Bryce Edwards: Time to scrap or reduce the 5% MMP threshold

Bryce Edwards: Time to scrap or reduce the 5% MMP threshold

MMP has a major problem – it’s killing off the minor parties. Smaller parties were supposed to revive and shakeup the party system, providing a diverse array of ideological options for voters. Instead, since 1996, no new parties have managed to make it into Parliament, except by splitting off from existing parties that already had representation.

At this year’s election, the presence of minor parties has further reduced. Two minor parties were ousted from Parliament, and the three remaining ones suffered poor results as voters shifted back to the two major parties. In fact, a record low proportion of votes were cast for the minors, and on final results, only 18 minor party MPs were elected. In contrast, Labour and National won 102 of the MPs, by swallowing up over 81 per cent of the party vote.

For the best overview of the decline in minor party strength, see Richard Shaw’s We’ve elected fewer parties than ever under MMP. He says, “the 2017 election is a reminder that the two traditional parties continue to dominate New Zealand politics.”

Of course the simplest explanation for the decline of the minor parties is that voters simply didn’t vote for them. This is a point well made by the No Right Turn blogger – see: This is MMP working, not failing.

Here’s his main point: “I share the disappointment at the lack of diverse representation and the apparent narrowing of our political sphere, but that isn’t due to any failure of MMP. With a Gallagher Index of 2.7, this election wasn’t especially unrepresentative in terms of votes equating to seats. MMP seems to have done a better job at ensuring that seats reflected public support than it did last time (when the Gallagher Index was 3.82), or in 2008 (when it was 3.84). Instead, the reason there are so few minor parties represented in Parliament this time is because people didn’t vote for them.”

There are a number of reasons voters rejected the minor parties. And since the election these have been identified as issues relating to media coverage, a residual first-past-the-post mentality, the aggressive strategies of the major parties, the poor performance of the minor party leaders, and the financial superiority of the major parties.

However, the factor that has dominated the debate about the decline of the minor parties is the role of MMP’s five per cent threshold, which everyone agrees helps keep the smaller parties out of Parliament. And there now seems to be an emerging debate about whether this is good or bad thing.

Arguments for ditching the threshold

The must-read argument for change is Michael Wright’s column, It’s time to ditch the MMP threshold. He outlines the problem, and then declares: “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”.

Wright points out that the threshold doesn’t simply prevent parties below the magic five per cent from getting any seats, it suppresses the public’s consideration of those parties at all: “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 Maori Party and Act.”

The most interesting point he makes in favour of more minor parties in Parliament is there would be a better allocation of power, and more stable government: “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.”

On this topic, blogger No Right Turn agrees, saying “If you’re upset about Winston Peters having “all” the power (or rather, as much as the other parties give him), then the answer is to eliminate the threshold” – see: Time to ditch the threshold.

Also in favour of jettisoning the threshold entirely, Julian Lee questions how well the system is working, given the poor results for the smaller parties. He says this has “cast doubt on the point of MMP – greater representation of the public in the democratic process” – see his article, The election was a minor party bloodbath, so has MMP done its dash?

Lee compares the 2017 result with the high point for the minors, which was the 2002 election “when six minor parties took out 41 seats in Parliament, a third of the total number of seats.” And he ponders whether the state of the party system will get worse in the near future: “As for the two remaining minor parties, there is no guarantee the Greens will survive the next election given this year’s result, nor is there any guarantee New Zealand First’s Winston Peters will contest the next election at age 75. This leaves the potential for a 2020 election without minor parties. A 2020 Parliament of National and Labour.

So, Lee, points to other MMP countries like Japan and Lesotho that don’t have a threshold, and suggests we emulate them. It would be relatively simple, as a “natural” threshold would be needed to get one seat – based on 1/120th of the total party vote: “all that was required to get a seat in Parliament was a .83 per cent vote, that is 18,000 votes”. And he says, “If the threshold were removed this election, two extra parties would have made it to Parliament – the Opportunities Party with three seats and the Maori Party with one.”

Another blogger, “I’m no fox”, has also written this week about the problems of the threshold: “The biggest problem is the ridiculous threshold. The threshold is an unfair bar that numerous political movements, with tens of thousands of voters backing them, have failed to meet, keeping them locked out of the debating chamber. Both TOP and the Māori Party lost out because of it in this election; the Conservatives, Internet Mana, and the ALCP all lost out last time. You can have 4.99% of the population behind you, but because you didn’t have just a handful more people ticking your box, you have no direct legislative influence” – see: The problem isn’t just MMP, but how we use it.

Prior to the election, I was also quoted by the Otago Daily Times’ Bruce Munro about the need to have more minor party representation: “Our democracy has a major flaw if we don’t have a full array of different options that we can seriously consider voting for. And ultimately the public is going to be less engaged in politics and in voting if the options on offer are boring, bland, and highly-restricted in range” – see: Minorities of none.

Retain the threshold, but reduce it?

There are plenty of other advocates at the moment for ditching the threshold, or at least lowering it. AUT’s Julienne Molineaux has published an excellent overview of coalition formation under MMP, and also discusses how well MMP is working for getting minor parties into Parliament – see: How MMP Works: Freestyle bargaining.

Molineaux argues that the 5 per cent threshold “needs to be lowered because it wastes votes; it needs to be lowered because it has, so far, made it impossible for (completely) new parties to make it into parliament.”

And in his review of how well MMP is performing, Peter McKenzie also cites the threshold as a major impediment to diversity in Parliament, saying that reducing the threshold to three per cent would have the most “significant effect on the ability of minor parties to grow and challenge Labour and National’s power” – see: MMP: How does New Zealand stack up?

Finlay Macdonald complains that the electoral system still isn’t working properly and, amongst other fixes, he advocates a reduced threshold, adding “Our parliament would be better off for having the likes of Gareth Morgan on board” – see: Mixed-member proportional and the 2017 election.

Three per cent is the magic number according to blogger Martyn Bradbury – see: In defence of MMP and how to fix it.

But Bradbury strongly opposes getting rid of the threshold entirely, in case radicals get elected to Parliament: “Some have suggested we should scrap the threshold altogether, I think that is a dangerous suggestion that opens the door to political radicalisation and extremism. You only need to look at Israel who has a totally representative voting system and it leaves them hostage to tiny religious splinter group factions who hold any Government to ransom for hardline brutality against Palestinians. No threshold allows extremism, what we need to do in NZ is lower the threshold, not abandon it”.

Bradbury’s arguments are supported by Mike Hosking, who would prefer to retain it at the full five percent, saying, “The last thing we’d want to do is to add to the madness by making it easier to access power” – see: For heaven’s sake don’t drop the MMP threshold.

Hosking’s main argument is worth quoting at length: “Even at 5 per cent we still seem to have had ourselves a fair old selection of odd balls. Lower the 5 per cent – you’re merely inviting more madness into the place. Look at the countries who operate lower thresholds. Italy has 3per cent. That’s a stable democracy – not. Greece is another with 3 per cent surely another example of sensible fiscally responsible and longstanding stability – not. Cypress 3.6 per cent, Bosnia 3 per cent, Albania 3 per cent – now yes some of them run different systems, and some of them have other issues at play, but join the dots. The easier it is to get to parliament, the madder the place tends to be, the more parties end up in parliament, the more uncertainty and instability you tend to have.”

Finally, for my own view on the threshold, as well as the MMP “coat-tails” rule, see my Herald opinion piece from 2011: Undemocratic 5pc threshold at fault, not MMP.