When in 1996 New Zealand switched to the mixed member proportional representation system for Parliamentary elections, we took a stride towards achieving a more accurate form of democracy, replacing the First Past the Post system that had thrown up results, which when analysed, showed that the percentage of votes cast for each party did not match the number of seats allocated to those parties. The MMP system has produced results that are a more accurate reflection of the wishes of the voters.
But a Parliament that is proportionally constructed does not necessarily conform to the ideals of a democracy?
The best description of a democracy, is that everybody has a right to be represented, but the majority have the right to govern, or to quote Thomas Jefferson from his Parliamentary Manual of 1800.
"The voice of the majority decides. For the lex majoris partis is the law of all councils, elections, etc., where not otherwise expressly provided."
What is the majority? Is it over 50 % of the total, or merely the greatest of the individual totals? If a party receives 47% of the vote, then the other combined parties have 53%. It is obvious that for practical governance, unless most of the minority parties form a union to achieve over 50 % of the vote, we have to accept the definition of majority as being the party with the highest number of votes. Webster’s dictionary calls this a Relative majority.
No single party has received over 50% of the vote, absolute majority, since Sid Holland’s National Party in 1951, and no party has ever achieved this under the MMP system. This has resulted in the highest polling party being forced to negotiate with one or more minor parties to pass legislation, meaning delays and frustrations. It is also contrary to the principle that the majority have the right to govern.
The majority should not have to compromise its policies by bribing a minority into supporting it in Parliamentary divisions. If a coalition is formed prior to an election then the voting public know what its policies and alliances are, and vote accordingly, but when agreements or coalitions are formed after the election, it is a betrayal of the policies of all parties involved in the conspiracy.
A solution to this travesty could be to introduce a ‘majority bonus’ system, along the lines of that used in Greece, San Marino, and in France for municipal and regional elections. I would not go so far as to advocate any of these countries formats, but the principle is, that after the final vote count in an election, the majority party is allocated bonus votes in proportion to the number of its members needed to reach the 51% of the electorate. These can be used in parliamentary divisions if required. If this had been used in the 2011 election, where National received 47% of the seats on an electorate and proportional basis, it could, if required, use its bonus four votes to pass legislation. No compromise, no subterfuge. Minor parties would still be represented in parliament in proportion to their vote, but they would not be in a position to veto legislation of the party that had received the majority public vote. It would however, only need all minor parties’ votes, plus one of the Governing party to overthrow unpopular legislation.
Should a method along the lines of this suggestion be adopted, there is one quote that should be framed in the lobby of parliament house-
"Bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801. ME 3:318