23 Dec 2017

2017: MMP comes of age

1:25 pm on 23 December 2017

Opinion - As my personal contribution to the smooth functioning of parliamentary democracy, I'd like to suggest the National Party caucus be made to watch all three series of the lauded Danish TV drama Borgen.

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Photo: RNZ

If you haven't seen it, the programme follows the rapid rise of a young, charismatic female politician to leader of a minority government, requiring skilful coalition negotiations and the constant management of compromise and competing agendas.

Big issues such as immigration, environmental standards, health care and state pensions force the various parties to balance their political ideals with the pragmatic solutions required to govern and stay in power.

Sound familiar?

Denmark is not a mirror of New Zealand, but the core ingredients of proportional politics in the two countries are broadly similar. Which is why a good old binge-watch of Borgen might be just what certain National MPs and their cheerleaders need to help them adapt to the realities of a new era.

Put simply, 2017 was the year MMP came of age. Yet, like ageing duffers exasperated by newfangled technology, the National Party has blamed everything and everyone except itself for the system not working to its liking.

Central to their dismay has been the fantasy that being the largest single party should automatically confer the right to be part of a government. It's hard to know precisely what informs this kind of self-delusional thinking - a sense of entitlement, hubris, an inability to count perhaps - but it should be enough on its own to have anyone espousing such nonsense disqualified from running a country.

To be charitable, you might say they didn't see it coming. With Labour sleep-walking to defeat and the polls routinely flattering them, National might be forgiven for feeling a little born to rule. Then Andrew Little did the decent thing, Jacinda Ardern took the poisoned chalice, Metiria Turei self-immolated, and suddenly the future wasn't what it used to be.

Newly sworn-in Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arrives at Parliament.

Jacinda Ardern arrives at Parliament as newly sworn-in Prime Minister. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The first of its TV commercials perfectly encapsulated National's inability to recalibrate: a hobbled quartet of bewildered Labour-Green-NZ First stand-ins being passed by a uniform squad of teal-clad superior beings on the road to a one-party brighter future.

Deep within the molecular structure of the National brain, one has to assume, there is an evolutionarily hard-wired propensity for binary thinking. There's no other explanation for this persistent tendency to view MMP through a First Past the Post lens. Not only does it betray a fundamental failure to grasp the essence of consensus politics, it's also a timely reminder, on the 21st birthday of MMP, of why so many New Zealanders voted to change the electoral system in the first place.

Jacinda Ardern is too young to have ever voted under FPP (in fact, she was too young even to vote in the first MMP election), so this is second hand for her. But the road to reform was rancorous and at times deeply divisive. The anti-MMP camp, disingenuously named the Campaign for Better Government, fought bitterly to retain the old system that had allowed successive governments to ram through policies without any genuine popular mandate.

Good government, it was argued, depended on certainty, decisiveness, an ability to act unfettered by the constraints of compromise. It was essentially a business vision, in keeping with its funding base and deep pockets. Its front man, Peter Shirtcliffe, now works with Don Brash on the Hobson's Pledge campaign to roll back the constitutional and legal status of the Treaty of Waitangi - a fact worth mentioning only because it illustrates the continuity of a reactionary strain in New Zealand political thinking that runs right up to the present.

The ultimately successful campaign for change was less about idealistic notions of fairness and diversity than the straightforward desire to end a system of "elective dictatorship" that handed too much power to the largest party in parliament.

One senses a yearning for those easy certainties in the bad-tempered reaction of National to its eviction from the Beehive. Conveniently, the claim that an illegitimate "coalition of losers" somehow hijacked the country also allows the real losers - that is, the ones who failed to secure a majority - to avoid meaningful reflection or reckoning.

But reckon they must. Unless they truly believe, against all logic and experience, that they will one day secure an outright majority, National will have to start playing the MMP game properly. Like it or not, they will have to find common ground with other parties and actively cultivate the potential to work with them in future. They may even need to encourage the growth of new parties of the right.

The calculus of consensus does not call for petulant and obstructive opposition. It requires subtle and strategic alliances, an ability to adapt to the mood of the whole electorate, not just one's own tribe, and an acceptance that the greater good sometimes outweighs special interests. That's what a majority of New Zealanders voted for when they opted for MMP.

There is a counterfactual argument that, had things been reversed and Labour been the largest single party but not in government, the Left would have howled as loudly as the Right. There's probably truth in this, but the exact same arguments would and should apply.

MMP isn't perfect. As Borgen so entertainingly shows, proportional systems are still hotbeds of intrigue, instability, inefficiency and personality cults. But as a mechanism for reconciling our disparate perspectives and agendas it is vastly preferable to what came before.

At the very least, the 2017 general election will be looked back on as the point at which most of us (memo to National: more than 50 percent) began consigning the old ways to the dustbin of history.

National and Labour MPs struck a hasty deal.

Government and National Party MPs strike a deal over the Speaker in a rocky start to the 52nd Parliament. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

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