Israel 2019 update: fragmentation on the right

As I noted in my initial post about the 2019 Israel election, not only is division on the left not the reason the (center-)left likely will not win, but the right is divided, too. From the excellent Twitter feed of Lahav Harkov (a journalist for the Jerusalem Post), comes this nugget:

BREAKING Former IDF Chief Rabbi Rafi Peretz is the new leader of Bayit Yehudi.

Interestingly, in Netanyahu’s response to this, he called on Bayit Yehudi to unite with National Union and Otzma L’Yisrael – aka the Kahane party. He said they need to unite so right-wing votes don’t fall under the threshold and lead to a left-wing govt being formed.

So this got me wondering, in parliamentary politics (Israel or elsewhere), how often does the leader of one party call on the leader of another party to make a pre-election alliance with yet other parties?

First case I can think of!

And, yes, Netanyahu is right to be worried about this.

El Salvador presidency 2019–a president from a different party?

El Salvador holds the first round of its presidential election today. If no candidate obtains more than half the votes, a runoff between the top two will be held on 10 March. El Salvador holds nonconcurrent elections (usually), with the presidency elected for five years and legislative assembly for three. The expected winner of the presidency comes from one of the smaller parties, the optimistically named Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA). Given that there will not be a new assembly election till 2021, the new president may have some difficulties governing. While no president has had his party in a majority in the assembly since the 1980s (before the settlement of the cili war), all presidents since the mid-1990s have come from either the National Republican Alliance (ARENA) or the Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN). Thus El Salvador may be entering a new political era.

It might be misleading to call the expected winner an “outsider”, as Reuters did. Not only is Nayib Bukele the candidate of one of the existing (smaller) parties, but also he is the mayor of San Salvador, which would be considered the second most powerful and visible elected post in the country. He was originally elected mayor as the FMLN candidate, but was expelled from the party. He joined GANA to bolster his presidential ambitions. So some degree of “outsiderness”, perhaps, but it is not as if he’s not held important office before or is running on his own campaign vehicle apart from the party system. (The Wikipedia article says he tried to register a new party but was barred from doing so.)

So what about GANA, the likely next president’s adopted party? The most recent assembly election was in 2018, and GANA won only 10 of the 84 seats, although its 11.5% of the vote was its highest to date. GANA resulted from a split from the ARENA, which occurred after the FMLN won the presidency for the first time in 2009. It remains an essentially right-wing party, and I wish I knew more about the policymaking process under two FMLN presidencies to know what sorts of policy compromises the formerly radical-guerrilla left and a right-wing splinter made. Whatever their alliance might look like in substantive terms, it was strong enough politically that GANA did not even put up a presidential candidate in 2014.

In the 2018 election, the parties of the ruling alliance (FMLN and GANA) lost seats, as is entirely predictable from a late-term election. Thus President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has spent the past year of his term in quite a lame-duck situation, with his own party having only 21.4% of the seats and the erstwhile ally with another 11.9%. I say “erstwhile” because, while I do no know what, if any, legislative alliances the president has been working with in the last year, it is evident that GANA and the FMLN have split up their alliance: the latter party has its own candidate in today’s presidential election. (There are four candidates, including one for an alliance of ARENA and the Christian Democrats and the really old ruling party, PCN.)

A problem with an electoral cycle like the one El Salvador uses is that it allows some presidents a honeymoon election, while others do not get an assembly election till near or after the middle of their term. As we know, honeymoon elections tend to give a large boost to the party or alliance supporting a just-elected president (see France 2017 for an absolutely classic case study). Bukele will have to figure out how to govern with an assembly in which his own party has only 10 of 84 seats until the next assembly election, in 2021. And that date is 40% into his term, meaning the normal working of electoral cycles will not likely benefit him much.

I have been fascinated by El Salvador’s unusual electoral cycle for a long time, and it just keeps on delivering. However, were they to ask, I’d tell them to amend their constitution and make elections concurrent.

One thing is for sure, the Salvadoran party system, which I have long characterized as rigid, is no more–a fact already foreshadowed by the 2018 assembly result, as I noted at the time.

French President Macron mentions some “level of proportionality”

President Emmanuel Macron of France has launched a “Great Debate” in response to weeks of protests. Euronews prints a translation of the president’s open letter setting out questions to be debated.

The main themes are taxation and public spending, the organization of the state and public services, ecological transformation, and democracy and citizenship. Of particular interest to F&V is the president’s asking what might be the “right level” of proportional representation in elections to the National Assembly. This question has been debated before, and was supposed to be part of Macon’s platform, although the answer to the question of the “right” level seemed to be not much. Now, at least, it is open to debate, although it is not clear how any opinions expressed during this Great Debate will find their way onto the government agenda.

What follows is an excerpt related to issues of democratic reform.

Should absentions be recognised? Should we make voting compulsory?

What is the right level of proportional representation in parliamentary elections for a fairer say to be given to all political perspectives?

Should we, and how, limit the number of parliamentarians or other elected officials?

What role should our assemblies, including the Senate and the Economic, Social and Environmental Councils, play in representing our territories and civil society? Should we transform them and how?

In addition, a great democracy like France must be able to listen more often to the voice of its citizens.

What changes do you want to make citizen participation more active, democracy more participative?

Should unelected citizens, chosen at random, have greater and more direct involvement in public decision making?

Should we increase the use of referendums and who should decide on how and when?

 

Tu Bi-Shvat 5779

Tu Bi-Shvat is here! It is the “new year for trees” in Judaism, which here at Fruits and Votes we take as a pretty special occasion. The full moon of the month of Shvat marks one of those seasonal turning points–winter is coming to end (for those of us in northern-hemisphere Mediterranean climates, at least), and the fruit trees will be blooming before long. Traditionally, this observance is said to mark the time when the almond trees begin to bloom in the Land of Israel. Here, where our climate is broadly similar, it is coming a bit too early this year. It makes me think we just might need a second month of Adar, following the first month of Adar that will start with the next new moon in about two weeks. In fact, by the lunisolar calendar used in Judaism, we will indeed have two Adars this year, as otherwise we would be putting ourselves on a path to celebrating Pesach (Passover) too early. It needs to be at the full moon of the first lunar month after the vernal equinox. With the winter solstice only about four weeks behind us, it is indeed a bit early in solar-season terms for the almond trees to be blooming. Here is mine now, for instance.

The buds have been swelling for a while, but it’s not ready to bloom just yet. By comparison, last year buds began swelling around the 9th of January, but the first blooms did not open till the 30th–conveniently, the eve of Tu Bishvat, so right on time! In 2017 it also began its bloom on the eve of Tu Bishvat, even though that happened to be the 10th of February! The range of late January/early February is about right for first almond blooms, and is also generally when Tu Bishvat, but as I elaborate a bit below, the Jewish calendar by no means guarantees that Tu Bishvat will line up with any specific point in the season, but it will always be one of the first two full moons following the winter solstice.

Notwithstanding the date on the Jewish calendar, then, it seems the almond will be a little early, relative to Gregorian calendar dates of past years. And that may be a harbinger of early blooms on many of our fruit trees, something I have expected ever since the surprising bout of chill very early in the season, occasioned in part by the heavy smoke. At least the varieties that are relatively low chill should have had their requirement met by now; given that January has been quite warm, the higher-chill fruits may still be waiting around longer for further chill (which we may not get; outlook is for unseasonably warm weather, which alas, is becoming the new normal).

While the almond may not be blooming for Tu Bishvat this year, just now it is about peak season for some flowering/fruiting trees:

This is an ume apricot in the UC Davis campus, obviously already in full bloom, as of late last week. The ume is traditionally associated with new year in Japan, which on the Chinese version of the lunisolar calendar will be at the next new moon (the one that on the Jewish calendar will be I Adar this year). Chinese years start on the first or second new moon after the winter solstice; the next new moon will be the second.

So we have one “new year” (the Jewish one for trees) that is coming a little too “early” (in solar-season terms), and another one that is coming too late (although I’ll grant that in Japan, two weeks from now might be about “right” for the first ume blooms*). Such are the challenges of lunisolar calendars. On the one hand, the months are true months–i.e., they are set by moon cycles (the root of the word “month” is moon, but Gregorian calendar months have nothing to do the moon). On the other hand, the calendar must be adjusted ever few years by the insertion of additional month to avoid slipping too far out of synch with the solar cycles, if the culture in question (Jewish or East Asian) has annual observances that must keep to the proper season. (The Islamic calendar, for example, is strictly lunar, so there are no such adjustments and thus Ramadan and other observances can occur at any time throughout the solar year.)

While this year’s New Year for Trees may be a bit early, the timing is nonetheless fortuitous in another sense. It coincides with a lunar eclipse. In fact, with a “super blood wolf moon.” The Tu Bi-Shvat seder includes three different kinds of fruits, where the categories are: (1) inedible exterior, edible interior; (2) edible exterior, inedible interior; (3) entirely edible. To mark the occasion of the “blood” moon, our fruit for the first category will be blood oranges, which happen to be in season now.

Let’s all enjoy some good fruit and fruit-tree blooms as spring approaches!

____
* Various ume festivals start in early February and run until some time in March.

UK MPs “plot” to do their job

As the expected “meaningful vote” on the EU-UK withdrawal agreement looms, and the legally mandated Brexit day (29 March) draws closer, it is worth thinking clearly about what the relationship is between the House of Commons and the executive in the UK system. As it happens, this is the week in my Ph.D. seminar on party and legislative organization in which we read a couple of items specifically about this relationship. Understanding the relationship is important if for no other reason than to inoculate oneself against headlines like this one in the Sunday Times yesterday:

Revealed: Commons plot to seize control from Theresa May ahead of Brexit vote

The print version even had a headline about a “coup”. It is bad enough when the newspapers and talking heads refer to a vote within a party on the continuance (or not) if its leader as a “coup”. It is just that much worse when the possibility of elected representatives taking back power from the executive is so branded.

To be clear, when a collective body to whom a leader (or other collective body) is responsible seeks to replace or diminish the authority of the latter, it is not a coup.

The specific potential actions that got the Times and “one senior figure” quoted therein so worked up is summarized as:

At least two groups of rebel MPs are plotting to change Commons rules so motions proposed by backbenchers take precedence over government business, upending the centuries-old relationship between executive and legislature.

Let’s be clear about something, shall we? The executive in a parliamentary democracy is an agent of the assembly, not vice versa. Thus if a majority of the House of Commons seeks to clip the wings of its agent, this is a principal acting as it should.

It is a separate question as to whether existing statutory law permits a change in control over the order of business, or whether statute first would have to be changed. That is, parliament may already have delegated away some of its rights to make day-to-day changes in business. If that is the case, these “rebel MPs” may be out of luck in the short term, and given the press of time (the Brexit deadline), the short term is rather important. Yet clearly they would have the right, under the structure of the political system, to make an effort to take back powers currently given to the executive.

A second critical point here is that the claim of a “centuries-old relationship” is just plain wrong. On this point, it is indeed helpful that I have just re-read Gary W. Cox’s masterful The Efficient Secret (1987), wherein the author traces exactly the process by which backbenchers relinquished their capacity for legislative initiative (and the emergence of an electoral connection between voters and the executive). The timeline provided by Cox makes clear that there was no single watershed date on which parliamentary power of initiative was abolished. More to the point of the preceding quote from the Times, Cox shows that this process of delegation took place in the middle of the 19th century. Thus we have something less that a “centuries-old” precedent, even if it is undoubtedly true that the executive generally has dominated the agenda of the House for quite a long time.

Cox also makes clear that this relinquishing of initiative did not take place without a fight–MPs regularly resisted efforts to centralize agenda power, but ultimately gave in because it served their own collective interests.

Of course, if a delegation of authority ceases at some moment to serve the collective interests of parliament, what has been delegated can be taken back. At least in principle, as again, if it requires statutory change rather than a procedural motion, it is somewhat more difficult to pull off.

Nonetheless, the governing Conservative Party (which is in a minority in the House) is evidently worried. Today in the House proceedings, there was a series of Points of Order, including several raised by Conservative MPs about scenarios like those sketched by the Times. The exchange is worth watching, at least for those of us interested in parliamentary procedure and executive-legisaltive relations. The exchanges run just over 16 minutes, from around 18:11 (when Prime Minister May answers her last question about her earlier statement to the House) to 18:27 (the last response by the Speaker to the various Points or Order).

The Speaker indicates in one of his responses (to Charlie Elphicke) that it is indeed his understanding that a “statutory instrument” currently can be raised only by a Minister of the Crown. Nonetheless, the next MP to raise a Point of Order (Nigel Huddleston) asks the Speaker to clarify whether MPs are indeed equal, with full access to information about any changes of procedure. (This is a pretty remarkable question!) Then in response to the final Point of Order of the exchange (Matt Warman, who says his constituents have raised doubts about the role of the Speaker), the Speaker says he will defend the rights of the House against “agents of the executive branch”.

Today’s discussion comes against a backdrop of a claim by hardline Brexiteer Tories that the Speaker upended some precedent on procedures in December and again just last week. The issues in question concern what the House can do if, as widely expected, the meaningful vote results in parliamentary defeat of the withdrawal agreement.

The upshot of all this is that the House is not quite as weak as it is often portrayed, and it may be prepared to reassert itself. As Ed Miliband stated in an intervention in today’s debates, the executive works on behalf of the parliament. It may be something that gets forgotten at times, especially by journalists and taking heads. But it is a basic fact of parliamentary democracy.

It is not only journalists and taking heads who forget about the importance of parliament. It is also academics, as another book on my seminar reading list for this week notes. Meg Russel and Daniel Gover’s Legislation at Westminster (2017) offers a much welcome corrective to the mainstream understanding. They push against the “parliamentary decline thesis” and offer a rich analysis, both quantitative and qualitative, of how parliament (both chambers) actually has substantial influence on legislative output. Some of this influence is due to relatively recent changes in parliamentary organization (e.g., changes in the 1970s to institutionalize the select committee system). Again, this serves as a reminder that “precedent” that gives a dominant role to the executive comes with all sorts of caveats, and is subject to occasional rebalancing. In any case, it is not a “centuries-old” precedent, but rather more recent. And it could be that Brexit is showing that it is rather fragile, too.

We may be witnessing a reassertion by the House of its rightful role in determining what course of action its agent, the executive, shall follow.

For the upcoming Israeli election, divisions on the left are not the problem

Israel’s general election has been set for 9 April. This election is both “late” and “early”. The term is four years, and this election will be more than four years after the last election (which was in March, 2015). Yet under Israel’s Basic Law provision on election dates, the date for 2019 could have been as late as November. Nonetheless, the Knesset passed a bill in late December setting the election date.

All indications, at least for now, are that the Likud and its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, will remain at the head of the government following the election. Polls put Likud far ahead of the second party, which in many polls is a new entrant, Israel’s Resilience, founded by former IDF chief of staff, Benny Gantz. The real question is who will be the coalition partners. Both the governing “nationalist camp” and the opposition feature numerous parties, as usual, but also splits, including several new entrants since the election was announced.

There is often poor understanding of how Israeli politics works. To a degree, that’s understandable, as it is a complex political scene (and society). However, there is really no excuse for a major publication like The Economist getting it as wrong as it did in its 3 January edition.

The author of the piece shows a poor understanding of the dynamics of proportional representation and parliamentary government, mistakenly claiming that the center-left could win if only it were not divided into so many different parties. I want to use this claim as a foil, and illustrate why it is so mistaken.

Basically, the reason there are so many parties in Israel is two-fold: there are real socio-political divisions and there is a quite extreme proportional-representation system. Because of the high proportionality, divisions within a potential governing bloc are quite unlikely to be the reason such a bloc fails ultimately to end up in government. (Yes, there is a moderately high threshold that can cause some wasting of votes. We will come back to that.) A government needs to command the votes of one more than half the Knesset (61 of 120); no party will win a majority (none ever has), and so the process of forming a government is one of post-electoral bargaining. Whoever can get 61 votes in the Knesset (assembly) forms the government. A minority government–tolerated by some Knesset parties that don’t have a formal governing role–is theoretically possible, as it almost always is in a parliamentary democracy, but highly unlikely in Israel.

The Economist claimed that Netanyahu could be defeated if only the opposition would unite. The premise is based on two observations; they are true as far as they go, but that is not very far. First,

Under Mr Netanyahu, Likud has never received more than a quarter of the national vote. Yet it has dominated Israeli politics with the help of smaller nationalist and religious parties.

Second,

Were [opposition parties] running as one they would probably gather 40% of the vote, overtaking Likud.

The idea of a united center-left overtaking Likud is plausible, although 40% could be a stretch. Based on the aggregation of recent polls, all the opposition parties, not including Yisrael Beiteinu and the Joint List, come to an estimated 45.5 seats, which would be about 38%. So if all those parties formed one alliance list, they might get close to 40%. Moreover, is not out of the question that Yisrael Beiteinu (YB), which left the government in November, could join a center-left coalition. Even if they get to 40%, however, getting to the 61 seats needed for a majority remains a stretch. For one thing, it is virtually impossible to construct coalition scenarios around the Joint List being in. (The reasons why would be a topic for another thread; the short version is they would not accept if invited to join a governing coalition, which they won’t be.)

The problem is that this 38% or 40% might still not be enough, absent either a polling shift (or substantial error) in their favor or the defection of some party from the current bloc of governing parties, other than YB. If the Haredi (ultra-orthodox) parties joined them in government, that would be another 11.7 seats on the current polling estimate. So if we take the current opposition (minus Joint List), and add in YB and the two Haredi parties, we are at 45.5 + 4.5 + 11.7. Look, we made it to 61.7! A very bare majority, if the polls are spot-on. But not so fast.

While the Haredi parties have governed with left parties before, the broad center-left alliance the Economist is imagining includes at least one party that would be highly unlikely to go into government with the Haredi parties. Yesh Atid, currently polling at 12.7 seats, has as one of its core reasons for being the diminution of ultra-orthodox religious privileges in society; it successfully kept the Haredi parties out of government when it joined a coalition after the 2013 election. It is hard to imagine it agreeing to sit in a government with the Haredi parties (and vice versa). In fact, one of the reasons for the election being called when it was is that the government–again–failed to resolve the Haredi military draft issue, as required by the Supreme Court. It would not be any easier for a center-left-religious coalition to handle. Such a coalition could also be a problem for Meretz, which is a highly secular, left-wing party. YB, which gets most of its votes from the Russian community, is also closer to Yesh Atid on these issues, because of the official rabbinate’s rejection of many Russian immigrants’ Jewish status, although it has sat in nationalist-religious coalitions before, obviously.

Thus we see here already a reason why the Economist’s explanation for why the left won’t unite into a single alliance–“But none of the party leaders is prepared to serve as number two”–is insufficient. The opposition contains not only differences over who should be its leader, but also real divisions over what should be the course of action of the next government. A lot of the divisions may be personalities, but by no means all of them.

Nonetheless, let’s take the claim at face value. Let’s assume that there is an opposition alliance that, upon uniting, somehow not only does not lose any substantial share of its current voters because of pre-election compromises it has to make, but also is able to attract some voters from the right. It ends up with 48 seats (40%), while Likud has only 30 (25%). Is the most likely government–even with such a board alternative pre-electoral coalition able to start bargaining with the other parties–still one led by Likud? Yes, probably.

While it seems somewhat implausible that a pre-election alliance with 40% would be kept out of power if it was really 15 percentage points ahead of the largest list on the other side, any scenarios that have the center-left forming the next government have to get over the parliamentary arithmetic and real political issues mentioned already before they should be taken seriously.

Moreover, it is not as if the divisions on one side are occurring in a vacuum in which the other side does not exist or know what is happening. If, somehow, the center-left united and was polling at 40%, the right surely would respond with alliance-making of its own. While the various personalities in the smaller right-wing parties and in Likud clearly have a fair amount of contempt for one another, they arguably have fewer unbridgeable policy divisions than the center-left. In other words, if they were faced by a genuine threat of a united center-left, they’d almost certainly construct a more united right. We have seen it before: Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu put together a pre-election alliance in 2013, in part out of concern that Yesh Atid might surpass Likud in seats. While there is no procedural advantage to the largest party or list (just ask Tzipi Livni about the 2009 result), there is nonetheless political value in being first, or at least in not too far behind. Already, there are rumors that Likud and current center-right partner Kulanu may be negotiating a joint slate. (On current polling, that would combine for 34.3 seats, or just under 30%.)

Nonetheless, the bottom line is that, regardless of which list gets the most votes and seats, the government will be the one that can assemble a coalition consisting of at least 61 seats. And the simple fact is that advantage in votes falls to the broad right, not the left. There is no sense in which the divisions on the left are preventing it from winning. This is a proportional system, and so divisions are not costing any potential bloc seats, as they would in a majoritarian system.

But, hold on, what about that threshold? Is it possible that the left could deprive itself of seats because some of its parties fall below the threshold? If that happens, then it does indeed waste votes and potentially displace some seats to the right. So, yes, it is possible. The threshold is 3.25%, and at least one party on the center-left is below that (Livni’s HaTenua). However, Livni clearly is going to take part in some new alliance, now that she has been booted in an especially insulting fashion out of the Zionist Union that she formed with Labor before the 2015 election. Besides, this was not a claim the Economist piece made; it does not even mention the threshold.

One new party that has entered, Gesher (headed by current MK and YB-defector Orly Levy-Abekasis) is perilously close to the threshold. However, it is rather likely it will end up joining some pre-electoral bloc. There is also the newly registered party, Telem, of former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who has declared he will not sit in a coalition with Netanyahu. Lists, including any alliances, need not be finalized till late February. (And, yes, this will be a general election in more ways than one.)

Moreover, it is not only the left that has to worry about the threshold. Netanyahu was sufficiently worried to propose lowering the threshold before the election. This was after the Knesset had passed the bill to set the election and “disperse” itself, but before the split in one of his current nationalist governing partners, Bayit Yehudi. The effort on the threshold failed, but it shows that it is not just the opposition that has divisions that could cost it.

The remnant of Bayit Yehudi is currently below the threshold. With 2.8 seats, it is about 1.2 short (the 3.25% threshold means usually the minimum size of a party in the Knesset will be 4 seats). It will probably align with one or more other very minor ultranationalist parties, but even in such an alliance, it could still be left out.

The defectors from Bayit Yehudi, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, have formed a party to be called New Right. It is currently on 8.8 seats. It will seek to cement the Judea & Samaria settler vote and others opposed to any territorial concessions (helped by recruiting Caroline Glick to the list); it will remain a natural partner for Likud even as it seeks to differentiate itself both from Likud and from Bayit Yehudi. Yet even without the remnant of Bait Yehudi passing the threshold, the current coalition partners are at about 59 seats. So now we are up against one other critical fact of the Israeli party system: there are various parties on the center-left that would be willing to join a Likud-led government. In fact, of all the parties on the center-left (not counting the Joint List, which will not be in any government), the only one I am sure would not join Likud is Meretz, and if we take Ya’alon at his word, whatever list he is on won’t back Netanyahu. (As mentioned before, it is also hard to see Yesh Atid in a government with the Haredi parties, but the party has been in a Likud-led coalition before.)

It just very hard to see a realistic scenario for a non-Likud government, absent a major shift in public preferences. Note that I have not even mentioned yet the legal troubles facing Netanyahu. Could that lead to a shift towards the center-left? Maybe. But don’t count on it. More likely, were the PM to be faced with charges before the election, he’d lose some votes to New Right. In fact, that could even be one of the reasons Bennett and Shaked made their move: their new party and its emerging platform could appeal broadly on the right in a way that the hardline orthodox religious (but not Haredi) components of Bayit Yehudi never would have.

To summarize, divisions on the left (or right) will not keep a camp from winning its full seat potential. Yes, if a party needed for the bloc to form a coalition majority falls below the threshold, that could displace seats to a rival bloc. However, parties that are at serious risk of not reaching 3.25% are likely to ally with other parties. It does not matter if the entire center-left unites; it still has less support in the public than the nationalist camp, and thus the latter would remain in stronger position to form a government. Moreover, it is not even clear that a united center-left would gain more votes than the separate parties can win, given the real divisions they reflect. To some degree this is true on the right, too (see the 2013 Likud Beitenu case), but the right is more cohesive as a potential (and current) government. Things could change between now and the election, but I would not count on it. Scenarios in which the current opposition will be the next government need a more credible story in their favor than just that the opposition needs to be more united.

New Zealand to have referendum questions on 2020 ballot, potentially including “tweaks” to MMP

Earlier in December, the Justice Minister of New Zealand, Andrew Little (Labour) announced that there would be a binding referendum on recreational cannabis use concurrent with the 2020 general election. There may also be a question on euthanasia, and–of core interest to this blog–electoral reform.

Earlier, Little had said:

It has been floating around that if we’re going to do a bunch of referenda, why wouldn’t we put this question about whether we want to make those final tweaks to MMP, reduce that 5 per cent threshold to 4 per cent, get rid of the one-seat coat-tailing provision.

These proposals were part of the Electoral Commission’s MMP Review, but the government at the time (National-led) did not act on them.

The multiparty nature of the New Zealand political system that MMP has institutionalized is apparent in these issues being on the table. Having a referendum on cannabis use was a provision of the confidence and supply agreement that Labour signed with the Green Party after the 2017 election. In addition, Labour’s other current governing partner, New Zealand First, has indicated support for a bill on euthanasia sponsored by the leader of ACT, another of the smaller parties (a right-wing partner to opposition National).

Both provisions that the MMP Review recommended changing have had past impacts on current parties. The ACT has depended for its representation in parliament on the so-called coat-tailing provision (a term I do not like for the alternative threshold) in several elections. The New Zealand First once was left out of parliament for having a vote share between 3.5% and 5%, despite other parties (including ACT) being represented, due to winning a single district (electorate) plurality. (Obviously, 4% would not have helped NZF in 2008, as it had only 3.65%. But the point is that the current provisions produce potential anomalies; I have suggested before that the two thresholds should be brought closer to one another.)

Also of note: Little said that the cabinet had discussed, but decided against, having a citizen’s assembly to deliberate issues related to cannabis (and perhaps also euthanasia).