About the Author

Avatar photo

Peter Shirtcliffe

A Political Priority

Print Friendly and PDF
Posted on

Engaging a panelbeater to design an intersection is unwise. It is equally silly to leave to arrogant and at times duplicitous parliamentarians unfettered control of the voting system of which they are beneficiaries.

Interestingly, MPs themselves recognized this conflict of interest, and public recognition of it, during the 1993 referendum which delivered the MMP system we now have. They largely stood aside from the debate, and confined themselves to the mechanics of relevant law drafting.

Having been given a new voting environment, however, the arrogance and duplicity took over. Predictably, (and I drew attention to this risk in the referendum campaign) the Select Committee set up to review the new system after 2 elections broadly endorsed the status quo. Unaccountable party hierarchies and the list MPs they control were not going to willingly upset what in political terms could be described as a “nice little earner.” They were not going to pay much heed to the strongly held belief by the voting public that it had been promised a further referendum after a period of trial. Initially, their arguments centred round the idea that not enough time had elapsed to justify such a review. Gradually, the response shifted to “it has served us well”, and a refusal to engage in discussion about the principle of voter control over this important constitutional issue. A further tactic is to infer that the only alternative to what we have is to go back to First Past the Post. After the last election, I made a submission to the Select Committee reviewing the mechanics of it. I asked to appear before the Committee, and the lack of interest in the matter was palpable. The report back to Parliament makes no mention of the substance of my submission. You get the picture.

Happily, the picture is changing. National and ACT have formally declared their intention to hold a binding referendum, and Peter Dunne has expressed his strong support. Helen Clark, entwined (and I mean politically) with Winston Peters has dismissed any need for a referendum, saying (Weekend Herald 9 August 2008) “if it’s not broken, why fix it?” Not much concern there for public expectation or opinion – further evidence of the refusal to address the issue by diverting attention to the system we have, mixing arrogance with political cunning.

With a referendum now a possibility, it is time to turn our thoughts to its format. As I understand it, National have suggested a preliminary vote (at election time in 2011) on whether to keep MMP or change to something else. There would be a second referendum in 2014 on a range of alternatives if the first vote demands change. Given the strong public wish for a referendum, this 6-year time frame could be described (kindly) as cumbersome, and insensitive to public mood, or (bluntly), plain daft. However, they’ve had the courage to put it on the political agenda more forcefully than heretofore, and we need to develop the case for a more active approach.

First though, it seems to me we need to sort out what the debate will ultimately get down to, and my feeling is it will be – “How much weight should be given to proportionality.” The main feature of MMP is that the make-up of Parliament is determined by the Party(proportional) vote only – the voter gets two ticks, but in practical terms one vote. FPP on the other hand has no proportionality, so is at the other extreme. A Supplementary Member system, for instance, could be considered as a middle course, based say on 80% elected members, and 20% list, with a rule that no electorate candidate could be on a party list. This would stop the present nonsense of an electorate candidate being voted out, but turning up on Monday morning as a List MP.

If we can get the main issue established, then we can turn to the mechanics.It might be helpful to establish some generally acceptable principles. Some which we could consider are:

– Timing. If we applied enough intellectual and organizational horsepower we could surely run a single-stage definitive referendum in 2010, and apply it to the 2011 election. It is a matter of having the willpower.

– Format. Simplicity should be a keynote, with no ambiguity in outcome.

– Options for consideration. It is vital that this aspect is handled carefully, with no bias in the wording. If indeed proportionality is the issue, then a 3-option referendum could meet the simplicity and no-ambiguity tests, if the options were voted on preferentially. This way there would be a clear winner, and a credible outcome. Alternatives for the voters could be:

  • Retention of MMP
  • Supplementary Member
  • First Past the Post

There may be merit in having the order of the alternatives printed randomly on the ballot papers.

What opinions do readers have?