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A Psychiatrist argues for MMP on basis of political values

Article – Dr Doug Sellman

A referendum on the voting system in New Zealand is being held at the time of the upcoming general election, occurring after five stable and functional governments based on the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system. The main contender is Supplementary …

A Psychiatrist argues for retaining MMP on the basis of political values

Doug Sellman
October 23, 2011

A referendum on the voting system in New Zealand is being held at the time of the upcoming general election, occurring after five stable and functional governments based on the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system. The main contender is Supplementary Member (SM), which is essentially the old system, First Past the Post (FPP), relabelled.

FPP produced Parliaments that were dominated by just two Parties, National and Labour, championing individual freedom and social equality respectively. Historically there was little room for any true dialogue between the two, because each was expected to be opposed to the other on principle; and so these values have come to be seen as always in conflict with each other. Under MMP, however, discussion and consultation between various parties is becoming the new norm for a government to be effective. Dialogue across a broader political spectrum is likely to continue to deepen as MMP matures. But more importantly, the simple Left versus Right, one-dimensional, political structure produced by FPP, and which would likely return under SM, does not easily allow for a richer set of values that better reflect the complexity of contemporary New Zealand and the serious challenges it faces in the modern world. I will argue that this is an important reason for voting to retain MMP.

An instructive parallel can be drawn between political values and the main constructs of human personality. Society can be thought of as a reflection of our collective human personality. In order for society to be adequately represented in Parliament it requires a voting system in which the full range of human ideals can be expressed. But what are these human ideals in a political sense?

Many theorists and researchers have attempted to describe a structure to human personality. One that has considerable influence and good data supporting its validity is that of Professor Robert Cloninger, a leading international research psychiatrist. It is the three dimensions of character that are instructive here – self-directedness, cooperativeness and self-transcendence. Professor Cloninger explains that these three character dimensions represent three key relationships we each have: self-directedness is the relationship we have with ourselves; cooperativeness is the relationship we have with others; and self-transcendence is the relationship we have with the wider non-human world.

People who are high in self-directedness are focused, purposeful and reliable as individuals; those high in cooperativeness are empathic, helpful and tolerant towards others; and those high in self-transcendence appreciate the bigger context in which the human world operates.

When applied to society and political ideas in particular, I suggest three fundamental political ideals – individual freedom, social equality and environmental sustainability – map onto each of these three character dimensions.

In a 21st Century environmentally-stressed world a political system is needed that not only retains the enduring values of individual freedom and social equality, but also one that effectively incorporates the more recently acknowledged importance of environmental sustainability. MMP is a system that has made some progress towards this plurality of valid concern. It is no accident that the Green Party is now emerging as a strong third force in New Zealand politics under MMP, championing this political value. To lose MMP now would be to risk undermining New Zealand’s emerging capacity to address the challenge of advancing environmental degradation.

A system that facilitates expression of these three ideals, transforms the political landscape from a one-dimensional (Left versus Right) into a two-dimensional system (Blue, Red and Green) – see accompanying Figure. It creates space to allow combinations and nuances of these three fundamental values to more properly represent our collective societal personality both within parties and through various working relationships between parties, in contrast to a Parliament locked into the tedious Left/Right war of words of the past.

However, the discussion so far assumes New Zealand has one collective history and that it is simply a matter of moving forward together from here. This is clearly not the case.

Although many in New Zealand pride themselves on our relatively peaceful negotiation through the devastating impact of European colonization of Māori, increasing numbers of people in New Zealand are becoming aware of the severe historical injustices that were forced onto our indigenous peoples through lying, cheating and outright war by the Crown. In addition to a tri-partite political structure as described above another political ideal is required – historical justice.

One of the reasons we may have averted more destructive civil unrest in New Zealand is the growing presence of Māori representation in Parliament, largely brought about by the creation of dedicated Māori seats. Under the proportional principle of MMP the number of these seats has grown in proportion to the number of people on the Māori roll. It is not surprising that a Māori Party sprung up in this MMP environment from a perceived need by citizens for more direct Parliamentary expression of historical justice and a vision of a modern Aotearoa New Zealand. The new Mana Party now also champions this value, with an alternative vision of Aotearoa New Zealand. This is similar to the way the ACT Party offers an alternative vision to National of a society guided by individual freedom as the primary political value.

In summary, there are three fundamental political ideals – individual freedom, social equality, and environmental sustainability – which can be seen to reflect three characterological constructs of human personality. MMP facilitates the expression of these as interacting rather than necessarily opposing ideals. However, in addition to these three values is a safety valve for dealing with anger from the past provided by the proportional presence of Māori seats facilitating the expression of a fourth fundamental ideal – historical justice.

The decision about MMP is arguably the most important aspect of this year’s general election and is likely to set the direction for New Zealand’s politics over the next period of time.

Four evils threaten the happiness of citizens and the peace of New Zealand’s communities at this time – loss of individual freedoms, widening social inequality, accelerating environmental destruction and eruption of violence from historical injustices. MMP is not a perfect political system but it has the capacity for facilitating the expression of four political values that address these threats to civilised society more efficiently than any of the alternatives, especially the main contender, SM.


Doug Sellman is a Professor of Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine at the University of Otago. He is not a member of any political party.

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