Oliver Chan: Stop eating your Greens

Popular, charismatic political saviours can be a contagion in their nation’s body politic. I’m not saying that Emmanuel Macron or Justin Trudeau are the patient zeroes of deadly pandemics, but that their impact has awakened a dormant problem that, while it won’t kill us, can severely impede our cognitive abilities. Case in point: Jacindamania – the media frenzy around the rise of new Labour leader Jacinda Ardern during New Zealand’s general election, that has pundits and political geeks feverishly hallucinating a two-horse race. Which in turn, for the public, enforces a delusion that the country still votes under a First Past the Post system. Without strong third parties, Labour and National – both still lacking truly bold reforms in housing, the environment, employment or productivity – as an 80% plus two-party billing could seal a cosy consensus for years to come.

The reason voters might not fully utilise MMP is probably rooted in our cultural mentality towards power, specifically an English one. Apart from NZ and Ireland, other Anglosphere countries – Australia, the UK, Canada and the US – still use FPP to elect their national lower houses. NZ might have changed its voting system but hasn’t quite shed its very English notions of politics.

“Popular, charismatic political saviours can be a contagion in their nation’s body politic.”

Our understanding of power can best be defined as ‘winner-takes-all’ – the essence of FPP. The party that wins the most votes has the most legitimate claim to government, while multi-party coalitions are portrayed as a cabal of fatigued, unstable weaklings. Two-party leaders debates are taken more seriously, while multi-party debates often transpose as a cluttered, cacophonic hot mess. New parties are usually reliant on famous leaders – either breakaway MPs or self-funding millionnaires – to gain attention, rather than grassroots energy or a consistent political philosophy. The Alliance, NZ First, ACT, Internet Party, Conservatives and TOP simply wouldn’t exist without Jim Anderton, Winston Peters, Richard Prebble, Kim Dotcom, Colin Craig and Gareth Morgan – and most have or will likely disappear without their political mastheads.

These parties are treated as ‘junior partners’ and ‘king-makers’ rather than equals or parties with potential to expand. Nowhere is this more obvious than with Labour’s revival at the expense of the Greens. Jacinda Ardern essentially adopted Green Party policies and messaging from their specialties of public transport, clean water and climate change. While an FPP mentality encourages Labour to gain ‘wasted’ Green votes, in reality Labour are literally eating their Greens, and the preceding word ‘Soylent’ comes to mind.

Essentially, ‘Jacindamania’ is the BSE/mad cow disease of our political cannibalism. Similarly, National’s offer of one-party stability hides the real nature of political negotiation, in that all major parties are multi-party coalitions in all but name. National unites urban free market liberals and rural social conservatives just as Labour contains moderate to bolder left-wingers. Policy deals are often an informal negotiation between caucus, leadership and party policy groups rather than public coalition negotiations and formal agreements.

All politics is coalition-building, while maintaining the personal and ideological rivalries that riddle every organisation or movement. Off-camera, National’s blue-topped runners will eventually start bickering about the direction, one will be shoved into a bush in anger and another will break away and take their own chances while the Red-Green-Black team might tortoise itself to the finish.

“All politics is coalition-building, while maintaining the personal and ideological rivalries that riddle every organisation or movement.”

A real understanding of proportional politics requires a look at Germany, the creators of MMP. Germany was not an overnight success. Only during the 1980s, with the emergence of new parties like Die Grünen (Greens), the survival of the former East German Communists and their alliance with western socialists, and the rise of anti-immigration politics did the country see more proportional voting behaviour. Polling for their September general election shows between 5-10% vote for each of the four parties – Grünen, liberal FDP, socialist Linke and the far-right AfD.

Coalition formation is less about who comes first than which parties can achieve the most common ground. Fragmentation – rather than a sign of instability – better reflects diverse perspectives within society. It also provides a healthy example of when similar interests can collaborate rather than knife each other over small differences. Getting voters to ‘think MMP’ requires a cultural shift from the winner-takes-all approach towards the collaborative power model that MMP was intended to be.

Part of the solution is educating voters about their choices. Elections NZ, whose Footrot Flats advertisements and flyers helped the public initially understand MMP, could reach beyond simply explaining the system and emphasise personal and strategic decisions considerations in voting – preferably while retiring the Orange Guy or fruit-based analogies.

Such an approach would help third party supporters who’ve caught a chronic bout of Jacindamania to think about their choices. Here, voters can still possessively worship a meme-worthy Labour PM or solid southern National PM while not voting for the party of their spirit animal. Policies, party ideology and the strength of potential coalition partners are smarter considerations – whether your passion is the environment, transport and welfare (Green), regional economic development (NZ First), wholesale housing reform (TOP), indigenous political models (Māori or Mana) or charter schools (ACT). The power of small parties to achieve depends on their parliamentary strength.

“Fragmentation – rather than a sign of instability – better reflects diverse perspectives within society.”

For example, Green supporters are better served by supporting those who always fought for public transport, free tertiary education, climate change and welfare reform – who were dismissed as extreme by the same Labour that’s now the equivalent to someone showing up at a gig after the band’s song features in a film soundtrack, decked out in way too much merch and bragging about how they loved the band all along. Lending your vote to a sympathetic party in danger of losing their representation, or a new party hovering around 4% can help ensure diverse representation, as well as supporting your preferred coalition.

Outside of elections, parliamentary diversity depends on grassroots, ideological parties rather than brand name personalities backed by money. Rather than waiting for the monied messiah or the rebel MP, joining and building grassroots-led movements with coherent philosophies can introduce new ideas into the public discourse and build towards parliament if that’s your goal. Such energy and thinking will make parties more sustainable when charismatic, powerful, monied personalities come and go and United Future is just another crumbling tombstone in the political graveyard of failed early MMP prototypes.

“Joining and building grassroots-led movements with coherent philosophies can introduce new ideas into the public discourse.”

Behind the two-horse race mentality is something deeper, more diverse that can be better expressed by many parties, not just two. Think of it as the rise of the silent minority, as opposed to what would happen if the Greens, NZ First, Māori Party and ACT are allowed to be eaten up – a Labour/National parliament best termed the ‘soylent majority’.

Oliver Chan is a London-based social and political researcher, writer and Politics Editor at Impolitikal. Read more by Oliver.

Header image by Ian Hart.