch the clause. If you can't get 0.8 per cent of the vote no-one's going to quibble about under-representation.
The downside is that Parliament ends up a rogues gallery, with extremist or special interest parties disrupting everything and making coalition-building a nightmare. This is possible, but far-fetched. Across eight MMP elections, the only real outliers that would have entered Parliament under a natural threshold were the Outdoor Recreation New Zealand party in 2002 and the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party in 1996 and 1999. Even if a tiny hard-line party gained a foothold, our democracy is surely robust enough to handle it.
That said, almost none of this is likely to happen. Voting systems are not lightly toyed with. When the Electoral Commission reviewed MMP in 2012, it recommended lowering the threshold to 4 per cent. It flirted with 3 per cent but baulked at such a "massive" reduction: "[It] would be a step too far at this stage ... This is an area in which New Zealand should move cautiously and incrementally."
On top of that, such reviews can only be initiated by Parliament, which would also enact any changes. In 2012, there was no consensus on the threshold change or most of the other recommendations. "Therefore there will be no changes to MMP," then-Justice Minister Judith Collins said.
Until there is, expect little change anywhere else. Since MMP was introduced, the only new parties to enter Parliament have been splinters from existing ones, led by sitting MPs. Breaking that trend, as TOP leader Gareth Morgan said, is a very tall order.