Debating the Threshold

Idiot/Savant at No Right Turn has responded to my blog post where I agreed with him on keeping the one electorate seat , but advocated the party vote should be 4%, rather than abolished.

He notes my position is the same as the Royal Commission which said:

the Commission considers that the [4%] threshold is a justifiable and desirable means of preventing the proliferation of minor parties in the House. Such a proliferation could threaten the stability and effectiveness of government.

I/S says:

Which probably sounded good back in the safe, conformist, 2-party world of 1986, where we hadn’t had a coalition government for over fifty years, and political difference and dispute was seen as threatening. But to modern eyes, it seems quaint – not to mention sniffily undemocratic. To point out the obvious, 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

First of all I would disagree that there hasn’t been an impact on stability and effectiveness. Clark went early in 2002 due to the collapse of the Alliance as one example.

But the measure is not how many parties get into Parliament, but how many do you need to *all* agree to be able to pass a law. Here’s what the situation would be under 5%, and no threshold since 1996:

1996 – Nat/NZF would not have been a majority and would have needed either ACT or Christian Coalition or both United and Legalise Cannabis to govern. Was hard enough to be stable with Winston, let alone needing either Graham Capill or the Legalise Cannabis Party to agree to the budget.

1999 – Labour/Alliance needed Greens to pass laws, and no change at 0% threshold

2002 – Labour/Progressive/UF had 62/120 seats. With no threshold they would be 59 seats. UF had ruled Greens out so they would need either Christian Heritage, Outdoor Recreation, or Alliance to support.

2005 – The only change would be Destiny would have one MP

2008 – National would not be able to choose to pass laws either with ACT or Maori, but only if both agreed. That to me would not be stable or effective.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that 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, and our parties have learned their lesson:

Actually with no threshold, there is no chance of a party being wiped out, so I think they would be more likely to have tantrums. Falling under the threshold would no longer be oblivion.

The second reason is mathematical: a “proliferation of minor parties” actually increases stability and effectiveness, by increasing the number of possible majority coalitions, thus reducing the bargaining power of any one party.

You have more combinations, but you need more parties to agree to form a Government. I do not think a six party Government is more stable than a two party Government. Israel has shown us this many times. This is not some crazy theory – they have the empirical evidence – which is why they have raised their threshold.

We have a good example of this in the current Parliament: ACT can’t “hold the government to ransom” and demand big policy concessions because National has an alternative majority with the Maori Party. Meanwhile, the Maori Party can’t “hold the government to ransom” because the National has an alternative majority with ACT. The two parties effectively act as a check on each other’s demands.

And here I/S is just wrong, because the very thing he lauds (the ability to choose ACT or Maori) would not happen under no threshold. National would have had 55 seats, ACT 4, Maori 5 and United 1. You need 62 to govern.

Having an extra 3 or 4 kibble parties at the bottom end simply increases the balance; if one of them doesn’t like your policy, then you go to another. You’re only in trouble if they all don’t like your policy, in which case its probably well-deserved

Nope under a no threshold scenario, if even one of the kibble parties disagrees, then you’re stuck.

The other argument I have against no threshold, is it will encourage extremism. Again not just a theory – look at Israel. With no threshold you can gain a list seat with 0.4% of the vote or 10,000 supporters. Now the way you get your 10,000 votes is to come out with crazy extreme policies (for example a law change so husbands can not be charged with raping their wives) that may repeal 98% of the country but appeals to 0.4%.

And 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.

As I said I think one can debate a 3% v 4% v 5% threshold, but I believe a threshold is desirable and necessary.

Meanwhile, this illusion costs us in democratic terms, by effectively disenfranchising (at the last election) 6.5% of the population. DPF would probably counter that those people and their views and votes aren’t important. I disagree.

Well they always have the choice of voting for a party likely to be in Parliament. No party perfectly represents my policy views. I choose to vote for the party that I deem most able to fulfil my policy desires.

If you take the view that every person must be able to get their preferred party into Parliament, then why stop at a 120 MP house where the effective threshold is 0.4% if there is no statutory threshold. You could argue for a 500 MP House, so that even parties with 0.1% of the vote get to be represented.

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