Deal or no deal?

You can tell it’s an election year because everyone is shrieking ‘DEAL!’. After years of copping abuse from Labour and the Greens over the ‘dirty’ deals of Epsom and Ohariu, the Nats have been gleefully crowing about the Labour-Green retaliatory deal in Ohariu; the Maori and Mana parties have put together a deal of their own that might see The Honeable Harawira back in the Beehive just three years after he foolishly took a fat fraudster’s shilling; and Peter ‘The Survivalist’ Dunne bats serenely on. In the event of a nuclear apocalypse, Dunne will emerge from the smoking ruins still gainfully employed as the Member for Ohariu.

Whatever. Let’s put a little of the myth and hysteria to bed shall we.

1: They all do it. National should pipe down about the Greens making way for Greg O’Connor, given they did exactly the same thing to help rather than hinder United Future in 1999. Of course, Labour slow-pedalled in the Coromandel at the same election to ‘gift’ Jeanette Fitzsimons a seat for the nascent Greens. Andrew Little is a veritable enthusiast, having told Willow-Jean Prime to ease back on the campaign of the 2015 Northland by-election to allow his new friend Winston Peters the prize. And then there’s John Key’s splendid little cup of tea with John Banks in Epsom.

Well, that’s Epsom sorted, John. Now, I know this German guy that you really ought to meet.

2. They are not really deals or gifts. The encouraging truth is that voters are not gullible, malleable marionettes, able to be switched around with a nod and a wink from a scheming party leader. ACT’s Houdini act in Epsom was never originally a gift from Key, but the result of a clever pitch and a desperate but determined doorstop campaign by Rodney Hide in 2005: give your electorate vote to me and your party vote to National, and ACT will survive as a potential coalition partner for National. It worked in terms of survival but not in terms of changing the government. Peter Dunne has been in more parties than a hard rock groupie, but the effort he has put into serving his electorate for 33 years has probably been the difference in those close shave majorities of 2011 and 2014 – do not bet against him this year either.

3. It is proof that voters totally understand MMP. For years, anti-MMP grumblers have regurgitated the same old tropes about MMP being confusing and unclear to voters. Except it really isn’t. The proportion of voters prepared to split their electorate and party vote has remained steady. The Greens push for the party vote only, with little backlash, and Maori voters in particular are the most adept at tactically using their two votes. In 2008, by voting for Labour in the party vote, but for Maori Party candidates in the electorate vote, they enabled the Maori Party to take 5 electorate seats with just an overall party vote of 2.4% – a pretty good return. Must be those dumb Pakeha that can’t get the hang of the two votes, aye?

4. It can often be self-defeating in the long run. One problem of sewing up an electorate seat to guarantee your survival is that at each election you give less reason for voters to give you their party vote. Over time, ACT and United Future have become an Epsom and Ohariu party respectively. I’m sure there are a few neoliberals dotted around the country who have a soft spot for ACT, but who don’t bother voting for them, because they don’t need to, so long as ACT holds Epsom. This is true, but it has diminished ACT’s potential as a nationwide party. The Hide-inspired 2005 renaissance was momentary: ACT seem mired below 1% in the polls. David Seymour doesn’t look like getting any new mates any time soon. With United Future it is even more ridiculous: its leader pulled over 13,000 votes alone in retaining his seat, but the party managed less than half that in party votes across NZ. At the last election night, it was hilarious to see the vote share of Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis on TV3’s rolling vote tracker, because they had bumped United Future off eighth place in the party vote share. Poor hapless John Campbell couldn’t even remember who ‘JAP’ was when he glanced at the tracker in 2005. He thought it was some kind of Japanese party until a voice in his ear reminded him it was Jim Anderton’s Progressives. Remember them him?

Electorate votes: 13,684. Party votes: Dunne P, his neighbour, and his hairdresser.

5. There is an issue, but it is not dirty, and it is easy to fix. All of this jiggery-pokery is an unintended consequence of the daft rule that was brought in at the advent of MMP, by policymakers nervous about a plethora of minor parties having an undue influence: the 5% threshold. It is hard to think of a clause that has failed its architects’ intentions more clearly. We have three wee parliamentary parties hovering around the 1% mark, while others (such as NZ First in 2008) have missed out entirely despite polling over 4%: demonstrably unfair and also distortionary. If ACT had failed to hold Epsom in 2008, National would have been able to govern alone due to there being over 10% of votes ‘wasted’ on ACT ad NZ First! The same applied in 2011, if ACT and United Future had perished. Why bother with deals?

And that one rule usually makes the parliamentary makeup less proportional – a gift to National (and Labour when they are in better shape) by dragging them closer to 50% – and puts an undue focus on a handful of key seats, just like the bad old days of First Past The Post.

So, what should the threshold be? Logically, the value of one seat, or 100/120, or 0.83333%. If that’s a bit too nerdy for you, how about 1%. When ACT were facing oblivion in 2005, they were still polling at around 2.5%, well above 1%. Hide could have concentrated on pushing the party vote nationally, if the 1% threshold had been in place. His party would also seem less like an adjunct of National, reliant on its oxygen for survival. Time for a rethink, then. Other than that, MMP is doing just fine.