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Saturday, 10 December 2011

National and the MMP game

So, the final results are out on the MMP referendum - 57.77% of voters voted to keep and review MMP. As readers will know, I haven't been updating this blog because of the general election and referendum campaign. For the referendum my role was acting as the Auckland spokesperson for the Campaign for MMP, and helped out with the website and back-end database. I'll allow others to perform the post-mortems on the campaign for now, my interest at the moment is getting the centre-right to move on from dumping MMP and start thinking seriously about actually playing the game.

This referendum came about as a result of a series of policy discussions, originally lead by the Chris Finlayson (now Attorney-General), on constitutional issues for National to confront. Following National's horrendous 2002 defeat, three policies were entertained: referendums on a New Zealand republic and the electoral system, and abolition of the Maori seats. 

Needless to say, the referendum on the electoral system and abolition of the Maori seats went ahead as National policy into the 2005 and 2008 elections. The republic did not. I wasn't privy to the reasons why, being just a pimply Young Nat at the time, but my understanding was that there was a feeling that MMP was to blame for National's poor showing. Many believed NZ First and United Future expanded their vote at the expense of National, and were determined to win back that support. 

This showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the electoral system. It led to the referendum we've just had. It is an issue National must now confront unless - to borrow a phrase from the anti-MMP camp - it wants to become the "natural party of opposition". What do I mean by this?

Cathy Odgers, writing in the NBR on the Act Party's fortunes, put it this way:
Under MMP, even the most popular prime minister could only barely scrape a majority, which proves how hard it will be for the centre-right next time if we don’t work intelligently as a collective to structure coalition partners for National on a more coherent and friendly basis.
Cathy suggests National should do a deal with Colin Craig's Conservative Party (or CCCP for short). She's absolutely right - and they should be open and honest about it, as they should've been in Epsom with Act.

National has to play the MMP game much better. Not only that, it must play the game smarter than the opposition. National should agree now with Act that its electorate candidate in Epsom will not campaign for the electorate vote. The National candidate will be able to say so. To do so is not undemocratic, the people of Epsom who support a centre-right government will be able to vote for or against one. No need for cups of tea or wink wink nudge nudge-style politicking.

The underlying problem is, however, that Act is dead politically. John Banks will live on as the last vestige of a once important political party; he will become another Jim Anderton or Peter Dunne type figure. I wouldn't be surprised if he caucuses with the National Party.

Counting CCCP as a party of the centre-right, the overall party votes on the right of New Zealand politics was 51.63% in 2011. Now, I don't like Colin Craig's mix of social conservatism and autarkist economics. In many ways it's the opposite of what I stand for. Nor do I like his opportunist political carpet-bagging party, which seems to be little more than an amalgam of paleo-conservative Actoids, failed Christian politicians and a new immigrants party. But there's no denying the 2.66% of the vote his party received, on the strength of its nationwide campaign, was significant. And in a way it would be good for all the social conservatives to have their own party - especially since most social issues are matters of conscience.

Cathy suggests National should give CCCP a seat. Rodney is the most obvious candidate, since that's where Colin Craig is from. If this is to happen, I'd expect the same sort of open and honest approach I'm calling for in Epsom. But to me, this is just a short-term solution.

A much better strategy would be for National's strategists to work with Craig build a nationwide, grassroots campaign. The aim of this campaign would be to break the 5% threshold (heck, they could make it easier for themselves and lower the threshold to 4%), largely by taking votes off New Zealand First.

Joking aside, New Zealand First's base is largely made up of economic autarkists and assorted Muldoon fanboys (they're almost always boys). They are perfect candidates for voting CCCP. No doubt there will be shenanigans from NZ First members (this guy seems to be the prime candidate) which will damage its brand. But more importantly, so long as Winston Peters is around, John Key and National cannot work with him. That needs to be the message National continues to stress throughout this term.

Should CCCP take 2.4% of the vote off NZ First, Parliament will look very different; Peters would be out again and CCCP would be in. Even if National's vote drops in 2014 (and it almost certainly will following a difficult second-term) having a party to the right able to work with John Key will be the difference between holding or losing the treasury benches.