It can be argued that the announced referendum on MMP, to be held in conjunction with the 2011 general election, is one of the most important constitutional reforms undertaken by any New Zealand Government. Yet, while there is “lofty” talk about the need for public consultation – “We want to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to have their say on this significant constitutional issue” – it is clear that the government is not serious about public input.
The consultation process that has been chosen involves nothing more than the standard public submissions to a Select Committee. As we have already seen from this government’s farcical submission process regarding the emissions trading legislation, not only is there little chance that such submissions will have any effect, submitters are likely to be denied the opportunity to make their submission in person.
This scant intended public consultation process is in spite of a well established convention that whenever constitutional reform is undertaken, widespread public involvement is encouraged. The Cabinet Manual states it clearly – with regard to changes in our constitutional arrangements, “It is important for a process of change to involve a sound process, public education, proper consultation with affected parties, public buy-in and plenty of time.”
What this means is that unless we demand to be properly consulted over the structure of our electoral system – which is fundamental to the constitutional arrangements of the country – National again intends to snub the rights of people to have a meaningful say.
So what is the Government proposing for this crucial review of MMP?
The process goes something like this.
A referendum bill will be introduced into Parliament in March, which will include two questions – firstly, whether the current MMP voting system should be retained, and secondly, for those who would like to see change, which voting system they would prefer. A list of options will be provided, which is likely to include first-past-the-post, preferential voting, supplementary member, or single transferable vote. The Bill is scheduled to be passed in late 2010 with the indicative referendum on MMP held at the 2011 general election.
If a majority of voters want to see MMP replaced, then a binding referendum will be held at the 2014 general election between MMP and the preferred alternative. If MMP is defeated, the new voting system will be introduced and used for the first time at the 2017 election! This means that our Prime Minister – who has strongly indicated that he thinks MMP is working well – has approved a process that will retain MMP until at least 2017. This is in spite of recommendations in the Cabinet papers for options which would see a new voting system in place in time for the 2014 election.
To complicate matters further, the Cabinet papers have also suggest that the government might like to consider announcing modifications to MMP in order to make it more palatable to voters: “In the lead-up to the first referendum, the public discussion concerning whether to retain or change the current voting system is likely to bring to light a number of issues that people have with MMP (eg, the party vote threshold). It may be useful during this public discussion for the Government to indicate whether it would be willing to undertake a review of MMP to clarify and address these issues, if the public votes to retain MMP. This would assist voters to make an informed choice. It would also reduce the likelihood of change from MMP to an alternative voting system if most voters generally agree with MMP, subject to some amendments”. While the government has remained silent on whether it intends to pursue this course of action, doing so could expose it to accusations of gerrymandering the referendum process.
All in all, the proposed referendum process can be seen to be deeply flawed.
Firstly the timeframe for the implementation of a new system – if that’s what the public wants – is far too long. If the public vote for change in 2011, a binding referendum should be held in 2012 so that if MMP is defeated, the new electoral system can begin at the 2014 election.
Secondly, there needs to be a proper public consultation process instead of the sham that’s being proposed. Voters can tell whether governments really mean it when they say they want to “engage” the public, by looking at the proposed process. If a government goes to the trouble of setting up an independent Commission – Royal or otherwise – with terms of reference that involves widespread public consultation around the country, then they are genuine. If they set up a series of meetings around the country for Ministers and MPs, then at least they are prepared to put on a good show. But when they resort to a Select Committee process on a bill (which is what the government is intending in this case) then you know they are simply paying lip service to the concept of public consultation.
What should be happening is that the government should be using this year to consult widely, going up and down the country properly engaging the public in the constitutional change process. There would still be ample time for a referendum bill to be introduced into Parliament in early 2011 and passed before the election.
Thirdly, it appears that no provision has been made for some form of preferential voting on the preferred options to replace MMP. Without a preferential vote, it could be that there is no clear winner. A preferential vote would also help to ensure that voters weigh up the pros and cons of each voting system alternative and rank them in the order that they prefer.
These are all matters of process that expose the fact that National’s consultation is intended to avoid change, and by retaining the status quo, accommodate the interests of its coalition partners. The Cabinet papers also indicate that there is a strong desire to avoid any robust discussion on the future of the Maori seats. For a party that campaigned hard on abolishing the Maori seats right up until John Key became Prime Minister and jumped into a cohabitation liaison with the Maori Party, this turnaround is an indictment. No matter what cosy arrangements the present government has put in place, the referendum on our voting system is a far bigger matter that must involve this crucial Maori seat issue – especially since the 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System recommended that the Maori seats had passed their used-by date and should be abolished.
In fact it is this cosy deal-making between political parties with little regard for the overall good of the country that has been a driving force in the desire of many voters to ditch MMP. After 14 years of watching disgraceful conduct, with parties “bought off” with taxpayers’ money in return for supporting dodgy laws, the public have had enough. The latest fiasco involving Nick Smith rushing his emissions trading law through Parliament so he could look good at Copenhagen was a final straw. The backroom deal that he did with the Maori Party enabled wealthy Maori corporations to rub their hands all the way to the bank, while the public now stands exposed to the re-opening of Treaty settlements that have previously been classified as full and final. Then there is the vexed issue of large numbers of list MPs in Parliament who are not accountable to the public but to Party bosses and are, in effect, MPs by appointment rather than election – as is the pretence. It has been said that if there were no list MPs, the controversial smacking bill would never have been passed, as MPs would have been much more in tune with the views of their electorates.
Given the fact that the voting system is now under review, one of the “burning” issues that should be considered is whether New Zealand voters would like to see the size of Parliament reduced. In 1999 Margaret Robertson’s Citizens Initiated Referendum calling for a smaller Parliament of 99 MPs received 81.5 percent support. Yet in the intervening years nothing has been done to progress this. The forthcoming referendum on MMP would provide an ideal opportunity to dovetail in the move to a smaller Parliament.
There is another, bigger constitutional issue that is gaining traction that should also be canvassed at this time. It is the fact that New Zealand’s one-House Parliamentary system leaves citizens vulnerable to exploitation. If a government cobbles together the numbers to pass bad law that has the potential to be hugely detrimental to our future well-being as a nation, there is nothing we can do about it. Unlike many other nations, New Zealand has no legislative watchdog body in the form of an Upper House to question the public good value of legislation and if necessary, stop it. We used to have an Upper House, of course, called the Legislative Council, but that was abolished in 1951.
While this whole global warming debacle has been playing out, it has been particularly interesting to see that in spite of the demands of political leaders, the Upper Houses in Australia and the United States have steadfastly refused to pass emissions trading laws. By doing so, they have thus far protected their citizens from the disastrous economic damage such taxes would impose. Maybe it is time for New Zealand to have a watchdog body too. If we had a small Upper House of say 20 elected Members to compliment a Parliament of say 79 electorate MPs, this could be just the sort of constitutional reform that would take New Zealand forward positively – protecting us from unwise political excesses, while reducing the total size of Parliament down to 99 MPs.
Graeme Hunt, an Auckland-based writer and historian, who has campaigned strongly against MMP, is this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator. Graeme explains that “Good democracy should be simple: voting should be easy, outcomes should be transparent and turnout should be high. MMP fails on all counts but there are concerns in some quarters, even among those who oppose MMP, that a return to the old days of a powerful executive with a legislative iron grip on a single House of Representatives is not the way to go.”
In his article A Step Towards Constitutional Reform, Graeme outlines the history of New Zealand’s Upper House of Parliament and concludes, “Sadly, although there might be a good case in New Zealand for a house of review, it is unlikely to come about. The only way it could be sold would be if the membership of the House of Representatives were reduced to, say, 99 MPs – something overwhelmingly endorsed by Margaret Robertson’s citizens-initiated referendum in 1999.
“I suspect most Kiwis, if they had to, could live with a small upper house elected by STV and a lower house elected by FPP, provided the upper house had standing. The Legislative Council did not have standing but the Australian Senate, which is elected by STV, does, as does the Australian House of Representatives, which is elected by preferential voting”.
All in all, if you feel you are being sold short on the constitutional review of New Zealand’s voting system by the process that National has proposed, then you need to do something. To paraphrase the wise words attributed to Edmund Burke, “Bad things happen when good people do nothing”!
In a democracy change will only take place if there is sufficient public pressure. So let the Prime Minister know how you feel about the MMP review he has authorised. Let’s start 2010 off with a roar!