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The Government lost the election

by Joshua Drummond

The Government lost the election.

This isn't an angle you'll have seen much lately, or will in the coming days, with a news media full of talk about "moral authorities", and speculation about Winston's role as kingmaker, but it's the truth. The Government - National and Act, with support from United Future and the Maori Party (RIP, x2) - lost to the Opposition bloc, comprised of Labour, the Greens, and New Zealand First.

Assuming the special votes swing left, as they usually do, the loss will become even more comprehensive with the Greens and Labour between them likely to pick up a seat or two.

Of course, New Zealand First's Winston Peters has positioned his party as capable of governing with either National or Labour. But his party was part of the Opposition, and their policies (such as they are) have far more in common with Labour's than they do National's. Make no mistake: the National-led Government just straight-up lost the election, and they'll lose more if they end up in a coalition with New Zealand First, given the concessions Peters will extract.

But you'd never know it from the headlines, which have mostly positioned National as the "winner" of the election, barring the minor technicality of Peters's negotiations. The biggest loser in this election was MMP, and it's all the media's fault.

With a couple of percentage points bled from National, and the loss of the Maori party,  it was obvious from fairly early on election night that the next Government would be decided by the Kingmaker in the North (who also lost his electorate seat, but no matter.)

With this conclusion ironclad before 10pm, this left the various news anchors with hours to fill what would otherwise be dead air with vacuous bullshit, and boy did they rise to the occasion. Duncan Garner was magnificent, full of interrupting, bumptious blather about the largest-polling party's "moral right" to form the government, which is codified nowhere in law nor in unwritten convention, and goes contrary to the most basic, obvious electoral fact that, under MMP, the parties – not the party –who receive the most votes get to form the government.

It's basic numbers: whoever (collectively) has the most votes, wins. We've had MMP for twenty years now. This stuff is not that hard. I like to think that the people who weave media narratives are very far from stupid, so the only explanation is that this incorrigible ignorance is wilful. Why? My hunch is that they're simply not letting the truth get in the way of a good story.

MMP is far more ungood, from a narrative perspective, than the old First Past the Post system. In many ways, there is less conflict - conflict being the pernicious, fallacious premise that the news media is built on - and there's no clear-cut winner-take all. Proportional representation requires compromise. It's built into the system; it's the art of the possible, writ large.

Under MMP, no one party has ever taken an absolute majority. This is why National, which views itself as the natural party of Government in New Zealand, has tried so hard to destroy it. This time around Labour gave an MMP campaign a shot, with the poorly-understood Memorandum of Understanding with the Green Party.

The execution was fairly bad, especially after Labour's relative popularity under Jacinda Ardern nearly cooked the Greens. But it was still pretty much MMP campaigning. Two different parties, two different agendas, yet from the outset they said they'd do their best to form a government, given the opportunity.

Meanwhile, National did its best to throw the minor parties under their campaign bus and position the election as a drag race, albeit one dogged by their faithful hound, crumbs-under-the-table whippet-boy David Seymour – who now has his tail between his legs after being informed he'll no longer be needed or wanted under a coalition with NZ First.

National's fondest wish, after their failed referendum against MMP, has long been the disappearance of New Zealand First, followed closely by getting Greens down to 4.9%. This would leave National (also fairly conveniently rid of the Maori Party) at last devoid of any meaningful coalition commitments and in a position to govern alone.

They didn't get there, but the news media did everything it could to help them out. They systematically denied minor party leaders any real share of the spotlight. Leaders' debates were positioned as duels, trials by combat, when this bears no resemblance to the actual jockeying, compromise and concession demanded by the logistics of MMP.

It would be a far greater reflection of reality to have the minor party leaders present during all debates. (Which, as they're currently run, also bear no resemblance to actual debates, as anyone who did time on a debating team knows. I'll give an honourable exception to The Spinoff's debate, which as a long-running argument between various party members, both major and minor, was by far the best reflection of MMP reality).

There is, of course, a persistent misunderstanding in the electorate that the party with the most votes gets first go at forming a Government. This seems to be the unspoken justification from the Duncan Garners and Mike Hoskings of the world; that they're only reflecting Middle New Zealand's understanding back at them. To which I say, oh, fuck off.

If the electorate still doesn't understand MMP, it's because you haven't done your goddamn job: explaining it properly. In fact, the New Zealand news media and punditry has largely done the opposite; by continually deriding the role of minor parties and ignoring the inconveniently non-horse-racey nature of MMP, they've done all they can to encourage the misconceptions.

Constant snide asides aimed at minor contenders, like Gareth Morgan and his 2 plus-percent-polling TOP party ( ignoring briefly all that Gareth did to encourage the jibes,) didn't help. Sure, the remaining FPP-hangover quirks of MMP – the god-awful coat-tail rule, the undemocratic 5 percent threshold – play their part in muddying the electoral water for the public. But if the class doesn't understand the teacher, it's the teacher that did a shitty job. That's what's happened here. The Government lost the election, and somehow, no-one seems to realise it.

We should expect better next election. It's well past time that the news media's good story got out of the way of the inconvenient, messy truth of MMP.

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