# Posts tagged ‘MMP’

## A surprise appearance from Winston Peters at the MMP hearings

There were two television cameras, half a dozen journalists and few spare seats in the hearings room when I arrived at quarter to four.  My nerves redoubled—I wasn’t exactly expecting media to be at the MMP submission hearings.  Surely they’d be too boring for journalists?

A staff member apologetically met me outside the room.  She had rung me earlier to ask me to be there half an hour earlier than my scheduled 4:30 p.m., since they were miles ahead of time.  Now, Winston Peters had turned up and decided he was going to present his submission then.  So it looked like I would be presenting around half past four in the end anyway.

That would explain the small army of journalists.  NZ First’s party secretary was supposed to present at 12:15 p.m.  Perhaps Mr Peters wanted the publicity stunt, so told media representatives to be at the hearing room at half past three, displacing whoever was scheduled at the time.  I later learned that his party secretary hadn’t shown up.

Still, the commissioners and political scientists didn’t seem upset about the chance to question Mr Peters.  NZ First is unique in proposing that a party winning one electorate must get 4% of the party vote before getting any lists seats.  Chief Electoral Officer Robert Peden asked the obvious question: why not just make it 5%, in effect abolishing the one-seat rule entirely?  Mr Peters didn’t have a real principled answer, other than that they were “reasonable people”, though he appeared (at least to me) to concede that they would probably prefer just to abolish the one-seat rule but for their reasonableness.

But imagine my relief when, as soon as Mr Peters finished and left the room, the journalists in the front row left with him, the cameramen started packing up and each of the five media-labelled microphones at the submitter’s stand disappeared one by one.  By the time the next submitter was seated, the public seating was almost empty again.  The room was not nearly so nerve-racking by the time I took the stand at 4:40 p.m.

Such is to be expected from Mr Peters, I guess.  The Commission staff member was apologetic and thanked me for waiting; I was just mildly amused.

## Oddities in MMP submissions

I’ve just been flicking through submissions received to date by the Electoral Commission on the MMP voting system.  Most suggestions are quite sensible—even ones I disagree with—but there are some bizarre claims made by a few:
(I’m only picking on political parties in this post.)

National Party: electorate seat threshold
The National Party is one of few to support retaining the one electorate seat threshold.  They say that abolishing it would be “unworkable in practice”, since it would necessitate “greatly increasing the risk of overhangs or reducing the list allocations of other parties”.

Neither is necessary: we can just say that a party missing the 5% threshold should get its electorate seats, as currently, but what would have been its list seats now just go to the parties next in line to get a seat.  The details are non-trivial but possible.  (I explain how it would work in my submission.)  Compared to the status quo, overhang is the same and the list allocations of other parties increase.  Workable, easily.

The Conservative Party also made this mistake, saying that if the one electorate seat threshold is abolished, we would have an overhang of 6 seats.  We could design the system like that, but it’s not hard to just keep Parliament the same size while reallocating “coat-tailers” to other parties.  (In 2011, there were actually no coat-tailers, so it would have made no difference.)

NZ First: the overhang anomaly
NZ First advocates introducing a 4% threshold for parties who win one electorate to gain additional list MPs.  (The status quo is no threshold.)  That’s all well and good, except when they say “this threshold… would go a long way to eliminating the likelihood of the overhang anomaly”.

This was probably just a proofreading oversight.  But their proposal wouldn’t have any impact on overhang.  Overhang parties never have list MPs (since electorate winners took all their seats), so the question of receiving additional list MPs doesn’t really bother them.

ALCP: representing cannabis users
The Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party criticises the 5% threshold as leading to the people “not being properly represented”, which is well and fine.  But their evidence is that “not one single MP is standing up for the cannabis consumers who represent 16% of the adult population”.  Given that 16% is greater than 5%, this seems odd.  Maybe these cannabis users just decided they had more important ways in which to spend their vote?

ACT: the thresholds
The ACT Party supports the 5% threshold to “limit and rationalise voter choice” and “assist with government formation”.  It’s unclear how, but presumably by preventing too many minor parties from messing things up.  But they go on to say that the one electorate seat threshold should be retained because it “allows more votes to count”.  It’s unclear how this reconciles with their support of the 5% threshold, which renders many votes useless.  It’s also unclear why they think waiving the threshold for electorate-winning parties has “contributed towards stable government formation”, while waiving the threshold for other parties would detract from it.

The ACT Party goes on to say that most advocates for abolishing the one-seat threshold do so for partisan reasons.  The ACT Party, which in both 2005 and 2008 had “coat-tailers” on their Epsom victory, has more incentive than any other party to advocate its retention.  They were also scant on reasoning of their own, largely conceding that the thresholds are arguable, “arbitrary” or “subjective” judgements and deferring to the 1986 Royal Commission, which didn’t actually explain why they proposed for the threshold to be waived for parties winning a constituency seat.

Impressively, both the Greens and the Labour Party managed to avoid any internal inconsistencies in their submissions, or at least ones that I could pick up.

## Effective thresholds in MMP when there is no threshold

Abolishing the 5% threshold in MMP (as I advocate) doesn’t mean that a party getting just one vote picks up one in 120 seats.  It’s fairly intuitive that there is still an “effective threshold”: a number of votes that parties must get to earn their first seat.  That then begs the question: How many votes is enough?

The answer depends on the method used to translate the party vote to seats in Parliament.  New Zealand (and a number of other countries) uses a method called the Sainte-Laguë method.  Another common method is the d’Hondt method.  In this post I’ll assume you’re familiar with at least one of them (they are very similar); if you’re not, Wikipedia explains them reasonably well.

The Sainte-Laguë method is more sympathetic to smaller parties than the d’Hondt method, so we expect the Sainte-Laguë effective threshold to be lower.  The report of the 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System lists the thresholds in Addendum 2.1, on page 74.  The threshold for an N-member House, when there are k parties other than the one-seat party, is V/(2Nk + 1) for the Sainte-Laguë method and V/(N + 1) for the d’Hondt method.

I couldn’t find proofs of these effective thresholds, so I derived those results myself.  That proof is in a PDF file here.

That then helps me to find the effective threshold of a modified Sainte-Laguë method that I support, which is the same one that they use in Norway and Sweden.  In this method, the first divisor is changed to 1.4 (instead of 1).  The threshold is then V/(5(2N − k)/7 + 1).  More generally, if the first divisor is changed to m, then the effective threshold is V/((2Nk)/m + 1).

What does that even mean?
Those formulae don’t really mean much at first glance.  The best way to find meaning is to compare them to V/N.  That is, in a 120-seat house, how does the “effective threshold” compare to 1/120 of all party votes, or 0.83%?

To make life easier, we’ll make an approximation: we’ll assume that N is much larger than k, i.e. there are many more seats than parties, which is generally true.  We’ll also use the fact that N >> 1.

Then the Sainte-Laguë effective threshold is approximately V/2N.  That means, in order to get one seat out of 120, you need roughly half of 1/120th of the party vote, or 1/240th of the party vote, or about 0.42%.

For the modified Sainte-Laguë method, it’s roughly mV/2N.  Basically that means you take 1/120th of the vote and multiply it by m/2.  For example, if m = 1.4, then you need about 70% of 1/120th of the vote, which is about 0.58%.

The d’Hondt threshold, roughly V/N, is just 1/120th of the party vote (or marginally less), or about 0.83%.

It seems fair to me that a party falling just short of 1/120 of the party vote should get one seat in Parliament.  But awarding them a seat for achieving just half of that seems a bit unfair—and disproportional—to me.  The effective threshold should be enough to be “close-ish” to 1/120.  I would put “close-ish” at about 70% of 1/120 of the party vote, which is why the modified Sainte-Laguë method used by Norway and Sweden seems sensible to me.

Proof

## If there was no threshold

If the five per cent threshold didn’t apply, the Conservative Party and the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party would have polled high enough to gain seats:

 % Party Vote Electorate List Total Change National Party 47.99% 41 16 57 -3 Labour Party 27.13% 22 11 33 -1 Green Party 10.62% 0 13 13 NZ First Party 6.81% 0 8 8 Conservative Party 2.76% 0 3 3 +3 Maori Party 1.35% 3 0 *3 ACT New Zealand 1.07% 1 0 1 Mana 1.00% 1 0 1 United Future 0.61% 1 0 1 Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party 0.48% 0 1 1 +1 Other parties 0.20% Total 100.00% †69 52 121 0

* The Maori Party got 2 seats but won 3 electorates, so they keep their third electorate as an overhang seat
† There are actually 70 electorates, but Christchurch Central is currently tied before special votes, so for this count we’re just pretending it doesn’t exist.  It’s tied between National and Labour, so it doesn’t actually affect the total number of seats.

Under the Sainte-Laguë method with the threshold, National had the 117th, 118th and 120th seats, and Labour had the 119th seat.  Those last four seats would be lost.  The Conservatives, at 2.76%—higher than the Maori and ACT Parties combined—polled high enough to get the 18th seat in the allocations, as well as the 56th and 91st.  The ALCP had a close shave polling at 0.48% and picking up seat number 104 with 1,185 votes to spare (above the new 120th quotient, 8,331).‡

 List candidates who would have made it List candidates who wouldn’t have made it Colin Craig (Conservatives)—18th seatKathy Sheldrake (Conservatives)—56th seatLarry Baldock (Conservatives)—91st seatMichael Appleby (ALCP)—104th seat Aaron Gilmore (National)—120th seatRaymond Huo or Rajen Prasad (Labour)§—119th seatCam Calder (National)—118th seatJackie Blue (National)—117th seat

‡ In a 120-seat Parliament with no threshold, you generally need roughly 0.42% to get one seat.  The way I think of it is that you need more than half of 1/120th of the total votes, which works out to 0.42%.
§ If Brendon Burns wins Christchurch Central, he displaces Mr Huo out of Parliament and Mr Prasad into the last list position, so it would be Mr Prasad.  If Mr Burns loses, it would be Mr Huo.

This would obviously have seen the National-ACT-United Future combination fall short of a majority at 59 seats.  But there’s a solid chance that National would have considered the Conservatives a suitable coalition partner.  (They don’t agree on everything, but then, no two parties do.)  That would then have seen the right-wing group on 62 seats, still enough to govern.

Of course, even if the Conservatives were excluded here, the Maori Party’s three seats would also have been enough to give National a majority.  But that would have made life a lot harder for National’s legislative programme (as ACT and the Maori Party don’t always vote together).

Labour would have had a much, much harder time stitching up a majority, given that they would need NZ First (who said they won’t work with anyone), Mana (who Labour said they won’t touch) and ALCP (who knows?), and even with all of them (plus the Greens and Maori Party) they’d still fall one seat short.

So, no change in government and no radical change in its form, unless you count the entry of the Conservatives into a centre-right government as a big change.  (That said, at 2.76% they probably deserve those three seats.)

As for the ALCP getting into Parliament, it might scare a few people but the ALCP’s done okay before: in 1996, they got 1.66% of the party vote.  Nonetheless, 0.48% can seem like a short mandate to get 1/121st of the seats in Parliament.  If we used the modified Sainte-Laguë method, where the first divisor is changed from 1 to 1.4 but all subsequent divisors are the same (3, 5, 7, …) (as is used in Norway and Sweden) then that seat would have gone to National instead.

I used to do this exercise for fun (well, once, in 2008). It matters a bit more to me now because I’ve come to support abolishing the threshold altogether.  It matters even more with the review of MMP that will be coming up if MMP (as predicted) wins the referendum.  The change to this election result would have been relatively insignificant and I don’t like either of the parties that didn’t make it, but it makes little sense to me that a party receiving four times the vote of a party that gets one seat, should get no representation in Parliament at all.

## On SM and the “middle ground”

The “sensible compromise” promoted by Vote for Change is the worst of everything and best of nothing

There is no myth more bizarre than the promotion of supplementary member (SM) as the “middle ground” or “sensible compromise” in New Zealand’s upcoming referendum on the voting system. It is true that SM combines features of both mixed member proportional (MMP) and first-past-the-post (FPP), but it is hardly a compromise and certainly not win-win. It brings out the worst of both MMP and FPP—and the best of neither.

Proportionality and the “balance of power”
SM isn’t proportional. It doesn’t try to be and it doesn’t turn out to be. Anyone who claims it to be is wrong, though to be fair, Vote for Change isn’t guilty of that.

Vote for Change obviously doesn’t like pure proportionality. It advocates SM as a “less proportional” system. Voting systems can’t really be “less” proportional—they’re either proportional or they’re not. But the idea is that minor parties would still be represented under MMP, just without the “balance of power” that some believe allows the “tail to wag the dog”.

Would SM prevent this “balance of power”? Under SM it’s more likely that a single party will win a majority of seats, but by no means guaranteed. Any inclusion of minor parties decreases the likelihood of a single-party majority and increases that of needing a coalition.

It would happen fairly often. If the 2005 election had been played under SM, assuming that parties won the same share of electorate seats and party votes each, by my calculations (update: see my spreadsheet in Excel format) Labour and National would have won 53 seats each, both short of a 61-seat majority. They still would have needed minor party support to govern.

Even the 1996 election—the one with the bitterest memories for MMP opponents, where the NZ First leader held out for several weeks before deciding with whom to enter a coalition—would have seen National with just 53 seats under SM. NZ First would have got 13 seats and would have been kingmaker, just like he was (famously) under MMP.

Of course, no system can completely prevent coalitions. Not even FPP—just ask Britain. But under SM, we’ll expect to need minor party support a fair amount of the time and with it the consequential dog-wagging that MMP opponents dislike. If this is Vote for Change’s concern, one wonders why they don’t support a system that actually does minimise the risk, i.e. FPP. If you want to include minor parties you have to put up with a substantial risk of coalitions (if it is a bad thing). You can’t have it both ways.

Accountability
The main advantage of FPP is that it encourages direct accountability to the local electorate. I could go on for ages about why this notion of accountability is problematic, but here let’s just accept that the ability to vote an individual out is important.

Under MMP, an incumbent MP who loses his electorate seat can and often does re-enter parliament from the party list, if he had a sufficiently high ranking. The saying goes, “out on Saturday, in on Sunday”. Says Vote for Change spokesman Jordan Williams, “marginal MPs… look to their party to be ‘protected’ on a list rather than standing up for… their local constituency.” The discontent is understandable.

The problem is that SM won’t prevent this. Under SM, a sufficiently-high ranked MP who loses his electorate seat can, if their party wins enough of the supplementary seats, re-enter from his party list. Say his party gets 40% of the vote (this normally happens in major parties), then he just needs to be ranked in the top 12, counting only those who don’t win an electorate. It’s just like MMP.

The problem is common to both SM and MMP. The solution is also common: you can use “open party lists” or you can require that candidates be either on a list or for an electorate but not both. That idea applies equally well under MMP. Noting the concern, there’ll be a discussion about it: this dual candidacy is explicitly in the scope for the Electoral Commission review if MMP wins the first round.

And everything else…
The main advantage of MMP is proportionality and the main advantage of FPP is direct accountability. SM has neither. Also, the “balance of power” problem that exists under MMP (if that is a problem) still would exist under SM.

Things aren’t looking too good for SM so far. The problem is that there’s no real argument for SM, because it’s not based on a core principle like proportionality or direct accountability. It’s just some sort of “compromise” between the two. So once we establish that SM does nothing to uphold either of those, SM’s got nothing left to stand on.

Unfortunately, though, SM brings with it all the problems of both MMP and FPP. Because electorate seats always affect the final seat count, you get all the issues associated with it. Voters in a marginal electorate have more power with their vote than voters in “safe seats”. Parties consequently pay more attention to those electorates, which leads to “pork barrel politics”, where parties will pander to local interests of that electorate more than the rest of the country. And because there are list MPs, there are MPs who aren’t formally associated with electorates and need to spend time with their constituents (though almost all choose to).

If Vote for Change actually believed everything they said about MMP, the system they should be supporting is FPP. It is perhaps a credit to them that they realise just how nonsensical FPP is in our modern society. But their alternative does nothing to alleviate perceived issues with MMP, isn’t proportional (the main advantage of MMP), lacks the main advantage of FPP (direct accountability) and brings in the nasty side-effects of both. No sane individual could support it.

## On STV and proportionality

STV is not the proportional system many think it is

It is often asserted that there are two proportional systems on offer at this year’s referendum on New Zealand’s voting system. The statement makes me shudder every time I hear it. It’s true the single transferable vote (STV) normally gives minor parties some representation. But to call it proportional, in the way that the mixed member proportional (MMP) system is proportional, is not telling the whole story.

Starting at the beginning (skip this part if you’re a geek)
It is a mundane start, but it will help to establish what we mean by “proportional”. Proportionality is the idea that a political party’s representation in parliament should be proportional to their share of electors’ support. If a party receives 27 per cent of votes, they should, in principle, be entitled to about 27 per cent of the seats in parliament. Needless to say, proportionality has its advocates and opponents, but that debate’s for elsewhere. This is about whether STV fits that category.

STV is quite a complicated system, but the gist of it is this: Candidates stand for election to fill several (typically up to seven) vacancies. To be elected, a candidate needs to reach a number of votes known as the quota. On their ballot papers, electors rank candidates from first to last (though they don’t have to rank everyone). Each elector gets one vote. It goes to their first preference, unless that candidate has more votes than the quota or (if no candidate has an excess) they are coming last, in which case it goes to their next preference, and so on. The quota works so that just enough candidates are elected to fill the vacancies available.

If that was a bit over your head, the New Zealand Electoral Commission has a short video explaining the system. The Australian Electoral Commission also has a video (they use STV to elect their Senate), which I think gives a better (and longer) explanation, though our version would be a little different from the one they use. The AEC one is excellent; I know it’s Australian but I recommend that you watch it anyway.

Is STV proportional?
The first thing to note is that STV doesn’t even try to be proportional. The Sainte-Laguë method, which is used to allocate seats under MMP, is expressly designed to grant parties a share of seats in parliament proportional to their share of votes. The quota system of STV is designed to minimise wasted candidate votes and discourage tactical voting—admirable ends in themselves, but not the same as proportionality.

A case might then be made that STV has the effect of being proportional, even if it is a side effect. But note, first, that in STV electors vote for candidates, not parties. And, further, note that they vote not just for one candidate as in first-past-the-post (FPP), but they rank them in order from first to last. In FPP we can say an elector “voted” for the party their candidate stood for (though technically they didn’t). But the ranking in STV complicates that definition. If a voter ranked all of Party X’s candidates above all the rest, then we can easily say that he voted for Party X. But what if he ranked a Party X candidate first, then a Party Y one second, then another from Party Y, then Party Z, Party Y, Party X and finally Party W?

The ability not just to vote for a “party” when you like some of its candidates but dislike others is, indeed, an important advantage of STV. But it throws murkiness on to the concept of voting for a “party” that underlies the notion of proportionality.

The case where it is
There is a special case that is, in effect, proportional. This is the case where all electors cast their rankings to conform to a “party ticket”. For example, a Party X ticket would require a voter to rank all Party X candidates above all others and rank them all in the same order (X1, X2, X3, …). There are no deviations from party tickets, i.e. no-one chooses their own rankings, so they effectively just vote for a party.

Consider this basic example. There are five vacancies in an electorate. There are 400 who vote with the Party X ticket, 400 with the Party Y ticket and 200 with the Party Z ticket:

 Number of voters 400 voters 400 voters 200 voters Preference 1 Preference 2 Preference 3 Preference 4 etc. X1 X2 X3 Z1 etc. Y1 Y2 Y3 X1 etc. Z1 Z2 Z3 Y1 etc.

If we use the Hare quota, which is 200, then X1, Y1 and Z1 are elected in the first round. The excess votes from X1 and Y1, 200 each, go to X2 and Y2 respectively, who are elected. So the elected candidates are X1, X2, Y1, Y2 and Z1—each party picks up seats in proportion to the number of votes. If we use the Droop quota, we get the same result, except that the quota is 168, so X2 and Y2 pick up 232 transferred votes, not just 200.

We can generalise this. Say there are $N$ vacancies. The Party X ticket gets $v_x$ votes, the Party Y ticket $v_y$ votes, and so on. Everyone votes on a party ticket. We’ll call the quota $q$. Then if the Party X ticket just gets the quota, $v_x=q$, they’ll get one seat. If they get just over $n_x$ times the quota, $v_x = n_xq$then $(n_x-1)q$ votes are transferred to the second candidate, $(n_x-2)q$ to the third, and so on until $n_x$ candidates from Party X are elected. (There might be a few votes left over, but short of the quota.) Since $q$ is determined so that the number meeting the quota is the number of vacancies, that is, $n_x+n_y+n_z+\dots = N$, and since roughly speaking $n_P$ is proportional to $v_P$ for each party $P$ (since $v_P \approx n_Pq$), the effect is that the $N$ seats are divided in proportion to the number who voted by each party ticket.

This is basically how “above the line” voting in the Australian Senate elections works: electors choose a party and their vote is then assumed to conform to that party ticket. Since over 95% of voters vote “above the line”, the effect is proportional. In fact, given that so few voters vote below the line, it’s hard to believe that voters who put more thought into their rankings than a party name have any substantial influence, which sort of renders the added complexity a bit pointless.

Disproportionality from small electorates
I doctored the numbers of that example to make the result neat. Obviously, the more seats there are in a single electorate, the closer we get to proportionality. Conversely, where there are only a few vacancies, the “margin of error” can be quite high. In the above case, if 499 voters had voted with the Party X ticket and 301 voters with the Party Y ticket, the result would have been the same (with either quota). So Parties X and Y get the same number of seats, despite having 49.9% and 30.1% respectively of votes—a difference in support of 19.8 percentage points. This distortion is unavoidable with low numbers of seats.

This can seem like a small issue, but when you aggregate this effect over dozens of electorates, each running separate contests, it can be a substantial effect. Sometimes, the “errors” in different electorates will cancel out. But other times, they will add up and all favour the same party.

That’s what happened in the Maltese general election of 1981. The Nationalist Party got a majority of votes (50.9%), but the Labour Party won a majority of seats and hence formed the government. This would have happened again in 1987, 1996 and 2008, but for the introduction of “bonus seats” after the 1981 crisis. So if you think STV’s “proportionality” will protect New Zealand from repeats of the infamous 1978 and 1981 (FPP) elections—where Labour got more votes than National, but National formed the government—you should think again. The only system on offer this referendum that protects against this anomaly is MMP.

Where proportionality gets murky
Even without the “errors” induced by a smaller number of vacancies, though, proportionality can still be murky. Consider this case. There are five vacancies, and at least three parties. The 1000 voters are divided as follows (for simplicity, we assume there are no other combinations):

 Number of voters 400 voters 400 voters 200 voters Preference 1 Preference 2 Preference 3 Preference 4 etc. X1 Z2 X2 X3 etc. Y1 Z3 Y2 Y3 etc. Z1 Z2 Z3 X1 etc.

If we use the Hare quota, which is 200, then X1, Y1 and Z1 reach the quota in the first round. X1 has 200 excess votes, which are all transferred to Z2, who now reaches the quota and is elected. Y2 also has 200 excess votes, which are transferred to Z3, who is elected. So the elected candidates are X1, Y1, Z1, Z2 and Z3. If we use the Droop quota (168), we get the same result, with Z2 and Z3 being elected on 264 and 232 transferred votes respectively. Note that Party Z has three of the five seats.

Whether this is proportional depends on how you look at it. If we say that a elector “voted” for the party of their first-choice candidate, then Parties X and Y should have won two seats each—but only won one. At the same time, Party X supporters clearly preferred Candidate Z2 over Party X’s own X2, and similarly for Party Y with respect to Z3. This is how STV’s supposed to work: voters choose candidates, not parties. But it seems contrary to proportionality that a party that had just 20% of the first-preference vote gained a majority (three of five) of vacancies for this electorate.

You could argue that this is really what the electorate asked for when everyone gave Party Z their second-preference vote. You could also argue that, if Party X supporters liked Z2 that much, it probably says something about Z2. This lack of proportionality could be, and for some is, an argument for STV. But we must conclude that either (a) STV is not proportional, or (b) the concept of proportionality makes no sense when looking at STV.

It’s not like MMP
In some ways, I like STV. I like the idea of minimising vote wastage, and in some contexts (mainly professional societies), the added complexity can be useful.

But STV offers no guarantee of proportionality between the parties on which national politics is based. There’s not even a guarantee that a party with a majority of votes will form the government. The Sainte-Laguë method of MMP, on the other hand, will never give fewer seats to a party with more votes.

There is, of course, more to voting systems than just proportionality. But if proportionality is a top priority for you, you should not view MMP and STV as on equal ground. The only truly proportional system in this referendum is MMP.

## 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.