Opinion: Failure to implement MMP advice blot on Key Government

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 Government.

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 campaign.

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 parliamentary majority.

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 mistake.

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 in 2011.

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 correspondent.

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