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Dr Muriel Newman

Last chance to comment on MMP

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In the lead up to last year’s referendum on our voting system, New Zealanders were re-assured that if MMP was successful, the system would be reviewed and improved. This promise persuaded many people who were considering voting for change, to stick with the status quo and vote for MMP.

That promised review process was launched by the Electoral Commission in February. Nearly 5,000 submissions were received, as political forces – it is alleged – mobilised their supporters to proactively engage in the process. The Electoral Commission’s report, which outlines the proposed recommendations to the government, appears to have been strongly influenced by these submissions, more so than some of the wider, more enduring concerns that have been expressed about MMP over the years.

The Electoral Commission’s report is available for public comment until 5pm this Friday, September 7th – full details on the report and how to put in a submission can be found here >>>. Following consideration of public feedback, the Commission will present its final report to the government at the end of October. The recommendations will then be considered by Cabinet before being drafted into law, without any further reference to the public (apart from the normal Select Committee process). In other words, it is the politicians who plan to have the final say on how they are elected!

A country’s voting system is central to a democracy. It plays a key role in constitutional arrangements by creating a pathway for the transfer of power from citizens to their elected representatives in Parliament. The election cycle provides a vital system of accountability back to citizens – every three years they get to continue with their support for a candidate and a party, or withdraw it.

Given its fundamental role in protecting the public from self-interested politicians, it is convention that voting systems are only changed with the express approval of electors. That means that if our constitutional arrangements are to remain under the control of voters – free from tainting by self-serving politicians – New Zealanders must demand that voting system changes should only go ahead if there is majority support through a public referendum process.

Having said that, it would be easy for voters to feel a sense of electoral fatigue at present – after all it wasn’t long ago that we all voted in the MMP referendum. But as President Thomas Jefferson warned, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance” and it is no different for New Zealanders in the 2012. Unless we monitor and assess changes of a constitutional nature extremely carefully, and demand that a public referendum is held to approve or reject any recommendations, we may well end up seriously regretting our carelessness in the years to come.

Casting our minds back, there are a number of significant problems associated with MMP that have arisen over the years, that we should be using to assess whether the Electoral Commission’s proposals will make MMP better or worse.

First and foremost has been the long-standing concern over the lack of a stable, decisive government as a result of the MMP voting system – since it is almost impossible for a single party to win majority support under MMP. It is a matter of fact that multi-party governments are more inherently unstable than single party governments, and it can be far harder for them to pass reforming legislation or even survive for their full term.

In conjunction with this instability problem that afflicts minority governments, there is serious public concern over the excessive power that is delivered to minor ‘king-maker’ coalition partners. Such political arrangements all too often lead to accusations that the ‘tail is wagging the dog’, when minor parties with limited public support are able to impose their minority agendas onto New Zealanders.

We have seen this only too clearly with the excessive demands of the Maori Party, who represent the sovereignty movement in government. Although they won only 1.4 percent of the party vote, they are determined to use their position and the power of their office to seize control of public resources for the tribal elite – first it was the foreshore and seabed, right now it is the ownership of our water, and unless they are stopped, they will soon be dictating the terms of a new New Zealand constitution. By conceding to these agendas the National-led government is letting the public down and exposing them to a dangerous aspect of MMP. Without a safeguarding mechanism, that gives voters the right to demand a binding veto on such treacherous legislation – where the public interest has been sacrificed for political favours – New Zealanders’ right to good governance is being compromised by MMP.

Another problem that has challenged voters since MMP was first introduced is the question of how to remove an MP from public office. A key part of a representative democracy is the ability for the public to sack an elected representative through the ballot box. That’s not the case under MMP, where an MP can get tossed out of an electorate by their voters only to remain in Parliament as a list member (Labour’s Clayton Cosgrove for example). What this means is that under the MMP electoral system, political party bosses who determine list placings, are more important than electors. That’s wrong.

Then there are concerns over thresholds. If set too low they could lead to greater instability as ‘minnow’ parties gain parliamentary representation. New Zealand is not short of political choices at election time. In 2005, there were a total of 19 parties to chose from: 99 MP Party, ACT New Zealand, Alliance, Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, Christian Heritage Party, Democrats for Social Credit, Destiny New Zealand, Direct Democracy Party, Green Party, J. Anderton’s Progressive, Labour Party, Libertarianz, Maori Party, National Party, New Zealand Family Rights Protection Party, New Zealand First Party, OneNZ Party, the Republic of New Zealand Party, United Future.

By 2008 some of the smaller ones had dropped out but were replaced with an equal number of new parties including: the Family Party, the Kiwi Party, the New Zealand Pacific Party, RAM – Residents Action Movement, the Bill and Ben Party, and the Workers Party.

In 2011, when National was strongly contesting a second term, the fact that only 13 parties contested the election reflects a similar pattern in 2002 when Labour was riding high, when only 14 parties stood.

Many ardent MMP supporters would like no threshold at all for parliamentary representation. If that were the case in 2008 the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, the Kiwi Party, and the Bill and Ben Party, would have gained seats and potentially held the balance of power!

While the current party vote threshold for parliamentary representation is set at 5 percent, the Electoral Commission has decided to heed the call from the majority of submitters and reduce the threshold down to 4 percent. They appear unmoved by the argument that the lower the threshold the higher the likelihood that the government will be unstable and Parliament fractious and ineffective.

Voters have never been in favour of deal-making at election time. Jack-up deals with Jim Anderton, Peter Dunne, Rodney Hide, and then John Banks to bring in list MPs on the coat-tail of an electorate win, has been a serious cause of concern. This escalated, of course, to the absurd after the infamous cup of tea between John Key and John Banks in the Epsom café in the lead up to the last election.

Such political deal-making exploits the anomaly whereby all party votes count for a party that wins a single electorate seat – even if they don’t cross the 5 percent threshold. This of course led to the anomaly in 2008, where ACT New Zealand gained 3.65 percent of the party vote along with the seat of Epsom to deliver 5 MPs to Parliament in total, while New Zealand First, which gained 4.07 percent of the party vote but failed to win an electorate seat, gained no parliamentary representation at all.

So what is it that the Electoral Commission is recommending should be done to sort out these problems? Essentially it has made the following recommendations:

1. The party vote threshold for the allocation of list seats should be lowered to 4%.
2. The one electorate seat threshold for the allocation of list seats should be abolished.
3. Candidates should continue to be able to stand both in an electorate and on a party list
4. List MPs should continue to be able to contest by-elections.
5. Political parties should continue to have responsibility for the composition and ranking of candidates on their party lists.
6. The provision for overhang seats should be abolished for parties that do not cross the party vote threshold.

Unfortunately these recommendations go only some way towards addressing public concerns over MMP. In terms of the crucial problem of the potential for political instability under MMP, the Electoral Commission’s recommendation to lower the 5 percent party vote threshold to 4 percent will make the problem worse. With a lower threshold, there will be more potential for smaller parties with even more radical agendas to get elected and hold the balance of power. And without the right of public veto on new legislation, to protect the public interest – something the NZCPR strongly argued for in our submission here – New Zealanders would remain vulnerable to extreme policies being traded off in coalition deals.

I asked Jordan Williams, who led the campaign against MMP to share his view of the electoral Commissions recommendations in his article MMP review set to make things worse, and he was particularly scathing:

“The New Zealand public have been duped. Kiwis supported keeping MMP at last year’s referendum in a large part due to the promised ‘MMP Review’.  We were told that MMP would be improved by the Electoral Commission.  We were promised an MMP 2.0, a version that would address its weaknesses. Instead, what we’re likely to get is an MMP more suited to the interests of political insiders, worse at holding MPs to account and even more susceptible to tails wagging dogs.”

He concludes with a word of warning for the government, “As with the referendum, the unions and left wing interests have mobilised their base.  Most of the suggestions made in submissions and the resulting preliminary recommendations are focused at “fairness” and “representation” rather than accountability.  The proposals, if implemented, would be beneficial to the small parties and the left. National’s hands-off approach first to the MMP referendum and now the review, may come back and bite it with a voting system that helps the opposition and results in less stable government.”

If you feel strongly about the changes being proposed by the Electoral Commission – especially the fact that they do not believe that changes to our key constitutional arrangements need to be approved by voters through a public referendum – then please put in your submission here >>>.