This article was first published in The Post on 16 May 2023

You’ve taken the brave step of voting for the minor party that shares your political philosophy, knowing they are unlikely to make it into parliament. To add insult to disappointment, your vote is taken and given to a party you had no wish to support. Fair? Certainly not, and it means our House of Representatives isn’t truly representative.

At the 2017 election 121,000 people (4.6% of voters) cast a vote for a party not elected to parliament. Each of those votes was reallocated to another party based on proportionality, mostly to Labour and National. This vote gifting gave parties not voted for five members of parliament.

Fast forward to the 2020 election where nearly 8% of party votes were commandeered and gifted to parties that 225,000 voters hadn’t given their vote to. Nine seats in the 2020 parliament were not directly endorsed by voters. Known as ‘wasted votes’ they are actually ‘repurposed’ votes as this is what happens when a party fails to win an electorate seat and doesn’t gain five percent of the party vote.

This practice is an imposition on our MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) voting system by the five percent threshold. More importantly it is an assault to democracy when a vote is effectively taken and reallocated elsewhere.    

First time voters in the first MMP election (1996) are now at least 45 years old. 2023 will deliver the tenth MMP election. There is still a hankering by some to return to the old First Past the Post, and every now and then a bright spark suggests STV (Single Transferable Vote) would be better. I’m not advocating for a change of voting system but I believe it’s time to take the trainer wheels off and honestly represent the will of the people. MMP has brought much better representation to parliament but after 27 years we are mature enough to know where unfairness exists and what should be improved.

There is nothing magic about five percent. In 1996, after a referendum where the majority supported change, we adopted the German MMP system including their five percent threshold.

So does anyone care our House of Representatives isn’t truly representative? Or are we so disengaged we think rough enough is good enough?

To illustrate the distortion caused by the five percent threshold I’ve compared last week’s Taxpayer Union Curia poll results below with the zero threshold results in brackets. The results show number of seats in parliament for each party:

National:          46 seats (43)

Labour:            44 seats (41)

ACT:                 16 seats (15)

Greens:            9 seats (9)

Te Pati Maori: 5 seats (5)

NZ First:           0 seats (3)

TOP:                 0 seats (2)

New Conservatives: 0 seats (2)

Differences exposed are better representation of voters wishes and greater options for forming a government. As society evolves and diversifies our electoral system should also adapt.  

The illustration also shows the major parties benefit most from the 5% threshold, hence their opposition to abandoning it.  Politics is the contest of ideas and major parties do not have a monopoly on this.

The numbers are interesting but it’s the voting behaviours the threshold distortion encourages that are most concerning. Voters sensibly worry about wasting their vote. Many decide not to support the minor party that best represents their views, voting instead for one of the two old large parties to be assured it will count. Voting ‘strategically’ or ‘tactically’ is a compromise vote. The compromise is a vote aimed to keep those you don’t want out rather than a vote for the party you do want. The best recent example was some National leaning farmers voting Labour in 2020 to keep the Greens out of government.

Despite new parties having entered parliament under MMP, none have been able to break over the five percent threshold without an existing presence in parliament except for ACT in 1996. Some have come close but the barrier is high. Arguments to lower the threshold to 3% or 4% merely shift the problem a little. In my poll table above TOP and New Conversatives would have two seats each in parliament.  I’m even prepared to tolerate the ‘he’s back again’ Winston Peters because the principle is more important than the man.

At this point someone always says we must maintain the threshold to “keep out the crazies”. Who are these crazies? Some would contend they are already in parliament! I believe in a democracy where freedom of speech and association are prized. This means if a party gains enough votes (around 0.8% of total party vote) for a seat in parliament it should be there representing those voters.

Voters’ wishes should count and we can only be truly represented when there is no MMP threshold. Society benefits from diversity of thought and action. Let’s remove those trainer wheels, get the balancing act right and move to a mature way of engaging in our MMP environment.