No reason to limit voter choices in a stable, democratic country

The parliamentary 5% party vote threshold should be lowered, writes Ben Hay-Smith.

During the lead-up to the 2017 election, I eagerly attended as many events political parties were putting on as possible. I spent hours watching the various debates on TV (including the ones with the minor parties), met Winston Peters, James Shaw and Metiria Turei in person, got in contact with David Seymour over Snapchat, and watched videos that Jacinda Ardern, Bill English, Gareth Morgan and any other interesting politician put out.

I actively read through the policy sections of the top five or six parties and eventually decided that every party made some good points, but none of them really hit the nail on the head.

In other words, I spent far too much of my life thinking about politics during those six months. One of the most interesting things I noticed during this time was that our political system is broken.

As our electoral laws stand, 130,000 New Zealanders could vote for a party in the next election and their vote would essentially be considered worthless.

To give you an idea of how large this number is, that's a city with more residents than Dunedin, filled solely with legal adults who are all registered to vote; who, by some miracle, are all in agreement and are happy to vote for the same party.

Under our current electoral laws, a voting bloc of 130,000 people like this one wouldn't be considered large enough to deserve even one seat in Parliament.

Doesn't this seem ridiculous? For a country that claims to be among the most democratic in the world, it's embarrassing to have such an outdated electoral law; one better suited to a brand-new democracy fraught with warring factions and radical splinter groups.

In a situation like that, a 5% threshold would be justified. In one of the most stable, democratic and advanced countries in the world? I don't think so.

The case to reduce the 5% threshold is compelling. To start with, a reduction would immediately increase representation for New Zealand voters, and it would apply to all parts of the political spectrum.

Over the last decade or so the Conservative Party, the Opportunities Party, NZ First and the Greens have all found themselves near the threshold, and these parties certainly represent a diverse set of political beliefs.

Regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, lowering the threshold from 5% is going to give you more choices about who you can vote for.

A lower threshold would also stop one party from holding the balance of power after election night, and being able to decide who can form a government after a 26-day waiting period. Regardless of your political leaning, I think many of us can agree this was hardly a democratic way to form a government.

If the threshold had been lower during the 2017 election, the negotiations certainly wouldn't have been quite so one-sided.

Best of all, the organisation our taxpayer money funds to research these issues (the Electoral Commission) already released a report back in 2012 agreeing the 5% threshold ought to be lowered. Its official recommendation was that we reduce the threshold to 4%, but to me this is an overly cautious and arbitrary number.

At least 5% is a multiple of the number of votes it takes to make up one seat in Parliament. Four percent makes no sense as a threshold; at the very least you'd expect that it would be 4.16% (which is five seats in Parliament) or 3.33% (four seats in Parliament). Perhaps even a 2.5% threshold could work. It'd be low enough to maximise representation of voters, without making it too easy for a radical party to make it into Parliament.

Unless, of course, they are popular enough to have three MPs' worth of support. In which case, with 65,000 voters agreeing with them, they probably deserve a place in the House of Representatives.

At the end of the day, the 5% threshold isn't going to be lowered unless our political parties decide it is going to benefit them.

Perhaps Labour will see that a lower threshold will keep their coalition partners alive and able to support them in government, or maybe National will realise they are going to need a coalition partner larger than just David Seymour to form a government in 2020. Either way, here's hoping that one of these parties will see sense in the near future.

The alternative, a return to the dark ages of the two-party system, doesn't bear thinking about.

Ben Hay-Smith is studying for a bachelor of arts in philosophy, politics and economics. He is also vice-president of the Politics Students Association of the University of Otago.


 

Comments

Seems to me the article doesn't show a good understanding of democracy. Is it democracy for a very small minority i.e. less than 5% to dictate policy for the 95%? There is a stronger argument for a simple first past the post, made stronger by the mess we find ourselves in at the moment.

DAE agree that national have moral mandate to rule? I'm extremely butthurt about proportional representation and thinking about it hurts my peanut brain. National voter 4lyfe.

 

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