Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Kiwi Folly, or: Bash MMP

When I was trying to explain New Zealand's political system recently to an American colleague, I suugested that the two countries now both have a system of checks and balances on political power, but very different ways of achieving them.

The American split between the executive, legislative and judicial powers is relatively well-known, as is the ability of the President to veto a bill, or Congress to impeach the President.

To outsiders, the fact that there are only two effective political parties seems to place a major limitation on the range of democratic expression. But "Democrat" and "Republican" are really more like franchise badges than party political affiliations in the British/New Zealand sense. They provide a broad ideological tent for the franchisee, who then sets his or her own menu of regional perspectives and personal principles.

In the implementation of policies, development of legislation, or nomination of political appointees, coalitions of like-minded individuals from both parties will often be "mobilised" to support or oppose a particular approach.

If Democrats and Republicans have come to seem like different chips off the same monolith, this may well be due to the enormous amounts of money a candidate needs in order to even think about running for office. Many believe that campaign finance reform is an urgent priority for the American electoral system.

In New Zealand, a political party is more like a close-knit team, with party "whips" who ensure that parliamentary members are in line with party policy, except on a limited number of designated "conscience issues". If a member votes against their party this is a much bigger deal than in the U.S. , and party members are not supposed to criticize the party leader in public.

However, we do now have some checks and balances in the system. This has been achieved, thanks to the multi-member proportional (MMP) system, simply by increasing the number of parties. Any party which gets over 5% of the vote or wins an electoral seat gets representation in parliament. This ensures a greater spread of economic, social, and regional viewpoints, with the ability and incentive to form a new party if a significant perspective is not being adequately represented within the big tent of a larger party.

It also requires a more consensus-based, consultative approach by the executive. With it being virtually impossible for any party to win an absolute majority, the government is formed either by a coalition of parties or by a minority government which receives support on confidence issues by one or more other parties. As in the U.S. , different groupings will mobilise to support or oppose different actions.

On the whole, New Zealanders are happy with this approach, which really mimicks checks and balances rather than having formal, constitutionally-based balances in place.

Looking back, it's quite frightening to think that we once had *no* checks and balances. Up until 1996, when MMP came in, the government could do pretty much what it liked. If you think of us as a company, the government of the day was the board of directors and top-tier management rolled into one, with the shareholders having the chance to like it or lump it once every three years.

When the move to MMP was being debated, the main tactic of its opponents, apart from saying "Italy" every so often and shaking their heads, was to warn that governments would no longer be able to "get things done" if they were forced to form coalitions or compromise on policy. This line was strongly pushed by the Business Roundtable and authoritarian elements in both major parties.

In reply, the majority of New Zealanders nodded their heads furiously. "Exactly!" they said. "We want to stop you from getting things done ". After a decade of furious change rammed through with an attitude of "suck it up, we know what's good for you", the country was desperate to apply the brake and get a wider range of voices into power.

The routine comeback was that the pace of change was necessary because of the "urgent reform" that had to be carried out.

Yes, well urgent reform was needed in large part because the previous incumbent had been able to "get things done" his own way, unhindered, for the previous nine years. To extend the previous corporate metaphor, Muldoon had also made himself the nation's accountant, lawyer, and bank manager during his stay in power.

Now, after some initial teething problems, the proportional system has helped New Zealand move towards a more mature democracy. Never again will a small group of politicans be able to remake the country in the image of their textbook.

And it's become apparent that more genuine democracy is not just some airy-fairy ideal, but actually improves decision-making. Even former critics like ex-prime minister Mike Moore now admit that the need to allow more criticism and consultation has led to smarter, more creative policies. This is hardly rocket science--competing perspectives help knock out the blind spots you get when one individual or group is doing all the thinking. There's a reason why science and academia demands peer review.

A further point is that if you want to really get things done, you'll only really succeed by getting what us bureaucrats call "buy in" and this means getting consensus--it might seem a little more cumbersome in the short term, but is more efficient in the long run.

My memories of the late 80s and 90s are of powerlessness and frustration at the arrogance with which policies were delivered, many of them poorly thought through and with unforseen consequences. The country voting to introduce MMP remains the political highlight of my life.

In the most recent election, New Zealand has again given a strong, but nuanced message: "we'll have a bit less of that, and a bit more of that, thank you--but not too much". Amidst the general uncertainty about exactly what the next government will look like, there are mumblings from some quarters about an "indecisive result" (i.e. those quarters didn't win) and a "lack of mandate". But give us a break--we can wait and see how it goes. It's rather ironic that the big business representatives who are constantly telling us that we need "less government" are so worried about government being unable to do things.

More insidious is this opinion piece in The Australian, which takes the opportunity to sneer at the proportional system by misrepresenting it as arcane and confusing (tell that to the voters in Epsom and the Maori electorates) and making groundless predictions of "a long period of political instability". The article certainly doesn't leave any doubt about its ideological slant, with phrases such as "minority and radical voices", "radical separatism and political correctness" and"feel-good excuse for a foreign policy". I was actually quite taken aback reading this piece; its bully-pulpit rantings make the New Zealand papers look deep-thinking and progressive.

It's another example of Australian corporate media using New Zealand as a useful whipping post for when it feels like burying an idea promoted by local progressives. A similar approach has been taken to bashing the Kyoto protocol. They have a cunning, if rather transparent, tactic:

"The puzzle is less how Kiwis managed to get themselves lumbered with a mess like this than the fact that the minor parties in Australia seriously propose we should travel down a similar road. So here's an idea: let's not. "

The approach is to trade on the average Australian's slightly patronising attitude towards NZ. This allows the pundit to more freely ridicule the idea and put his or her compatriot off it. "Look what those Kiwis have gone and done now!" the line goes. "You know, our eccentric cousins who are overly fond of their sheep, think 25 degrees is a heatwave, and probably still get around in walk shorts and sandals? Well, now they've come up with an even fruitier scheme than before. What do you reckon they put in the water over there?".

Hopefully, Australian citizens are smart enough to see through that.

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1 comment:

Susan said...

Great comment on MMP Simon. I too am greatly pleased to see a situation where no one party holds all the power. The FPP system was highly unsatisfactory. We ended up more than once with parties that got a considerable share of the vote having no voice at all and the party in power representing a relatively small proportion of New Zealanders. It will be interesting to see what happens from this result. I guess the danger of having to do everything by consensus of a wide range of views is that nothing much gets done at all. But then again, perhaps that will actually deliver less government in the long run and be a good thing for the country.