Deals in smoke-filled rooms

Nothing will better serve to discredit the present form of MMP than the unofficial deal-making said to be taking place among the parties in the months before the November 26 general election.

In one sense it may well be an unjustified reaction, since deal-making has been with us since individuals first received the vote, but public expectations of MMP were for greater choice in electorates and broader representation in Parliament.

The effect of deal-making over contestants for seats is to limit choice for voters. The secretive manner in which it is being done also suggests the parties are well aware of the dangers of triggering a public backlash.

In the present political environment, however, there is a rational, if narrow, argument for the process. It is most likely that a coalition government will need to be formed after the election; therefore it makes sense to those who run the major parties to try to secure so far as is possible before the election some certainty in partnership prospects.

National wants its supporters to vote for Act New Zealand's candidate in Epsom because a win for Act will guarantee representation in Parliament and the certainty of a support partner, should National need one; better still, the displaced Rodney Hide will not be that candidate. Similarly, National wants its supporters to vote for United Future's candidate, Peter Dunne, in Ohariu.

The worth of electorate seats for the baubles of office has been well demonstrated by the minority parties, and few have been as minor or as successful as United Future.

National is bound also to be concerned that its present partner, the Maori Party, may be less successful at the polls this year and so reaching accommodations with other parties and individuals makes sense from its viewpoint, however boldly opinion polls predict an absolute majority. The quid pro quo for National is a prospect of Act not standing candidates in at least three marginal electorates.

And although it may huff and puff about the deal-making, the Labour Party is just as keen to secure arrangements with potential partners. There will be talks between Labour and the Greens, and Labour and New Zealand First, and potentially vote-splitting independent candidates may also be paid a visit.

This activity, while it serves the narrow party interest, does not serve the interests of the public. Indeed, it reinforces hostility to the present form of MMP and likely these objections will find their expression in a desire for change in the electoral system.

While it is likely proportional voting will continue to be favoured, changes will be wanted to its form. After all, why should parties before an election be able to so arrange matters that voters' choices are limited by back-room deals?

Sufficient grounds for eliminating parties that cannot cross the 5% party vote threshold without winning an electorate seat already exist, and would ensure opportunists such as United Future, the Act and the New Zealand First parties, were represented only by the electorates they won.

It is extraordinary that Act, for example, can be represented in Parliament, and achieve cabinet influence, when in 2005 it achieved a mere 1.5% of the party vote and, three years later, little more than 3.6%. If the party vote is to be retained, then the threshold must be much higher.

The vexed issue of list representation is also one claiming attention, for public disquiet has not settled over the appearance in Parliament of people who have no personal electorate endorsement, and indeed, who seem to serve little electoral purpose on a day-to-day basis.

It is possible, too, that voters will insist that MPs reside in the district from which they were elected, and that if they lose their electorate seat they are not automatically returned to Parliament on the party list. There is a case for the Electoral Commission to poll public opinion before the referendum to determine the public's chief objections to the existing system.

All is not lost for voters, despite the machinations taking place. It may well be that more now understand the concept of strategic voting, even though the present system remains weighted heavily in favour of the political parties.

Voters still have choices and can safely ignore the party propaganda, for they - and only they - will mark the ballots on polling day. The party vote remains their greatest weapon, if used wisely.


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