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.
The Commission is required to report to the Minister of Justice by 31 October on suggested changes to MMP. The Commission has published a Proposals Paper detailing the recommendations the Commission proposes to make. It is currently accepting submissions on the Proposals Paper.
Instead of toning down the worst aspect of MMP, the proposals would exacerbate MMP’s inherent problems.
In my March NZCPR guest column I noted that the Government set-up the electoral referendum so that it will be MPs that determine what changes are made to MMP as a result of the current review. It left the foxes to guard the henhouse. During the referendum campaign, Vote for Change consistently argued that the review should have happened before the referendum so that New Zealanders could know what they were voting for and have the final say on how our voting system works.
While the recommendations can be ignored by the Government, there will be considerable pressure to implement them, especially by opposition parties if the recommendations are, as expected, advantageous to small parties and the centre-left.
The key failings of MMP
Whilst MMP strives to be “proportional”, the real power it gives small parties, particularly those that hold the balance of power, is anything but. A small party that holds the balance of power can force Labour and National to bid for their voting block’s support. We saw this by Winston Peters in 1996 and 2005. Instead of winners and losers on election night, MMP has lead to more backroom deals, unpredictability and complex governing arrangements.
The other key failing of MMP is the power of party hierarchies. MMP weakened the accountability of MPs to voters. Instead of politicians working to keep the support of their electorates and voters, MPs are incentivised to follow party lines in the hope of being protected by a high list ranking.
It was anticipated that the Commission’s review would go some way to fix these main anomalies. Even the Campaign for MMP’s tag line was “Let’s keep MMP and make it even better”.
Unfortunately the Commission looks to have capitulated.
Preliminary recommendations would make MMP even worse
The most significant proposal is to reduce the party vote threshold from five to four per cent. That will make it easier for small parties to enter Parliament. In combination with a separate proposal to remove the possibility of seat overhangs, it will make Labour and National even more beholden to small coalition partners.
Most submissions by political theorists and academics argued for no, or a lower party vote threshold. Nearly all the former politicians and those with a more practical experience of politics cautioned that lowing the thresholds comes with a price of less stable, predictable and manageable government. Remember, that if there was no threshold at all, the Bill and Ben Party (a joke political party registered by two comedians) would have held the balance of power after the 2008 election.
Former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a vocal supporter of MMP, said in his submission to the Commission:
I support leaving the threshold at 5 per cent. The sacrifice to proportionality and in wasted votes is not great as a result, but the proliferation of small parties is to be avoided. It has substantial implications for governance. It gives the impression that the tail wags the dog. It can complicate negotiations on the formation of a government.
That position was despite Sir Geoffrey’s preference for the one-seat threshold removal (see below). His submission also noted that Sir John Wallace, Chair of the Royal Commission that originally recommended the adoption of MMP, favoured the five per cent threshold in order to guard against the possibility of ineffective government if there are too many small parties.
Sir Geoffrey went on to say “At present there are eight parties in Parliament. That is enough.”
Even Winston Peters supports a five per cent threshold. He argues that four per cent would come with an unacceptable cost to government stability. That view is despite New Zealand First arguably having the most to gain from the change.
The other significant proposal is to abolish the one-seat threshold or “coat tailing” rule. The rule allows parties to bring in their proportion of list MPs (even if they do not reach the party vote threshold) if a party’s candidate wins an electorate seat. This rule can incentivise the large parties to back candidates of support parties to ensure that the support party makes it into Parliament. After the Epsom “cup of tea” fiasco last year, Vote for Change called for the one-seat threshold to be removed.
Some argue that the lowering of the threshold to four per cent is partly justified by the removal of the one-seat threshold. That is a non sequitur. The one-seat threshold exists to ensure that geographic constituency based parties (for example if a “Southland Party” were to emerge) have fair representation. In comparison the party vote threshold is to ensure that extreme or small interest based parties cannot jeopardise stable government. Removing the former should not justify a partial sacrifice of the other.
Accountability not addressed
The Commission has failed to tackle the power of party bosses and make MPs more accountable to voters instead of parties.
Currently electoral law only requires “participation” by members of political parties for candidate selection. That has allowed parties’ semi-elected governing boards to ultimately determine party lists. The only party that gives its members a meaningful democratic input on its list is the Greens.
MPs being accountable in some way to all party members is at least preferable to accountability to the small elite that sit on the Governing Boards of political parties. Vote for Change urged the Commission to at least require political parties to allow party members a vote on list rankings (even if the results were nonbinding but publicly available).
Another way to increase the accountability of MPs and decrease the power of party bosses is to prevent “dual candidacy”. That would either prevent candidates standing in both electorates and on the list, or ensure that once an MP is accountable to an electorate, he or she cannot then be “saved” by the list if the MP loses the seat.
Unfortunately the Commission rejected these proposals and offered nothing to increase transparency or accountability.
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 (generally more fractured) 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.