The country’s three most senior former political leaders last night joined together to reject any idea of lowering Parliament’s five per cent threshold before parties can claim a seat under MMP.
Their rejection cane during a special webinar to mark 25 years of MMP. the first MMP Government, the National – NZ First coalition, was sworn in on December 16, 1996.
To mark the event, the Electoral Commission had the Prime Minister from that Government, Jim Bolger, along with the Leader of NZ First, Winston Peters and the-then Leader of the Opposition, Helen Clark, reflect back in a webinar on MMP and lessons that had been learned along the way.
The trio was generally in agreement that there was no going back to First Past the Post.
It was a remarkable coming together; the 1996 general election was a bitterly fought campaign. New Zealand’s first coalition negotiations had taken over eight weeks and been marked with allegations that New Zealand First had used Labour to bid up National.
At one critical point, Peters claimed a TV One microwave dish on the broadcaster’s adjacent building was being used to bug the New Zealand First caucus room. So the NZ First MPs conducted their final decision-making debate in a sort of code.
And last night, Peters was still able to look back in anger at what he has always argued were the betrayals of the electorate by the 1984 Labour Government and the 1990 National Government.
He said they began with the “un-mandated neoliberal experiment of July 84 and its effect over both economic and social life.”
“And we (he was a National MP in 1990) went into the 1990 election, promising to change that,” he said.
“But the first budget was clear that a non-mandated neoliberal experiment was going to continue.”
Peters believes it was those betrayals that led to the public voting in favour of MMP at the two referenda in 1992 and 1993.
It was no secret at the time that while Peters, who had formed New Zealand First, supported MMP, both Clark and Bolger were reluctant to embrace it.
Last night, though, they both said they could not see it being overturned any time in the foreseeable future.
“I don’t think you could sustain the argument today for a first past the post system, which awards winner take all to those who get a simple plurality of seats based on first past the post,” said Clark.
“While there are any number of people that can, and I can too, point out this or that they’d like to do differently or slightly better in MMP. I think we’ve got it for a long time to come,” said Bolger.
The two former Prime Ministers agreed that managing not just the current coalition but possible future coalition partners was critical.
Then-Prime Minister John Key attacked Peters in 2011, saying he didn’t see a place for New Zealand First in any government he led.
“Historically, he has always been sacked by Prime Ministers. It’s a very different style to mine, and it’s rearward-looking.”
That seemed to licence National MPs to step up their personal attacks on NZ First and Peters culminating in the leaking of his personal superannuation details during the 2017 campaign, which he alleges National was behind.
“It behoves party leaders, in particular, to maintain what I describe as a sensible working relationship with other parties if they think in two years, they might have to form a coalition with that party or seek to form a coalition,” said Bolger.
“Yes. Jacinda Ardern won 51 per cent last term and governs by herself.
“But the overwhelming number of times it’s going to be a coalition government, and you have to plan in advance as to who you can work with and make the preparations necessary, and that again changes the dynamic in Parliament.
“If you’re saying I might be working with that party in six months time or 12 months time, how would I see it then?
“So some of those shifts are just subtle, but they are very important and changing what I have to describe as the culture of Parliament, the culture of parliamentarians.”
“I think if you spend a Parliamentary term really attacking leaders of other parties who one day you might need support from, then you are cutting off your nose to spite your face,” she said.
“A moment’s reflection should tell party leaders to just keep some channels of communication open.”
In a revealing insight into the 1996 Government formation negotiations, Clark said she didn’t just have problems with New Zealand First, but she also did not trust the Alliance.
Had Peters elected to form a Government with Labour in 1996, they would still have had only 54 seats and would have needed the Alliance’s 13 seats to form a Government.
“It wasn’t just the relations between New Zealand First, and the Alliance weren’t good; they weren’t good between Labour and the Alliance either,” she said.
“So after nine weeks of negotiations, probably you could say that the inevitable happened.
“But then, of course, you had the luxury in opposition of watching how things panned out, and I think we took on board a couple of lessons from that.
“Firstly, that it would be useful to develop an understanding with the alliance as a natural coalition partner before the next election, which we did.”
And the second lesson was not to follow New Zealand First’s example and have a complex coalition document drawn up by a lawyer. Instead, in 1999 Labour and the Alliance agreed to form a Government on the basis of a brief document stating overall objectives and the principles which would govern day to day operations rather than the detailed contract-like document that had been drawn up in 1996.
Peters, however, disagreed with this.
“Coalition agreements should be critical to all parties, much like the sanctity of contract law on which our economy is based and other laws critical to living in a free society,” he said.
“Agreements should be written as a manual and the results of serious inter-party negotiations, not a good to have, but a must-have; detailed and comprehensive.”
If Bolger and Clark were both taking on elder statesmen roles and extolling the diversity that MMP had brought to Parliament, Peters could not resist making what amounted to a pitch for New Zealand First.
“Whilst a far greater percentage can claim to have a voice in Parliament; however, there’s one disturbing development, and that is, dare I say it, the silence of the blue-collar worker, male or female in today’s MMP environment,” he said.
“How many diversified MPs have any real understanding of the blue-collar worker, or what poverty smells, tastes and feels like?
“And sometimes it shows.
“Well, understand that the real issues are for them, and their hopes and dreams are theirs and that all politics is local and sometimes in the home.
“How many understand that?
“Well, far too few have any comprehension also of running a business.
“In the end, political systems reformed or otherwise should throw up better people.”
In explaining why he supported the five per cent threshold, Peters argued that small parties that failed to make it to Parliament shouldn’t blame the threshold but instead look in the mirror.
“Sometimes, as every farmer, as Jim (Bolger) knows, you can do all things; plant all the seeds and get everything right, and all of a sudden you get a massive rainstorm or hailstorm, and it’s destroyed,” he said.
“That happens, well get over it and get back in the race.”
Bolger, with his characteristic wry wit, thought he saw a reference thereto NZ First’s defeat in the last election and Winston planning a return to Parliament.
“Now people will take that and take note of that, Winston, that last comment of yours,” said Bolger.
Peters: “No, I didn’t mean that. I just mean that life’s like that.”
Bolger: “I know what you’re saying, but others will interpret it differently, my friend.”
But it was a convivial gathering of three politicians who have known each other as MPs since 1981 and who have gone on to reach the top of New Zealand politics.
They worried that the sort of civility that existed between them might be departing politics.
“We should watch the disasters occurring in, say, the United States, to a much lesser degree in Britain and say, what do we do to stop that happening in New Zealand,” said Bolger.
Maybe MMP with, as Clark said, its requirement that parties win the centre is one way of stopping the sort of extremism that Bolger was talking about.