How good is proportional representation?

New Zealand’s centre-left government won re-election in a landslide on Saturday (see my preview here), and in doing so passed a significant milestone: it’s the first time since New Zealand adopted proportional representation in the 1990s that a single party has won a parliamentary majority.

That doesn’t mean it’s Labour’s first landslide in that time. To a large extent, history has repeated itself: the last time that a first-term Labour government faced the polls, in 2002, it also crushed its opposition, winning 41.3% of the vote to just 20.9% for the National Party. But while the Australian electoral system would have given a party in that position a big majority, Labour won only 52 of the 120 seats (to National’s 27); it still depended on minor parties to govern.

Labour’s lead over its opponents on Sunday was very similar to 2002 – a margin of just over 22 points (all figures are provisional and may change slightly with postal votes). But the big change since then is that many fewer people vote for minor parties. Labour reached 49.1% of the vote to National’s 26.8%, enough for 64 seats or a majority of eight against all comers.

At the first election held under proportional representation, in 1996, the two major parties won just 62.1% of the vote between them. But after 2002 that figure rose sharply, peaking at 78.9% in 2008 and then 81.3% in 2017. So whereas in 2002 another four parties crossed the 5% threshold to win list seats, this year only two made it: the free-market liberal ACT with 8.0% and the Greens with 7.6%, each winning ten seats.

Nor was anyone else particularly close. The far-right NZ First fell to 2.7%, losing all of its nine seats; another right-wing party, the New Conservatives, managed 1.5%. One party, the Māori Party, won a single electorate seat despite falling well below the threshold on 1.0%.

So it looks as if once voters have demonstrated to their own satisfaction that they can put minor parties in parliament – as before 1996, for practical purposes, they could not – they no longer feel the need so much to actually do it. In much the same way as new democracies typically throw governments out after a single term just because they can, and settle down a bit once the novelty has worn off.

It’s a reminder that party systems are artifacts of cultures and not just of rules and structures. Yes, proportional representation tends to encourage multi-party systems, but it’s no more than a tendency. It doesn’t prevent one party winning a majority if people are willing to vote for it; National almost did it in 2014, and now Labour has done it with a couple of seats to spare.

Yet many still don’t get it. The BBC reported yesterday that prime minister Jacinda Ardern “will be mindful that although the voters have given her a majority, this owes more to a quirk of the Mixed Member Proportional representation (MMP) voting system … than to her popularity.” The “quirk”, of course, being that MMP ensures her majority is a relatively narrow one, rather than the enormous one that a system of single-member districts would have given her!

How enormous would it have been? We can get some idea, because New Zealand has single-member districts, even though they don’t determine the overall representation. There are 72 of them, and Labour won 43, as against 26 for National and just one each for the other three parties. But based on the party vote in each district rather than the vote for the local member, Labour won almost all of them: 68, to four National and none for anyone else.

Which is just the sort of crazy result that we’re used to seeing in single-member systems. Recall, for example, the 2012 election in Queensland, when the Liberal National Party won 78 of the 89 seats with just 49.7% of the vote. Yet the BBC seems to think that the New Zealand system gave Labour a leg up.

Nor is it that we’re somehow incapable of running proportional representation in Australia. The Australian Capital Territory also went to the polls on Saturday to elect its local legislature, a thoroughly democratic process with five multi-member electorates choosing five members each (the same system as Tasmania).

Two seats are still doubtful, but the Labor-Greens coalition government has been very convincingly returned with 51.8% of the vote (38.2% Labor, 13.7% Greens) and will hold 16 or 17 seats (10-12 Labor, five or six Greens). The opposition Liberals managed only 33.4%, their worst result since 2008, and have now been out of office in the territory for 19 years.

Chief minister Andrew Barr will have no choice but to continue his coalition with the Greens. New Zealand’s Ardern could now do without them, but may choose to keep them within the tent anyway. We’ll have a look at that issue in a few days time when all the figures are in.

4 thoughts on “How good is proportional representation?

  1. That 25 electorates returned a non-Labour member whilst voting for a Labour government is an intriguing find! Perhaps there’s your real quirk. Under a single member system, there would have been more an incumbency benefit. Under a party vote, the only incumbent is the prime minister.

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    1. Well indeed. Or putting it the other way around, if you allocated seats according to the proportions in which people cast their electorate votes, Labour’s victory would be much less impressive. (I can’t find an aggregation of them anywhere & don’t have time to do it myself.) No-one knows how much the effect is due to personal votes, or tactical voting of some sort, or people not understanding the voting system, or some other factor.

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  2. Yes, interesting that Aotearoans voted to keep PR after actually, you know, trying it out. Any anti-PR argument that depends on a premise that German voters have been idiots for the past 73 years is going to be ripe for empirical refutation. Germans put the FDP in, and Germans put the FDP out.
    The single-member system (ie FPTP without any PR correction) was even worse in NZ than normal, since the last two of Robert Muldoon’s parliamentary majorities not only fell well short of 50% of the popular vote, they actually represented fewer voters than supported the Labour opposition. And of course Piggy was duly humbled by this knowledge and kept in mind at all times that he was only second-past-the-post in the opinions of his countrypersons HA HA HA HA HA fooled you there, didn’t I.
    That, plus NZ’s lack of Murdoch-controlled media, perhaps explains why National largely accepted losing the 2017 election despite polling the largest single bloc of votes: yes, a party with fewer votes than you now has the Prime Ministership, but they don’t have an absolute majority of seats and can’t ram their brain-farts through without consultations. Gods above, imagine if Tony Abbott had been in Bll English’s chair in 2017!! There’d have been angry white men rallying in Wellington waving placards saying “ARDERN – MINORITY LOSER” depicting the PM nude and with a scarlet A in “Ardern”.

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