Coat-tailing and other political oddities

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What is the deal with coat-tailing and all those other little idiosyncrasies of our nation’s MMP system we hear bandied around in the news?

Before we get down to the details, we must have a quick rundown on the two ways to get one of the 120 seats in New Zealand’s Parliament and be an MP in the first place.

First, you can compete as an individual in one of the 71 electorates, get the most ticks next to your name from people who live in that particular electorate, and you have a seat in Parliament to represent them for the next three years. Good luck.

Second, you can compete for the Party vote. This one is arguably a harder way to get into Parliament, as you have to get a bunch of people together who agree on various policies and ideas, promote yourselves as a Party, and then hope that at least 5% of the New Zealand voting public are on board.

If your party gains 5% or more of the Party vote, you will get roughly the same percentage of the seats in Parliament.

Voters’ threshold

This whole ‘5% of all voters threshold’ thing can be a tough nut to crack for a Party that is just starting out; in the 2011 election, it meant that you had to get more than 112,000 New Zealanders to vote for you.

Understandably, many parties focus on winning an electorate, as each one has only around 60,000 eligible voters. Therefore, the number you have to convince to vote for you to win is far less, usually, between 12,000 and 18,000 people.

The thing that makes getting an electorate seat even more attractive in our system is that if someone in your Party wins an electorate seat, the doors of Parliament are opened to the rest of your Party, and you get to bring in extra members according to the percentage of the Party vote that you have won.

For example, in 2008, the ACT Party only got 3.65% of the Party vote, but their leader Rodney Hide won the electorate of Epsom, which meant that four other ACT MPs were able to ride into Parliament on his coattails.

The shortcut

This electoral shortcut has allowed large parties from both sides of the political spectrum to help minor parties – those that will help them to form a government – to get into Parliament by gifting an electorate seat. They do this by directing their supporters in that electorate to vote for the smaller Party’s candidate, whilst still giving the larger Party their Party vote.

Understandably, this can seem unfair, and leads to accusations of parties ‘gaming’ the system. I have sympathy for this view, but I also believe that as long as there is a system, people will figure out how to make it work to their advantage.

It is up to New Zealand voters to be clued up on what our political operators are up to, and vote with clear eyes for the ones whose actions we agree with the most.

Jeremy Varo is Media & Communications Officer at Maxim Institute based in Auckland

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