MMP at work: concession or convenience?
Colin James's column for the Otago Daily Times for 13 December 2011
Which C word sums up National's deal with ACT: concession or convenience? Now ask if the same applies to the Maori party deal.
Run through the ACT list.
Charter schools are one way to give effect to National's stated policy of "choice" of school for parents. John Key favours it. The issue is how it will be done, by whom, in what numbers and under what accreditation and accountability regime. A senior minister points to an initiative by the Waananga o Aotearoa and Massey University. Stand by for a stoush if teachers obstruct.
The spending cap has no effect this term. Bill English's spending track is under the population-growth-plus-inflation formula. Labour-Greens can repeal or soften it when in power.
ACT has agreed in the deal to soften its Regulatory Standards Bill from mandatory, justiciable principles to requiring each government to state its principles for lawmaking and state when it departs from those principles and why. Labour can probably go along with that.
The agreed shift to "unitary plans", with regional input, to replace a "clutter" of local body "documents" in the resource management system is in tune with evolving National thinking in the wake of super-Auckland and other national intrusions into local decision-making via the Environmental Protection Authority, call-ins of big projects, national policy statements and environmental standards, co-governance with iwi of the Waikato river, commissioners for Canterbury water and a government department to fix Christchurch.
All these deals look more convenience than concession, since the government intended anyway to lift the pace of change in 2012, including welfare reform, public sector reshaping, petroleum and minerals exploration, water storage dams, labour market deregulation and asset selldowns. Ersatz MP John Banks is useful, not a nuisance.
Note also that National policy had gone partway to Peter Dunne's heli-hunting curb.
On the face of it, Key can say he had no choice but to make "concessions". His 47.3 per cent, down from an early-October opinion poll average of 56 per cent, is two seats short of a majority.
Actually, had he not boosted New Zealand First during the campaign it might well not have cleared the 5 per cent threshold. National would then have had 62 seats on its own.
With 59 seats (only one up on 2008) Key has given a 1.1 per cent party and a 0.6 per cent party highly disproportionate credence. Disproportionate credence too, to the 2.4 per cent Maori party, two seats down on 2008 and its co-leaders moving on, but crucial for a majority if National were to lose an electorate seat during the term.
That's MMP, now secured 58 per cent to 42 per cent and headed for fine-tuning, not replacement. While generally rewarding parties according to public support (first-past-the-post disproportionately rewarded the big, parties and, within that, National more than Labour), MMP invites tactical manoeuvres by parties, to secure partners, and voters, to (often in vain) try to make their votes count.
And parties can get it wrong. A upfront two-ticks-in-all-seats campaign might have got an honest John more marks and seats. Labour ran separate electorate and party vote campaigns and now might usefully emulate National's schoolroom-like chants led by president Judy Kirk after its 2002 disaster: "It's the party vote that counts".
Except for the Maori party. With no prospect of 5 per cent, it has to win electorate seats. And National needs those seats not just for votes in the House but for Maori-roll votes by proxy; it has done poorly in Maori seats for 70 years and now doesn't stand candidates. At Sunday's signing Key emphasised the party's importance to National.
Hence his accommodation of the Maori party limiting its committed support to budgets, confidence motions and parliamentary procedural motions -- though actually, in supporting a budget, the Maori party will de facto support some initiatives it officially opposes.
Hence also some modest concessions, notably expanding whanau ora, involving iwi in the Crown Minerals Act review, joint work on water, continuing the constitutional review, keeping the Maori electorates, urgent "refocusing" of Te Puni Kokiri and options for iwi housing providers.
But one part of the deal reads like a convenience: the ministerial committee on poverty.
Poverty is not a core concern of National supporters. But Key is aware of a rising debate among economists on inequality, a closely related topic.
Inequalities might well become a leading item this parliamentary term. The OECD's recent report fingering New Zealand as one of its most unequal members doesn't fit Key's assertion on Sunday that he governs for all, not just the well-off.
"Conceding" a talkshop on poverty covers that off. He can say in 2014 his government is on the case to blunt Labour-Green attacks and maybe moderate any inequalities-based populist surge.
Support parties have their uses -- in various ways. That's MMP, now here to stay.