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Dr. Don Brash

We Deserve Another Referendum on MMP

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Last month, New Zealand passed a milestone – happy or unhappy depending on your point of view. Last month marked the 10th anniversary of MMP in New Zealand. I still get asked at public meetings: “When are we going to get the MMP referendum we were promised?” And I try to convince the questioner that there never was any promise to hold another referendum on MMP.

Let me begin by saying that I think MMP has worked better than I expected – but then let me also admit that I had very low expectations! I thought it would lead to weak and indecisive government – as it has in many European countries.

I thought it would lead to short-lived governments, as it has in some other countries. I thought it would increase the power of political parties at the expense of voters. I thought it would lead to governments being formed after negotiations between party bosses, not as a result of the opinions of voters.

I remember Jenny Shipley – like Helen Clark, strongly opposed to MMP in the early nineties – observing that, under the First Past the Post system, political parties were themselves coalitions of people with quite widely differing views. Voters got to choose between those rival “coalitions”, one called “National” and the other called “Labour”. Under MMP, she prophesied, those with differing views would split off to form small parties, and the coalitions would be chosen after the election, not by voters but by party bosses.

Well, I think MMP has worked better than I expected. Governments have not been particularly short-lived. Minority views have been heard in Parliament in a way which did not happen under First Past the Post. There is a greater diversity of people in Parliament – more women, more Asians, more Pacific Islanders, more Maori. Some able people who would almost certainly not have entered Parliament under First Past the Post have done so under the MMP system.

But against these benefits of MMP, there have been some substantial costs.

Small parties now have quite disproportionate influence: in a Parliament where the two major parties are often fairly evenly balanced, it’s often one of the smallest parties which decides which of the major parties will lead the government.

We saw that in 1996, when after weeks of negotiations, Winston Peters decided to support Jim Bolger as Prime Minister rather than Helen Clark. We saw it last year, when again Winston Peters – after previously promising not under any circumstances to accept the “baubles of office” – decided to support Helen Clark as Prime Minister.

I don’t know of any objective observer who believes that the quality of government has been improved by giving Mr Peters such influence: the risk is that both large parties agree to things which, in their saner moments, they know make no sense at all in terms of the long-term well-being of the country.

Of course, the system also lets small parties make grossly irresponsible promises to the electorate – promises which sound good to their more gullible supporters but which have not the slightest chance of being implemented. The small party can always blame Labour or National for the promise being broken.

Moreover, while Parliament may have a greater diversity of Members, it’s not at all clear that the overall quality of representation has improved. Having a greater gender and ethnic balance does not necessarily mean better overall quality, and with 28 former trade unionists now in Parliament it’s not obvious that MMP has brought us a more representative Parliament.

It’s certainly clear that MMP has strengthened the hand of party bosses at the expense of voters: it’s party bosses who negotiate the formation of a government, often weeks after the election itself, with horse-trading over policy an absolutely inevitable part of the process.

Similarly, Members of Parliament are now routinely defeated in electorates, only to re-appear in Parliament on their party lists if they have done enough to win favour with party bosses – good examples in the current Parliament are Winston Peters, David Parker, Jim Sutton (until he resigned to be replaced by another party appointee), Georgina Beyer, Russell Fairbrother, Rick Barker, Jill Pettis, and Ann Hartley.

MMP also requires there to be more MPs in total than some other electoral systems. In 1999, more than 80% of voters voted in a non-binding referendum to reduce the size of Parliament to 99. We currently have 121 MPs in Parliament, and frankly we need something like that number for MMP to work properly, as the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform recommended in its report 20 years ago.

So while MMP has got some advantages, it leads to disproportionate influence for very small parties, as a consequence leads to weak and “compromising” government, requires more MPs than most New Zealanders see as desirable, and greatly strengthens the hand of party bosses at the expense of voters.

Surprisingly, MMP is also a system which is still, after four MMP elections and the expenditure of considerable sums in public education by the Electoral Commission, poorly understood by many voters. I found it extraordinary, for example, how many well educated people in the Epsom electorate lamented the loss of that electorate by the National candidate in last year’s election. If only, they said, Richard Worth had won that electorate, National would have had one more seat in Parliament and would have been in a better position to form a government.

Of course, National’s winning the Epsom electorate would simply have meant that our candidate was an electorate MP and not a list MP – we would still have had exactly 48 seats in Parliament. Ironically, the beneficiaries of that outcome would have been the centre-left parties: both Labour and the Greens would have got one more MP, and ACT would have disappeared.

How on earth did we come to adopt a system which has so many obvious problems? There will, of course, be many answers to that question, but my own view is that we adopted MMP because voters were sick of being misled – not to put to fine a point on it, they were sick of being lied to.

Nowhere were the lies more obvious than in the whole area of superannuation policy. In the eighties, the Labour Government promised not to means test New Zealand Superannuation – and instead introduced a surcharge. People felt conned. In the election campaign of 1990, the National Party promised to scrap the surcharge – and instead tried to introduce a means test and, when that proved too difficult, retained and increased the surcharge. People felt betrayed.

So when the two referenda on the electoral system were held in the early nineties, people were understandably in no mood to trust politicians. And when the leaders of both National and Labour expressed opposition to MMP, the fate of First Past the Post was sealed: many people concluded that if politicians don’t like MMP, then that must be something we should vote for! In the event, not many people voted for MMP out of any real understanding of what they were voting for.

Polling of those who voted for MMP in the November 1993 referendum indicated that only a third did so because they were convinced that it was a better electoral system. And since only just over half of the 85% of registered voters who voted supported MMP, this implies that only one voter in six voted for MMP out of any real conviction that it would produce a better system. But whatever, now we have it, and it is 13 years since the last referendum on MMP, and 10 years since the system was adopted. We’ve now had four MMP elections.

There was in fact never any promise to hold another referendum on MMP. What was promised was a full review of MMP. And, ladies and gentlemen, I am sorry to tell you, that was conducted in 2001 by a special select committee of Parliament. And surprise surprise! The conclusion of that select committee was to retain MMP!

The National Party has no official position on MMP but at least since a special Constitutional Task Force chaired by Sir Douglas Graham reported in April 2001, there has been strong support within the National Party for allowing voters to express their views on MMP in another referendum. The National Party made a commitment to hold such a referendum in its manifesto for the 2002 election, and again for the 2005 election.

Let me say that personally, if given a chance to vote in a referendum, I wouldn’t vote for a return to First Past the Post. I think there are important benefits in having minority views represented in Parliament. I think there are benefits in having a way in which people who do not or can not spend years working their way up through the hierarchy of a political party can contribute to the political process. I think there are benefits in having a greater diversity of people in our Parliament.

But nor would I vote to retain MMP. My personal preference – and this does not reflect an agreed National Party position because there is none at this point – would be to adopt the Supplementary Member system with a total Parliament of 100 members.

There could be 75 electorate MPs, thus enabling a small reduction in the size of current electorates. (There are currently 69 electorates, some of them very large indeed.) And 25 list MPs. As now, voters would have two votes – one for their electorate candidate and one for their preferred party. But whereas at present the party vote determines the overall composition of Parliament, under the SM system the party vote would determine only the composition of the list seats.

A system of this kind would enable minority voices to be heard without giving small parties disproportionate influence, would enable a reduction in the total size of Parliament (very difficult to do with MMP without requiring enormously large electorates), would provide a route for people to enter Parliament without spending a lifetime working through the party hierarchy, and would provide a way of ensuring reasonable diversity in the overall composition of Parliament.

To the extent that a higher proportion of the total Members of Parliament would be elected in electorates, SM would also increase the power of voters and reduce that of party bosses.

Funnily enough, when a Parliamentary select committee reviewed the findings of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform in the eighties, it recommended retaining First Past the Post but holding a referendum on the idea of electing extra MPs using the SM system.

The National Party hasn’t yet determined its manifesto for the next election of course, but I believe it should commit to a referendum on MMP. Many voters believe they were promised such a referendum in the early nineties, and I believe they should be given that opportunity.