Bryce Edwards: How low should the MMP threshold go?

Bryce Edwards: How low should the MMP threshold go?

The five percent MMP threshold is regarded by many as the biggest problem in our electoral system. Every couple of years there are calls to fix what many see as an undemocratic and excessive barrier to proper proportional representation. However, these debates normally end in a stalemate over what change should be made to the threshold, and how that change could be implemented.

The last time this debate fired up was in the aftermath of the 2017 general election, when the minor parties received an historically low vote, prompting questions about the role of the MMP threshold in preventing new parties from entering Parliament and keeping the party system dynamic. I covered this debate at the time in my column, Time to scrap or reduce the 5% MMP threshold.

This time, the debate has arisen courtesy of a private members bill being proposed by the Green Party’s spokesperson on the electoral system, Golriz Ghahraman. The Electoral Strengthening Democracy Bill seeks to have Parliament legislate a number of changes to the electoral system, including a drop in the threshold, from five percent to four.

Political commentators and politicians are reacting with great interest and a mixture of support for and opposition to this proposal. There are two main issues being discussed: 1) Is what the Greens are proposing an appropriate way to implementing a change to the threshold? And, 2) Is a four percent threshold the right level?

1) Challenges to the Greens’ political process

There have been plenty of allegations thrown at the Greens about the party’s motivations in wanting to lower the MMP threshold, and about their proposed method for doing so. The party has suggested that the change in electoral law could be made by a simple majority vote in Parliament, and implemented in time for next year’s election.

This afternoon, however, the Greens’ hopes for lowering the threshold before 2020 were scuppered by Jacinda Ardern who ruled this out – see Craig McCulloch’s PM rules out change to MMP threshold before next election.

From the right of the political spectrum, commentator Matthew Hooton has tweeted that the Greens’ proposals are “Completely corrupt & outrageous.” This is because, he argues, the Greens are wanting to make these significant changes to the electoral system without getting either any sort of cross-party agreement or public support (via a referendum). He suspects the Greens are motivated by self-interest in trying to ensure that they are not ejected from Parliament if they fall below the five percent threshold next year.

National Party leader Simon Bridges has similarly condemned the proposals, saying “I think it will be outrageous if they seek to bring such a change in before the next election” – see Richard Harman’s: MMP threshold reduction possible.

According to Harman, Bridges says that “up till now significant constitutional change had not been done without strong bipartisan support” and the Greens’ “Bill was designed to screw the scrum against National and save the three-party Government’s bacon.”

Bridges also points out that if the Greens were serious about electoral reform and doing so in democratic way, they would have taken part in the current parliamentary review of election rules: “A first term Green MP has put this forward when on the Justice Select Committee there is an electoral law review going on at the moment, and the Greens haven’t even deigned to go to that.”

Rightwing blogger David Farrar also discusses the threshold issue and says that “lowering the threshold to 4% may have merit, but should only occur either by consensus of parties in Parliament, or a referendum. This looks like the Greens worried they won’t make it back and wanting to change the law to help them” – see: Greens obviously worried about the 5% threshold.

Farrar argues, instead, in favour of “Nick Smith’s suggestion that we entrench the entire Electoral Act so not a single clause of it can be amended without a 75% super-majority in Parliament.”

It’s not only the right who have suspicions about the Green Party’s motivations and ethics in pushing for electoral reform that might benefit their own side. Leftwing blogger Martyn Bradbury says today that the Greens’ agenda amounts to “ruthless corruption” because it seeks to “gerrymander MMP” for “naked self-interest” – see: Why are the Greens attempting to gerrymander MMP legislation to benefit them? He says this episode “is proof positive our Millennial Greens have come of age and are now as politically venal as everyone else.”

Bradbury has the same objections about process and motivations as some of the rightwing critics, but he also adds that the Greens’ choice to propose that the threshold is only lowered slightly – instead of more radically to 1-3 percent – is also self-serving because it would still be sufficiently high to protect the Greens from any emerging competition: “the threshold that would most benefit the Greens while killing off any other proto-political movement”.

Former Green Party activist Danyl Mclauchlan draws attention to “the terrible, terrible optics of a political party that is part of the government, and hovering just above the 5% threshold in the recent round of polls – and which routinely under-performs the polls on election day – attempting to alter the electoral system to its own advantage” – see: The best argument against lowering the MMP threshold? Winston Raymond Peters.

But should the merits of the threshold-reduction case really be overshadowed by debates on the motivations and supposed self-interest of those leading the arguments? Not according to Tim Watkin, who says that such “a knee-jerk response” makes “little sense and stops us having a proper squiz at how we should run the country” – see: Lowering the threshold – let’s not lower our standards.

Watkin also points out that “The Greens have always backed a lower threshold, even when the polls had them in double digits.” He congratulates the Greens for “putting the state of our democracy back on the table for all of us to poke and prod at.”

2) Is a four percent MMP threshold the right level?

Tim Watkin has a very good discussion about what level the MMP threshold should be but points out that there really isn’t any perfect number. He surveys some other countries: “You can look at Germany with five percent and still see them struggle on for months trying to form a government or you can look at the sway tiny, racist parties are having in Israel where the threshold is a peculiar 3.25 percent. Yet you can also see Norway doing fine at four percent and Finland OK with no threshold at all.”

He says that there are essentially two main reasons to lower the threshold: 1) to allow more new minor parties to get into Parliament, and 2) to allow more of voters’ preferences to count, as currently, “the threshold also bans more than 130,000 voters from having the representative they selected”.

Danyl Mclauchlan actually gives one of the best arguments in favour of lowering or abolishing the threshold, which is worth reading at length: “It is obviously unfair and distortionary. A party that gets 5% of the vote gets six seats in parliament, while a party that gets 4.9% gets zero. Why should 131,508 voters (5% of the turnout in the 2017 election) have their votes translated into seats into Parliament, and a slightly smaller number have their votes nullified? And the threshold distorts the decision making process around who to vote for if their favoured party is in that danger zone. Does a Green voter vote Green, with the risk that their vote will get wiped out, or switch to Labour, who they support less but whose vote carries essentially zero risk? A 4% threshold still has these problems, but because the threshold is lower the unfairness and distortion are reduced. Why not lower it to 1%? Or whatever percentage is enough to capture a single seat in parliament (this number shifts around, depending on various factors).”

However, Mclauchlan says he’s not so convinced by his own arguments anymore, given changes in global politics and the recent experience of Winston Peters in government showing the dangers of allowing radicals into politics: “now that we’re seeing a global rise of extremist parties, a fascist government in Brazil, etc, it no longer seems like such an abstract fear. But my main problem with lowering the threshold is that it will also probably save New Zealand First, and it will make the New Zealand First model of politics so much more viable.”

A further interesting argument about reform comes from National MP Chris Bishop, albeit from when he was a law student. Richard Harman has published part of a 2006 law paper by the politician in which he appears to argue for the complete abolition of the threshold: “The abolition of an electoral threshold would provide for a more representative Parliament and a more democratic one… It would empower voters of minor parties, increase the proportionality of Parliament, and reduce voting distortion.”

On the question of the MMP threshold’s role of preventing a proliferation of small parties in Parliament and government, Bishop declares: “Democracy must triumph over stability.”

It’s also worth noting that Ghahraman’s bill would abolish the contentious MMP “one-seat” rule which exempts minor parties from the threshold if they win an electorate seat. Of course, the classic example is that of New Zealand First in the 1999 election. Winston Peters won the seat of Tauranga for New Zealand First, but his party fell short of the five percent threshold, winning only 4.07 of the party vote. Because of the one-seat rule, it meant that the party got five MPs. Under the Greens’ proposal a party in this situation would only be entitled to the one seat of Tauranga, and no list MPs. Would that be more, or less, democratic and fair?

According to blogger No Right Turn, this would make things worse, and therefore he says “I’m hoping that this bill is never drawn” – see: Strengthening our democracy? He explains: “I support eliminating the threshold entirely, and any reduction in it is a step towards this. But until the threshold is reduced to the level required to win two seats, then removing the one-seat rule will reduce proportionality, and damage our democracy rather than strengthening it.”

Finally, for the most recent and in-depth examination of the plight of the new minor parties struggling against barriers such as the MMP threshold, see Rob Mitchell’s Crunching of the minor party vote leaves little room for new talent.