I was quite impressed with the way John Key tried to ankle tap MMP a couple of weeks ago. He never actually came out and said that he wants to get rid of it. Instead he told us, the public, that this is what WE are thinking. We just needed a little help to work that out.
It was a brilliant tactic. It allowed him to take a stab at our electoral system while leaving room to about-face if the political dynamics and focus-group opinions change. It sounded like he was on the pulse of the nation, but committed him to nothing. John Key may be relatively new to parliamentary politics, but he's a natural.
Key has tried from the beginning to portray himself as an impartial adjudicator in the MMP debate. He is only holding a referendum because that is what the public want. It is 'the people', rather than John Key, who are now questioning MMP as a result of the ACT party's self-destruction. I'm not saying they should or shouldn't take that view he told us. This begged the question of exactly which 'people' he was referring to. The answer came a week later. Leaked minutes showed that his chief of staff had been talking with Peter Shirtcliffe about pushing the Supplementary Member (SM) system as an alternative to MMP.
Peter Shirtcliffe, for those that don't know, was the main figure behind the campaign to derail the MMP referendum in 1993. He was chair of Telecom at the time, and realised that a more democratic voting system is a threat to corporate profits. He managed to get more donations from his big business buddies than Labour and National combined, which is telling in itself, and the combination of big money and deceptive advertising almost took the referendum. Nevertheless people power won the day in the end.
To be fair, John Key probably was a bit agnotic about MMP while ACT remained a viable political partner. While an outright majority would make it easier for National to ram free market fundamentalism through parliament (which was one of the reasons we got rid of FPP in the first place) he was quite comfortable knowing that he could rely on ACT for support on one side and the Maori Party on the other. This provides a lot of scope for a centre-right politician, with the bonus of having a coalition agreement to blame for unpopular policy initiatives in either direction. With ACT gone at the next election, as seems likely, Key now has only one direction to lean. National must be burning offerings in thanks that the referendum planning is already underway.
So expect to see more undermining of MMP by the National Party up until the election. It's not without its own risks for them though. Drumming up concern about the influence of small parties under MMP may grow a mood for change, but a return to FPP, or a move to SM, may not bring that to an end. Getting rid of MMP will probably spell the end of some small parties, but one in particular will be the big winner. The Maori Party has five MPs by virtue of its electorate vote. Party votes add nothing. With the other small parties gone, it is likely that Labour and National would both be reliant on the Maori Party to form a government on a regular basis. Far from ending the influence of small parties, a move to a less proportional system would probably just give the Maori Party a monopoly.
I suspect that is not what Peter Shirtcliffe had in mind.