If there is any such thing as karma in politics, then the
National Party should deservedly pay a heavy price at some
point for so blatantly putting naked self-interest ahead of
the public interest with regard to the no small matter of
reform of the MMP voting system.
You might well argue it was naive to have expected anything
else. But National's refusal last year to implement the
recommendation of the Electoral Commission to rid MMP of the
unnecessary, unfair and deeply unpopular one-seat threshold
provision should forever be a large blot on John Key's
Of course, eradicating this legal loophole, which exempts a
party from having to meet the 5% threshold if it wins an
electorate seat, would have been to National's major
disadvantage in making it much more difficult for its minor
party allies to bring extra MPs into Parliament.
The one-seat threshold survives simply because it could yet
be the difference between National staying in power and going
into opposition. But that does not make it right.
Instead of feeling chastened by its cheating voters of a
change in the rules, National will most likely reach
''electoral accommodations'' not only in Epsom, where it has
allowed Act New Zealand to take the seat for the two past
elections, but also in two other electorates.
In Wellington's Ohariu, National will want to avoid splitting
the vote for Peter Dunne and to stop the Labour candidate
coming though the middle.
National is likely to similarly give East Coast Bays to Colin
Craig should his Conservative Party be still polling at only
2%-3% to ensure votes for his party are not wasted ones.
However, it seems to have dawned on the prime minister just
how manipulative all this is beginning to look.
The word ''gerrymander'' - one not usually associated with
New Zealand's voting system - surfaced in questions at Mr
Key's weekly press conference last Monday,In response, Mr Key
chose his words very carefully as he parried further
questions about the likelihood and timing of accommodations.
While he wanted to be ''transparent'' about such deals, he
was reserving the right to hold off announcing them possibly
until as late as the early stages of the official election
The prime minister's remarks suggest he realises National has
become too blase in turning parliamentary seats into
playthings akin to the ''rotten boroughs'' of old England and
a return to more careful political management is in order.
A 3 News-Reid Research poll this week confirmed something
which had long been suspected - voters do not like such deals
where a major party urges its supporters either by way of a
coded statement, a symbolic get-together, an outright
declaration or even withdrawal of its candidate to cast their
electorate vote for a minor party ally in order to engineer a
Close to 70% of would-be Labour voters were opposed in
principle to such deals. The rejection rate was even higher
among supporters of the Greens and New Zealand First.
Perhaps most surprisingly and most significantly, about 35%
of National supporters also opposed the practice.
Those people along with the wider public are justified in
feeling they have been cheated. They were promised a review
of MMP if it survived the 2011 referendum on it continuing to
be New Zealand's electoral system. It did survive. The review
was conducted by eminent Electoral Commission figures of
unimpeachable character who had no axes to grind.
Among other things they recommended abolition of the
one-electorate threshold, saying it unfairly gave voters in
some electorates ''significantly more influence'' in
determining the make-up of Parliament.
The German MMP system's equivalent of the one-seat threshold
was introduced to ensure ethnic minorities concentrated in
specific parts of the country had a voice in the Bundestag.
In the New Zealand context, the purpose of the one-seat
threshold was never obvious. It is now seen by members of the
royal commission, which recommended MMP, to have been a
The Electoral Commission also recommended the provision for
''overhang'' seats also be axed and Parliament kept to a
maximum of 120 seats - a change which would have rendered it
pointless for National to let Act or other minor parties each
secure even a lone seat as those would likely be cancelled
out by National losing MPs to make room for them.
National's response to those recommendations, which had wide
support from those making submissions to the review, was
cunning but predictably self-serving.
Justice Minister Judith Collins loftily announced there would
be no changes as the convention that there be an all-party
consensus for measures altering aspects of the electoral
system was lacking.
This seemingly principled stance played on public ignorance
by conveniently neglecting to mention it was National and Act
which were blocking such a consensus.
No-one knows better than Mr Key that giving voters a nod and
wink as to how they should tick the ballot can come badly
unstuck - the case with the Epsom ''cup of tea'' with John
Banks, which partially derailed National's election campaign
Using such exercises as a symbolic means of communicating how
people should vote had some value when voters had to be
gently prodded to tick for the first time the name of someone
not from their favoured party.
Now that voters are far more conscious of what might be
required of them, Mr Key's desire to be more direct and
transparent is the right call.
That is not sufficient, however, to remove the stench of
something rotten in the state of New Zealand's democracy.
- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political