Debating the Threshold

July 29th, 2011 at 3:19 pm by David Farrar

Idiot/Savant at No Right Turn has responded to my blog post where I agreed with him on keeping the one electorate seat threshold, but advocated the party vote threshold 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.

Abolishing or reducing the threshold

September 21st, 2009 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

One of the issues discussed in reviewing MMP, is whether or not the current 5% threshold should be reduced or even eliminated. I thought it would be interesting to look at what the results of the five MMP elections would have been, if there was no threshold, or it was reduced.


In 1996, having no threshold would have seen the Christian Coalition gain five seats and the Legalise Cannabis Party two seats.

A threshold of 2%, 3% or 4% would all see Christian Coalition gain seats, but not the ALCP.

This would have changed the Government. National and NZ First formed a Government with 61 seats out of 120. With no threshold they would only have 58 seats and would need three more seats to govern.

This would mean either a formal confidence and supply agreement with ACT would have been necessary (and would ACT have supported a Government with Winston in it) or more likely with the Christian Coalition.

In theory one could also govern with both the ALCP and United, but as United is very anti drug liberalisation, this is highly unlikely.


The 1999 election would have seen three more parties gain seats with no threshold. Christian Heritage gets three, ALCP one, and Future NZ one.

The Government formed was Labour/Alliance with support from the Greens. That combination would not have changed, reducing from 66 seats to 63.


No threshold for the 2002 election would have seen four extra parties in Parliament. Christian Heritage, the Alliance, Outdoor Recreation would have got two seats each and ALCP one.

This would have changed the Government. There was a Labour/Progressive Government with support from United Future that came to 62 seats. With no threshold it would be 59 seats.

Labour at 49 seats would need an extra 12 to govern. The simplest combination would be for them to have gone in with Winston who had 12 MPs. If he was ruled out, then a Greens, Progressive and Alliance combo on the left would be possible but unstable. To stay with the relatively centrist United Future would be difficult as even with Progressive and Outdoor Recreation they would be one seat short.


Less change in 2005. No threshold would have seen Bishop Tamaki get a pet Destiny MP, but the four party governing combination would still have had a slim majority.


No threshold in 2008 would have seen Winston and followers retain five seats, the Kiwi Party get one seat and the Ben & Bill Party get one seat.

The four party combination would still be able to govern with 65 seats instead of 69. However the Maori Party did not choose National over Labour. It was National or nothing.

The natural CR grouping of National, ACT and United Future has only 60 seats out of 122. You need 62 to govern so even one seat from the Kiwi Party would not be enough at 61.

Labour, Greens, NZ First, Maori Party and Progressive would total 60 seats.

So the Ben & Bill Party would have held a potential balance of power. They could either go with the centre-right or force a new election due to a hung Parliament.

I doubt many New Zealanders would back abolishing the threshold. Personally I support going to a 4% threshold which is what the Royal Commission recommended.

UPDATE: Chris Bishop has sent me a copy of a paper he did for his an LLB Hons class on the 5% threshold, titled Representation vs Stability. A copy is here – The 5 Percent Threshold in MMP – Representation v Stability. Note the paper was written in an academic and private capacity.

One amusing thing I noted from it, is that ACT was the only party that voted in 2000, when MMP was reviewed, to abolish the electorate waiver. If the electorate waiver had been abolished, they would have lost representation in 2005 and 2008.

After presenting arguments for and against a threshold, Chris concludes that the principled arguments for representation outweigh the pragmatic arguments for stability. I disagree. Chris said:

Concerns about “instability” are over-stated. By definition, minor parties in Parliament with few seats have as much as power as they do seats (in other words, not very much). The New Zealand electorate does not tolerate minor parties attempting to exercise disproportionate power over major parties.

There are two arguments against this. The first is that Chris sees power too literally as merely votes in Parliament. It is a well documented reality that a minor party able to play major parties off against each other can gain power well beyond their voting strength. They can gain a veto on any controversial legislation, due to the adversarial nature of our Parliament where the main opposition party will not help the Government out often.

The other weakness in the argument is the assertion that the electorate does not tolerate minor parties exercising disproportionate power. This overlooks that very very small parties do not have to care about most of the electorate. So long as they can use (for example) fear and hatred to whip up enough resentment so 1% of the country votes for them, they don’t have to worry too much about the fact 95% of the electorate hates them. So long as they keep their 1% happy, they can be as unreasonable as they want to be if they hold the balance of power.