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Dr Muriel Newman

A Binding Referendum on MMP

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If it wasn’t for the fact that the general election is just around the corner, new home owners would be forced to install government approved showers that plumbers say deliver little more than a dribble of water. This is on top of government approved hot water cylinders – modified for heat pumps and solar panels – that cost $500 more than standard models.[1] For these nanny state interventions we have MMP and the Green Party to blame.

This 2008 election will be New Zealand’s fifth MMP election. Under MMP, voters have two votes, the Party Vote for the party they most want to represent them in Parliament, and the Electorate Vote for the candidate they most want to be the MP for their electorate. It is the Party Vote that is the most important since it determines the total number of MPs that each Party will have in Parliament.

In order to be represented in Parliament, a party must win either an electorate seat or at least 5 percent of all Party Votes. If a small party fails to do this, its votes are “wasted” and are re-allocated proportionally to all other Parliamentary Parties. In 1996 7.5 percent of all party votes were wasted, but that had fallen to 1.3 percent by 2005.

Another quirk of MMP is the “overhang”. If a Party wins more electorate seats that its Party vote entitles it to, then it is said to have won overhang seats. In 2005, the Maori Party won 2.1 percent of the party vote entitling it to 3 MPS, but it won 4 electorate seats, giving it an overhang of one seat and Parliament an extra MP. This time around, with predictions that the Maori Party may win between five and seven electorate seats, Parliament may end up with an overhang of two to four seats. This would mean a Parliament of between 122 and 124 MPs, with the main party seeking to form a government needing a majority of 62 or 63 seats.

The journey to MMP effectively began in 1984 when the Labour Government established a Royal Commission on electoral reform. Among its recommendations was a change to the electoral system – through a binding referendum – from the traditional First Past the Post to Mixed Member Proportional. They also recommended that if MMP was adopted, the Maori seats should be abolished (they were introduced as a temporary measure in 1867 in order to give Maori men the vote). The Royal Commission reasoned that New Zealand had well and truly moved on from those times and they believed that Maori would be adequately represented through MMP.

An indicative referendum on MMP was held in 1992 followed by a binding referendum in 1993. Of the 85.2 percent of registered voters who cast a vote, 53.9 percent preferred MMP. But a poll of those who supported MMP revealed that only 15 percent did so out of conviction that it was a better system. Most voted for MMP as a protest against politicians and their broken promises.

In the lead up to the referendum, a widespread expectation developed that at some stage in the future, voters would have the opportunity to review their decision through another referendum. In fact, no such referendum was ever promised. What was promised was a thorough review of MMP after two elections. This review was outlined in Section 264 of the 1993 Electoral Act in the following way:

(1) The House of Representatives shall, as soon as practicable after 1 April 2000, appoint a select committee to consider … whether there should be a further referendum on changes to the electoral system.

(2) The select committee… shall report to the House of Representatives before 1 June 2002 and shall include in its report a statement indicating … whether in its view there should be a further referendum on changes to the electoral system, and, if so, the nature of the proposals to be put to voters and the timing of such a referendum.

In establishing a special select committee to review MMP in April 2000, the Labour Government decided that contrary to standard procedure whereby select committee decisions are based on a simple majority of committee members, the MMP Review Committee could only make recommendations if there was “unanimous” or “near-unanimous” support for them.[2] By introducing this constraint, the Parliamentary parties effectively scuttled any hope of New Zealanders having another referendum since, as could have been predicted, the committee failed to reach a decision on whether a referendum should be held!

It could be argued that this outcome was gerrymandered by that “unanimous” or “near-unanimous” provision, and as a result Parliament failed to fulfil its responsibility under the Electoral Act. Effectively, this means that as far as New Zealanders are concerned the issue of whether there should be another referendum on MMP remains unfinished business.

Interestingly, while the MPs on the MMP Review Committee could not decide on whether there should be another referendum, the public did not have any such difficulty. A UMR poll of 750 respondents commissioned by the Committee showed that 76 percent were in favour of a binding referendum to decide whether to keep MMP or not. The poll also showed that 52 percent believed MMP had given minor parties too much power, 61 percent thought that list MPs are not accountable to voters, and 52 percent believed that MMP prevented governments from making hard decisions.

With growing numbers of New Zealanders now believing that MMP has compromised the quality of government in this country (as the shower debacle reminds us) it is refreshing to hear that there is now growing support amongst political parties for holding the long-awaited referendum on MMP.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, Peter Shirtcliffe, looks at the timeframe for a referendum that is being proposed by the National Party and asks why we need to wait so long:

“With a referendum now a possibility, it is time to turn our thoughts to its format. As I understand it, National has 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”.

In his article A Political Priority, Peter discusses some of the options and then proposes the following 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”.

As a result of MMP, it is now looking increasingly likely that the Maori Party will be the “king maker” after the election. This situation where a party based on race – effectively a Maori Supremacist Party – will hold the balance of power in New Zealand is an indictment of our electoral system.

We should not lose sight of the fact that the main purpose of the Maori Party is to entrench special privilege for Maori. That means, according to the Maori Party website, exclusive superannuation entitlements that would allow Maori to retire earlier with higher pension rates and KiwiSaver payouts than non-Maori, to fund better Maori health and education services, to prioritise support for Maori skills, Maori jobs and Maori businesses, to reduce the use of imprisonment for Maori criminals, and to return the foreshore and seabed – along with the minerals and gas therein – to customary ownership.

If MMP creates a situation where these sorts of racist policies are not only tolerated but entrenched in some convenient post-election pre-nuptial agreement, then it will be a very sad day for New Zealand. And if this is the progress of democracy under MMP, then MMP has certainly outlived its useful life.


1.Herald, Shower pressure cut ‘just won’t wash’

2.MMP Review Committee, Inquiry into the Review of MMP

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