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If it weren’t for the threshold

The 5-per-cent threshold can be something of a menace to small parties.  It probably didn’t seem so unreasonable in 1993, when there was recent history of minor parties regularly exceeding 5 per cent of the vote—in 1996, the Alliance and NZ First both crossed ten per cent.  But now, with only one minor party crossing 5 per cent and the combined National-Labour vote returning to its pre-MMP (at least, 1980s) levels of near 80 per cent, it’s worth wondering: what would have happened if the threshold wasn’t there?

Obviously, NZ First would have returned to Parliament.  But there’s a bit more to it than that.  Based on preliminary results, my spreadsheet tells me these parties would have made it in:¹

Party Electorate List Total
National 41 14 55
Labour 21 20 41
Greens 0 8 8
NZ First 0 5 5
Māori 5 0 5
Act 1 3 4
Jim Anderton’s Progressive 1 0 1
United Future 1 0 1
Kiwi Party 0 1 1
Bill and Ben Party 0 1 1
Total 70 52 122

So it would have changed the composition of Parliament slightly:

List candidates who wouldn’t have made it
Calder, Cam (National)
Gilmore, Aaron (National)
Woodhouse, Michael (National)
Quinn, Paul (National)
Nash, Stuart (Labour)
Sepuloni, Carmel (Labour)
Garrett, David (Act)

List candidates who would have made it
Peters, Winston (NZ First)
Brown, Peter (NZ First)
Mark, Ron (NZ First)
Woolerton, Doug (NZ First)
Stewart, Barbara (NZ First)
Baldock, Larry (Kiwi Party)
Linehan, Jamie (Bill) (Bill and Ben Party)

That’s right—if it weren’t for the threshold, the Bill and Ben Party would have made it in.  And specials wouldn’t put Bill’s seat at risk: by the Sainte-Laguë method they would have been allocated the 97th seat with their (original) quotient of 10,738, well above what would have been the last quotient, Labour’s, of 8,724.  The Kiwi Party would have been allocated the 89th seat.

Would they get into government?  Obviously, National’s victory would not have been so clear-cut.  The National-Act-UF bloc would’ve had a collective 60 seats; the Labour-Green-NZ First-Progressive bloc would’ve had 55—both short of a 62-seat majority.  With all three remaining parties—Māori, Kiwi, and Bill and Ben—Labour would have been able to govern in partnership with six other parties.  A more interesting outcome, perhaps, but unlikely.  The Kiwi Party seemed to show a strong preference for National, leaving Labour a seat short.

National would have needed either Māori Party support or both Kiwi, and Bill and Ben.  These hypothetical circumstances being closer, the Māori Party might have talked to Labour first.  Bill and Ben also hadn’t ruled either major party out, but they seemed more likely to talk to National first, having shaken Key’s hand but not (to my knowledge) Clark’s.  And remember, Clark was still one seat short of 62.  Thus a National-Act-UF-Kiwi-Bill and Ben bloc might seem promising, but remember three things.  First, Key promised to talk to the Māori Party whether they needed them or not—a stance reiterated when preliminary (real) results indicated he wouldn’t need them.  Second, such partnership would be exactly the sort of “five-headed monster” Key wanted to avoid.  Third, even if the Māori Party only agreed to abstain on confidence and supply, Bill and Ben wouldn’t be needed.

That said, Key might have been wanting to show he can make MMP work in the same way Clark did.  In this spirit, the Māori, Kiwi, and Bill and Ben Parties might all have been in on confidence-and-supply abstention agreements, for a concession or two in policy and spokesperson roles.  My guess is Bill would have been keen enough to give National easier terms than Tariana or Larry would.

What have we learnt from this?  The Winston-opposed would have been especially thankful for the 5 per cent threshold, and perhaps more crucially, that it’s not 4 per cent like the Royal Commission on the Electoral System in 1986 recommended.  But there are other consequences.  In 2005, for example, Destiny NZ would have been allocated the 80th seat if there was no such threshold.  Clearly, the threshold is restraining the diversity of views that are represented in Parliament.  It is almost anti-MMP, in a way—this year, at least, it delivered a victory of clarity very rarely seen in proportional systems.  But it was also intended, as put by the Royal Commission, “to prevent a proliferation of minor parties”.  In this sense, one must admit, it is doing its job.

¹ I’ve assumed that all results, including all electorate winners, would remain the same, and that all rules other than the 5-per-cent threshold would have remained the same.

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