Gordon Campbell on the MMP review, and Paul Ryan for Veep

As expected, the MMP review proposal paper has come up with a trade-off between the two main voting thresholds. It suggests scrapping the one electorate seat provision that enables small parties to bring others into Parliament in line with their vote nationwide, and also favours reducing the party vote threshold for parliamentary representation from the stiff hurdle of 5% to the still formidable one of 4%. On other matters… the proposal paper rejected moves to ban electorate candidates from standing on the party list or list MPs from standing in by–elections, or any formula whereby voters get to rank the candidates on the party list.

The proposal paper will now be open to a further round of public submissions, before the government decides what measures it will, or won’t enact. Already, commentators are divided on whether the suggested changes would, or wouldn’t benefit National, with John Armstrong in the NZ Herald feeling National to be the potential main loser if the proposals are eventually enacted as written [headline : “MMP Changes Bad News for National”] while Matthew Hooton in NBR (headline: “MMP Review Report Hands Key a Third Term”) goes in exactly the opposite direction.

Hooton makes the more convincing case. He paints a credible scenario of National cozying up to a Winston Peters who would otherwise be a third wheel in a Labour/Greens government, and flicking him a knighthood in the process. With a 4% threshold in place next time around, National could also reasonably rely on Colin Craig’s Conservatives making the grade, given they got to 2.65% in the 2011 election. While the social agenda of a National/NZ First/Conservatives ruling arrangement would be truly terrifying to many voters, it would also – as Hooton pointed out in an article that no longer seems available online – allow National’s popularity to slip as low as 40% before losing its grip on power. Such a prospect would more than make up for any residual grief at losing John Banks and Peter Dunne, assuming National would henceforth campaign hard in Epsom and Ohariu.

Politicking aside, the reviewers have indeed muffed a once-in-a-generation chance to make the Parliament a more democratic, and more representative place – although Andrew Geddis on Pundit plainly thinks that that level of disappointment is a wee bit over the top.

Well, not really. Having got through several elections under MMP that have produced stable governments able to pass their agendas – and where small parties have, at times, been a crucial brake on major party excesses – there is no reason for the extreme caution displayed by the reviewers, whose attempt at even-handedness will only entrench the relative dominance of the two major parties.

The best arguments for going further were made months ago by lawyer Graeme Edgeler on Public Address and is still essential reading. At the time, Edgeler expressed the hope that the review panel would “closely consider the pros and cons of the whole range” of threshold options, right down to almost none at all. The relevant questions, he suggested, should include:

What will it mean if we set [the MMP threshold] at a level where we can have single MP parties? How many are there likely to be? What will the likely effects be on government formation and the legislative process? If the threshold is at around a two MP level, how well will such parties be able to perform the work we expect of parliamentary parties?

If a three-MP party is in the opposition, how frequently will it get to ask a primary question in the House? How many bills in the areas of legislation important to it will it be unable to subject to real scrutiny?

At what level is a parliamentary party likely to be too small that its MPs will be unable to do a substantial amount of the work we would expect even a small party to be able to do? Perhaps if a party is so small that it can do almost none of the things we would expect of people representing our voices in the House of Representatives, the arguments in favour of thresholds have some meaning.

If all that can be offered to the small groupings needed to elect one (or two) MPs is the illusion of effective Parliamentary representation, it may be legitimate to set a threshold at a level where we can have some confidence those who make it into Parliament will be able to be effective representatives.

Ultimately, the Commission should determine the size it considers a minor party is likely to be effective enough that the rationales for telling its voters that they can’t be represented at all fall away?

In approaching those tasks, as Edgeler also pointed out, New Zealand should bring to bear its useful, first hand experience with every conceivable size and shape that a minor party can possibly assume :

ACT, Mana, the Maori Party, the Progressives, and United Future have been elected as single MP parties; ACT, the Progressives and United Future have had two MPs; the Maori Party and United Future have had three MPs, The Maori Party has had four MPs; ACT, the Maori Party and New Zealand First have had five MPs; and the Greens have operated with six MPs.

Over such a short period, we’ve amassed quite a useful selection of case studies: of minor parties that have worked closely with others in opposition, and that have worked alone in opposition, those that have sat on the cross-benches, and others been in government. There is the data to assess the contributions they made, the level of representation they provided those who voted for them, and the concessions they’ve exacted (for good or ill).

Given this experience, there is absolutely no reason to believe that a far lower threshold than 4% would cause the work of Parliament to splinter into an impossible-to-manage array of factions. The bogey of Israel’s fragmented parliament traditionally hauled out to discredit a very low threshold either no longer applies, since Israel now has a 2% threshold – and besides, as many others have pointed out in the past, the fragmented political culture in Israel arguably preceded the low threshold, and was not created by it. New Zealand has a more cohesive political culture and its parliamentary democracy would benefit from being more representative. To repeat: there is no reason to believe that an unmanageable level of political fragmentation would be the inevitable outcome of having an MMP threshold at 3%, or lower.

The quality of the argument on this point in the proposal paper not only fails to get to grips with Edgeler’s questions, it barely even engages. It frames the argument for settling for 4% – which is what the Royal Commission suggested in the 1980s, before we had racked up five elections of experience with MMP – in this fashion:

This threshold should ensure, first, that each party in Parliament has at least a minimal level of electoral support, and therefore sufficient MPs to participate fully and effectively in the various functions of Parliament. Second, it should limit the proliferation of small parties in
Parliament thus reducing the risk of fragmentation. A fragmented Parliament can lead to difficulties in forming and maintaining effective governments.

In our view, anything below a party vote threshold of 3% would amount to a departure from the balanced approach that currently underpins the MMP system and would in effect constitute a new voting system. We are mindful of the New Zealand Election Study data that suggests there is already public unease about the number of small parties in Parliament. This is an area in which New Zealand should move cautiously.

These assertions are largely left as assertions. “The threshold should limit the proliferation of small parties….thus reducing the risk of fragmentation.” Really? I thought the threshold should operate to expand the opportunities for representation – especially given that on the experience of the past 16 years, this can be achieved without the ‘risk of fragmentation’ being realized.

Paul Ryan, Rand Disciple, for Veep

So Mitt Romney has chosen Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate. Nate Silver’s column once again, seems the most cogent on the political calculations behind the Ryan gamble. The most interesting gossip about Ryan is whether his past allegiance to Ayn Rand will return to haunt him – especially among conservative voters, who don’t share Rand’s scornful dismissal of religion. In 2005 during a speech at a Library of Congress function commemorating Rand’s centenary, Ryan said: “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.” Reportedly, Ryan has until recently handed out copies of Rand’s books to his staff, and urged said staff to read up on them. Which should mean that Ryan will be willing to go out on the stump in Ohio and Pennsylvania and share a few of these choice Randisms about the working stiff with the voters:

Wealth is …made by the intelligent at the expense of the fools, by the able at the expense of the incompetent, by the ambitious at the expense of the lazy….

Or, my favourite:

“What are your masses but mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it?”

And in the Bible Belt, how about these Rand quotes on God and faith:

Every argument for God and every attribute ascribed to Him rests on a false metaphysical premise. None can survive for a moment on a correct metaphysics…

…. The alleged short-cut to knowledge, which is faith, is only a short-circuit destroying the mind Faith is the worst curse of mankind, as the exact antithesis and enemy of thought.

Scroll down a bit on the Democratic Strategist website and you’ll find an extended discussion of this aspect of the Paul Ryan bio. At least it explains why Ryan’s famous alternative Budget wasn’t all that keen on Medicare, and on other government entitlements. Rand herself of course, was notoriously flexible on this principle. She may have sneered at everyone else who accepted government assistance and may have decried taxation as the tool of the aforementioned mud people, but she was happy to take taxpayer funds for her own medical treatment–and willing to file for it under her husband’s surname, lest this foible be detected by her disciples.

Clearly, Ryan has some explaining to do on the Ayn Rand front. Just as a Democratic Vice-presidential candidate choice would have to do if, as the Dem Strategist site points out, within the last decade they had cited V.I. Lenin as their main inspiration for seeking a career in public office. But the rules seem different for Republicans.