7 December 2023


And proportional representation.

By Robert Kilconner

Those who believe in proportional representation should think carefully about the decision by the New Zealand government to reverse the progressive smoking ban. The idea of the ban was that each year the age at which an individual can buy tobacco rises by one so that gradually tobacco purchasing is squeezed out of the system. Healthcare experts thought that it would save many lives and Rishi Sunak is to introduce a similar ban here.

Now whether you believe in such bans or not, the reason why it has been reversed is politically interesting. There was a general election on 14th October in New Zealand and the National Party won with 38% of the vote. There was nothing in its manifesto about revoking the smoking ban and that proposal has emerged from its discussions with its coalition parties New Zealand First and ACT who have blocked other money-raising measures leaving the ban a casualty of the need to hold the coalition together and the need for tax to fund election promises.

The distortion of policy by the exigencies of coalition politics is not new to New Zealand.  In the days when they were the leading party in a coalition, Labour under Jacinda Ardern wanted to bring in tax on capital gains. Their coalition partners refuse to allow that and Labour, running scared, promised not to introduce the tax even if they later obtained a majority. So the chance of modernising the tax system and collecting more money for public purposes was lost. Had that not been the case perhaps the progressive smoking ban would have been financeable.

Nor indeed are such problems restricted to New Zealand or to countries with proportional representation. Even under the first past the post system it is possible for no party to have a governing majority on its own and so to become vulnerable to the lobbying of minorities. We all remember how difficult it was for Mrs May to negotiate Brexit after the 2017 election made her dependent on the Ulster Unionists and how Boris Johnson’s thumping majority enabled him to break the deadlock. Single party rule meant that things could be achieved. Similar issues arise in the United States, not because of coalition government but because the checks and balances set up to restrict the power of the presidency can have the same result, endless haggling and obstruction.

There are lots of different mechanisms but in the end there is only one fundamental question. How far should leadership be entrusted to a single person or team and how far should power be restricted by encouraging coalitions or by a plethora of checks and balances? It is easy to quote the words of Lord Acton: “power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” but like most aphorisms they tell you nothing about how to strike the balance in an age where decisive action is needed on important topics.

Those who support proportional representation often come to the topic by way of legitimacy. With proportional representation every vote counts, or so they will tell you. With the first past the post system electors can be virtually disenfranchised.

The interesting thing about this argument isn’t that it is false, it isn’t, but rather that it is irrelevant because it puts the mechanism above the object; the purpose of a political system should be to provide good quality leadership and the system which does that best is the one we should adopt. An ostensibly fair system which produces less good government serves the public less well than a more random system which allows good decisions to be made. That doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be some restrictions on government, we certainly don’t want to see absolute power, but in judging a system the focus should be on whether it is conducive to good administration. That is why the loss of the smoking ban in New Zealand should dismay the advocates of proportional representation.

tile photo:Julia Engel on Unsplash

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