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  • Writer's pictureGrant McLachlan - Stuff - Column

Politicians 'abuse flaws' of MMP

Any suggestion that we have a proportional representation system is a myth.

The Mixed Member Proportional system (MMP) allows too many opportunities for our politicians to achieve power with a disproportionate number of Members of Parliament.

In fact, all of the political parties in Parliament hold a higher number of MPs than their proportion of the vote would suggest.

In 1993, New Zealanders were wary of giving politicians too much power. To reign in politicians we replaced First Past the Post with MMP.

MMP was designed for Germany - a defeated dictatorship - to prevent any one party from gaining an absolute majority.

Kiwis didn't want absolute majorities. We wanted consensus between parties - to avoid upheavals such as those endured the previous decade.

We also didn't want a repeat of 1978 and 1981 which saw National retain power with less than 40 percent of the vote - and less than Labour.

New Zealand voted for MMP to reduce the number of "wasted votes" to make every vote count.

The major flaw with MMP is the 5 percent threshold. Under the Sainte-Laguë formula (which calculates the allocation of MPs) major parties can gain a disproportionate advantage if minor parties fail to reach 5 percent or win an electorate.

In 2008, 153,461 votes were "wasted" and 75,493 in 2011. With less than 45 and 47 per cent of the vote respectively, National almost gained a majority in the House.

Because of the 5 percent threshold, there is a risk that votes for minor parties would be wasted. Voters could either vote for their second preference or, at worse, those wasted votes end up benefiting their least favoured preference.

Effectively, the 5 percent threshold is an entry barrier that protects parties already represented in Parliament.

The simple solution would be to scrap the 5 percent threshold. Then more votes would count and the system would be more proportional - more so than the alternative systems offered by the referendum.

As we have seen, the parties in Parliament were left to decide the fate of the referendum and review. They decided to keep the status quo which, in many ways, suits them.

By scrapping the 5 percent threshold we won't see the silly games where the major parties suggest their supporters vote for minor parties in electorates.

Minor parties should not be at the major parties' mercy. It undermines transparency. It undermines democracy.

The fear of "wasting" votes on minor parties has created a lot of unnecessary instability. No minor party supporting a major party in government has increased their support. The Alliance, New Zealand First, UnitedFuture, and Act have imploded due to the fear of being wiped out.

In 2005, National believed it could get a majority. Their strategy was simple: destroy minor parties and do whatever it takes to stay in power.

The first strategy backfired. Brash believed the polls and didn't expect to form a coalition. He expected a majority due to New Zealand First and Act being wiped out.

Since then, National's half-hearted efforts in Ohariu and Epsom are insurance if they fail.

It is ironic that National relies on the disproportionality loopholes in MMP to retain power.

The Act, Maori Party, and UnitedFuture have more MPs than their party vote would allocate - caused by voters strategically splitting their electorate and party votes. Half of voters who voted for Maori Party candidates probably gave their party votes to Labour. Those Labour Party voters are effectively propping up a National-led Government.

As Russell Norman and David Shearer suggested, National is running out of mates.

One suggestion floated on more than one occasion since National's dismal 2002 election result is to 'create mates.' The strategy was simple: run independent candidates in safe National seats so that National could distort the vote in their favour.

Imagine if National ran the same strategy in every electorate it could win. National would have 44 List MPs and 44 "independent" support partners. If Labour did the same, we could have a Parliament of more than 180 MPs.

We have, however, an MMP system where the two vote electorate and party votes are the core component of the system. The 5 percent threshold is the catalyst for abuse.

Instead of an ignored review, there needs to be more robust methods to ensure that politicians don't continue to abuse the flaws generated by a 5 percent threshold.

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