Wednesday, May 02, 2012

MMP Review: The 5% threshold

After reviewing pros and cons, I'd like a lower threshold, so new political ideas can emerge more easily.

A party vote threshold defines what level of representation in Parliament a political party’s ideas or philosophy gets. The more voters who agree with that idea and vote for it using their party vote, the larger the party’s representation in Parliament.

At the moment there's a five percent threshold that must be reached in order for the party votes given to a party to count. If a party doesn’t reach five percent (and doesn’t win an electorate seat), then it will not be represented in parliament.

The first area of the MMP Review is “the 5 percent party vote threshold for a party to be eligible for allocation of list seats”.

No Right Turn points out two other things that are relevant to this:
  • A core principle of democracy is that everyone's vote should count equally.
  • ‘Proportionality’ was the entire point of MMP. We wanted parties to be represented in direct proportion to the votes cast. Thresholds decrease proportionality because if the party a person votes for using their party vote doesn’t reach five percent (at the moment), then that person’s party vote isn’t counted.

Reasons for lowering the threshold

Thresholds effectively disenfranchise voters: their votes don’t count if the party they voted for doesn’t make it over the threshold. At the last election, this was about 6.5% of the population. As Graeme Edgler said, while responding to an online query, “A percentage threshold is undemocratic. It is ludicrous that a party could get over 100,000 votes in a country as small as New Zealand and not be represented in a Parliament of 120 MPs.”

A threshold creates a barrier to the emergence of new political ideas.

When we switched to MMP, the Royal Commission on the Electoral System recommended a 4% threshold.

The social good aspect: “When everyone, even the people I think of as extremists or corrupt or idiots, has their voice counted, then it’s much harder for extremists, terrorists, or even those with legitimate grievances to convince people that violent direct action is necessary. We get a thorough debate where many sides of national opinion are represented.” [Ari, commenting on Kiwiblog]

Reasons against lowering the threshold

With no threshold there is no chance of a party being wiped out [if the voters found their ideas or actions objectionable], so [the party] would be more likely to have tantrums. Falling under the threshold would no longer be oblivion. [David Farrar at Kiwiblog]

The Unstable Government debate

David Farrar (Kiwiblog) observes that "a low threshold (or no threshold) will encourage extremist parties, and reward them with a seat. And if that seat is needed to form a Government, they will then get some sort of policy win." He cites Israel as an example, "where no threshold has led to miniscule extremist parties have massive say in who forms the Government. ... Israel has learnt from their mistakes and has been increasing the threshold."

Rebutting that, Graeme Edgeler points out:

The reason Israeli politics is divided is because Israel is divided, and not the other way round. New Zealand isn’t like Israel, so it’s unlikely that moving toward one aspect of the Israeli political system would have the same effects here as there.

If you want to assess the extremism of having no threshold, you’ll actually have to look at a system with no threshold, such as Portugal, South Africa, Finland, the Netherlands, Macedonia, Scotland or Wales.

He goes on to say:

It’s possible that an extremist party might get a seat in New Zealand under a zero threshold, but it likely wouldn’t matter:

1. Everyone would refuse to work with them, and unless the other parties decided to give them power, they wouldn’t have any (which is what has happened in Europe, for the most part).

2. We probably wouldn’t have it so that ~0.4% of the vote was enough for a seat. The Royal Commission recommended that if we had a zero threshold that we should use a modified Sainte-LaguĂ« to make it more difficult to get that first seat. I imagine this would happen – pushing the needed vote much closer to the 0.833% needed to “earn” a seat.

No Right Turn, responding to David Farrar, addresses the fears that multiple minor parties will lead to unstable government by pointing out:

We currently have 8 parties represented in our Parliament, and in the past have had as many as 9. And it hasn't threatened the stability or effectiveness of government one bit … Our political culture doesn't support destabilising, winner-take-all, toys-out-of-the-cot tantrum politics. Winston Peters tried that in 1996, the electorate punished him for it in 1999.

Areas of serious dispute are redlined in support agreements, and put aside for the term or punted to committee. Threats to withdraw confidence and supply and collapse the government unless they get their way are notably absent.

My provisional conclusions:

I'm in favour of lowering the threshold significantly, to make it easier for new political ideas to emerge. But I'm not in favour of abolishing the threshold completely, as I'd like there to be a way to ensure that voters can easily abandon political points of view they find objectionable.

To me, the potential levels for the threshold seem to be:
1 MP – just as you earn enough votes to represent a geographical electorate, you earn enough votes to represent a 'philosophical electorate’ (a group of people who believe in a particular political idea)
2 MPs
3 MPs – around here, apparently, you get an effective political operation in Parliament.