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Dr Muriel Newman

Is it Time to Change Our Voting System?

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14 October 2007

Is it Time to Change Our Voting System?

October 10th 1996 was New Zealand’s first MMP election. Eleven years on, MMP has profoundly changed the face of New Zealand politics.

To mark the anniversary of MMP, the NZCPR is delighted to publish – for the very first time – a speech written by Don Brash a year ago when he was Leader of the Opposition. The speech ‘We Deserve Another Referendum on MMP’ was never delivered because, as Don explains, “some of my colleagues thought that it was a ‘distraction’ from the issues we were then focussed on”.

Don reflects the views of a good many New Zealanders when he says:

“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”. (To read Don’s speech click here)

There is no doubt about the fact that MMP has delivered excessive power into the hands of minor parties. In a recent speech on “MMP and Public Policy” journalist and author Graeme Hunt put it this way:

“The anti-smacking law is the ultimate example of MMP influencing public policy. Before the Bradford bill appeared, there was no public policy on smacking and the Prime Minister was on record as saying she opposed criminalizing parents who resorted to the occasional smack of a wayward child. But with the problems surrounding her Mangere MP, Phillip Field, she had no choice but to reach an accommodation with the Greens over a bill that was neither loved nor wanted. It was MMP at its most ugly”. (To read Graeme’s speech click here )

The reality is that under MMP, the voters’ democratic right to choose their MPs has been compromised. At the present time, 52 MPs in our Parliament of 121 have been chosen by party bosses. Worse, some of the MPs who did not have the confidence of voters in their electorates were returned to Parliament as Party appointees, carrying on as list MPs as if nothing had changed. The system of checks and balances that normally operate in a democracy – where candidates have to satisfy the majority of voters in order to successfully represent them in Parliament – is now missing. That means that candidates with views that are so extreme that they are unacceptable to the wider community can now be Members of the New Zealand Parliament through their party list selection process.

Under MMP, governments are no longer formed as a result of voter opinion, but after negotiations between party bosses. It is therefore not surprising that small parties wield a disproportionate amount of influence. Labour’s radical move towards environmental sustainability is only possible because of the more extreme ideological views being promoted by their Green Party partner. These will not only lead to a massive escalation in consumer costs associated with the government’s new energy strategy, but will significantly increase household rubbish charges and water rates as a starter. These are all changes that the electorate would more than likely reject, if asked.

MMP was promoted on the basis that it would improve Parliamentary representation. With more women, a larger number of MPs who are not careers politicians, and an increase in ethnic representation, it has achieved that objective.

At the present time there are 21 Maori Members of Parliament. Seven of those represent the race-based Maori seats, whose principle role appears to be to win greater state privileges for Maori. Since these privileges come at the expense of the rest of the population, the Maori seats are an anachronism, which the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform recommended should be abolished. Ironically, their continuance appears guaranteed because of MMP, with all Parliamentary Parties now supporting their retention. As a result, the extremist Maori Party, which holds four of those Maori seats, looks set to become the future “kingmaker” of the New Zealand Parliament.

The real problem with MMP is that coalition politics requires every item of business to be negotiated through these minority niche support parties under a “quid pro quo” process: “if you support this, then we will give you that”. As a result, under MMP New Zealand is being driven by extreme agendas with little likelihood that critical but ‘unpopular’ issues will ever be addresses by any government in the foreseeable future.

This means that the growing underclass – spawned by our dysfunctional welfare system – which is responsible for the lion’s share of New Zealand’s social problems, is unlikely to ever be reformed under MMP. Instead, the ‘solution’ will undoubtedly be more politically palatable ‘feel-good’ public service advertising campaigns. Unless there is a real commitment to reform, child abuse and neglect will continue to increase, violence and crime will continue to escalate, and more girls and women will continue to become career beneficiaries by having children they do not want and cannot care for. The politics of compromise, which MMP has become, will ensure that no party has the courage to fix this dysfunctional system in desperate need of change.

In his speech, Don Brash made the comment that “only one voter in six voted for MMP under any real conviction that it would provide a better system”. In other words, MMP became our system of government not because it was deemed to deliver a higher standard of government, but because voters were tired of the childish antics of their MPs and wanted to give them a shake-up. This added to a series of ‘gaffes’ that gave us MMP.

The first of those gaffes can be traced back to a televised leaders’ debate in the 1987 election campaign, when David Lange promised that if Labour was re-elected he would hold a binding referendum on MMP. At the time, while there was a strong lobby of third party representatives promoting MMP, neither he nor most of his Labour colleagues, were supporters.

Instead of holding the promised referendum, Lange established a Select Committee inquiry. The committee recommended that First Past the Post be retained but a referendum be held to see whether there was public support for increasing the size of parliament using the Supplementary Member system. The Supplementary Member system operates in a number of countries including Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.

The second gaffe on the road to MMP was committed by Jim Bolger during the 1990 election campaign, when, in seeking to embarrass Labour for failing to deliver on its referendum pledge, he rashly promised to hold a binding referendum on the electoral system if elected. Again, neither he nor his party supported MMP.

The binding referendum on MMP was held on 6 November 1993 with 53.9 percent of people voting in favour and 46.1 percent against. Commentators say that if the election had been held a week earlier, First Past the Post would have been retained.

When the 1993 Electoral Act to introduce MMP was drafted, a clause was inserted to allow a Select Committee to review the system after two MMP elections and to determine whether there should be a another referendum on electoral reform. Many New Zealanders understood this to mean that another referendum would be held, so that if they voted for MMP and it didn’t work out, they could get rid of it.

The Select Committee set up in 2000 to review MMP – as was required by the Act – couldn’t reach a decision on whether another referendum was needed. As a result, the Government concluded: “Changing any major constitutional arrangements would require a higher level of consensus from the public than currently appears to exist. In the absence of that high degree of consensus, the Government is of the view that it would not be appropriate to recommend any significant amendments at this time”.

Section 264 of the 1993 Electoral Act stated that if there was to be a further referendum on changes to the electoral system that, “the nature of the proposals to be put to voters” be outlined. The difficulty we have at the present time is that while many people are unhappy with the way MMP is working out, there is no consensus on a viable alternative.

In his speech, Don Brash provides some leadership:

“My personal preference would be to adopt the Supplementary Member system with a total Parliament of 100 members. There coul

d be 75 electorate MPs, thus enabling a small reduction in the size of current electorates. 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, 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”.

This week’s poll asks: Would support a campaign to replace MMP with the Supplementary Member system as proposed by Don Brash? Go to Poll

Reader’s comments will be posted on the NZCPR Forum page click to view .