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Dr Muriel Newman

Proportionate Representation, Disproportionate Power

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Prime Minister John Key has just told party faithful in the Wairarapa there is no room for separatism in New Zealand. In defensive mode over the party’s Maori policy agenda he said some of what we do in this area will, I understand, challenge you and other New Zealanders. In recent months the Government has proposed a repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed Act, supported the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, announced the roll-out of the whanau ora welfare policy and it is making haste on a raft of Treaty of Waitangi settlements with iwi. Mr Key said he did a deal with the Maori Party after the last election, despite already having the numbers to govern because I believe it is in the long-term interests of New Zealand.”

– Audrey Young, NZ Herald 9 May 2010

The present move towards Maori privilege is a direct consequence of our MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) system. Under MMP the party that wins the greatest party vote on election night is given the chance to form a government by, to put it bluntly, horse trading with potential coalition partners. In spite of the National Party securing the support of the ACT and United parties at the last election, giving it sufficient votes to govern, it also did a deal with the Maori Party. National – with its eye firmly on the long term – had worked out that as long as it ‘secured’ the support of the Maori Party (since ACT has no other potential coalition partners) then its future as a long-term government would be assured.

The price the National Party was prepared to pay for the support of the Maori Party was the abandonment of its long-held election promise to abolish the anachronistic Maori seats. Add to that the signing of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the on-going privatisation into Maori hands of key public assets including iconic buildings and conservation lands – without any public consultation – and now their latest outrageous plan to turn the control of the foreshore and seabed over to Maori, and you have a government using the power of the state to force onto New Zealand a separatist agenda supported by only 2.3 percent of New Zealanders who voted for the Maori Party at the last election. There is no popular mandate for this racist course of action, which will have a profound influence on the future of the country – it is a disgrace.

In his Breaking Views blog, law lecturer and Treaty expert David Round puts it like this:

“On numerous occasions the public’s contempt for politicians seems to be entirely justified. Here is such an occasion. The foreshore and seabed issue is not a minor one. Treaty claims and relations between the races have been a major and growing issue for two decades. They are an aspect, indeed, of the great issue; whether New Zealand’s future is to be as one nation, where Maori work with the rest of us, or whether we are to be two nations, a working white one and a parasitic Maori one, half landlord and half criminal. This issue has long been looming. The people see it clearly. Only the politician class fails to see it.

“There are some honourable exceptions, Dr Don Brash foremost among them. His Orewa speech single-handedly brought National back from what might well have been electoral oblivion and extinction. Yet, from stupidity and shortsightedness, the National Party already prefers to forget this, and forms an alliance and behaves with absurd unnecessary generosity to a racist party which is motivated, at least in part, by hatred of other New Zealanders, and which is working solely for the benefit of its own race and the disadvantage of the rest of us.”

Electoral reform, which eventually led to New Zealand adopting MMP, has had a long history in the New Zealand. Almost from the time that our first parliamentary election took place in 1853, disenfranchised groups agitated for reform. The right to vote in New Zealand was originally contingent on being a male British subject aged 21 years or older who owned, leased or rented property. But by 1860 gold-miners, who were largely disenfranchised by the property requirement – living as they did in temporary accommodation – were given the right to vote, and in 1867, four Maori seats were established as a temporary measure for five years, to enable Maori men, who had also largely failed the property requirement because of the communal ownership of Maori land, to vote. Universal male suffrage came into being in 1881 and universal women’s suffrage in 1893.

The genesis for proportional representation had its origins in the 1950s in the failure of the Social Credit movement to gain parliamentary seats despite widespread support, and the Values Party, the forerunner of the Green Party, added its voice to the call for reform in the seventies. This eventually led the Lange Labour Government in 1986 to establish a Royal Commission on the Electoral System. Among their key recommendations was a referendum to change the electoral system from the traditional First Past the Post to MMP. In the event of MMP being adopted, they also recommended that the Maori seats be abolished as they concluded that Maori interests would be better served through an MMP system with a common roll.

Next year New Zealanders get a chance to have their say on whether they want to retain MMP, or change the system to a new voting option, through a binding referendum to be held in conjunction with the general election. The legislation that sets up the referendum – the Electoral Referendum Bill 2010 – has been tabled in Parliament and sent to the Electoral Legislation Select Committee. If you would like to have a say on the format of the referendum, submissions close on June 10th (see sidebar link for details).

As we look towards the MMP referendum, the burning question must be “has MMP delivered better governance to New Zealand?” If the answer is “No”, then the question becomes, what should replace it?

Peter Shirtcliffe of the Put MMP to the Vote lobby is this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator. Peter – along with the lobby’s co-leader Graeme Hunt – is unequivocal in his view that in spite of the promises and expectations, MMP has failed to deliver better governance. In his article Why and How We Should Change from MMP, he states:

“Voters may be able to elect a Parliament of their choice, but it is the MPs themselves who decide the Government. The concept of the List MP, which is now so influential in this process, has seriously weakened our electorate-based democratic tradition and effectiveness, and led to the MMP-based antics with which we are all familiar. With List MPs in effect appointed by, and beholden to Party bosses, accountabilities are reduced, policy making is compromised, and the public can do nothing about it. MMP fits uncomfortably with the Westminster system on which we rely. You may get two ticks on your voting paper, but only one vote which affects the make-up of Parliament. This makes it unduly difficult to “kick the blighters out”, and a good system should allow you to do just that”.

Peter is scathing of the government’s proposed design of the referendum, which would delay the holding of a new election under a new system until 2017, which does not allow for proportional voting for the alternatives to MMP, and which does not allow voters to have a say on the size of Parliament even though a referendum in 1999 was unequivocally in favour of reducing the number of MPs to 100.

In fact, while the government’s bill seductively proposes that the Electoral Commission will review MMP – if the public votes to retain it in the referendum – there are no guarantees that a government will adopt any of their recommendations. It is also an indictment of the government that this so-called review of MMP specifically excludes the two most contentious issues of concern to the New Zealand public – the Maori seats and the number of MPs: “the Electoral Commission must not review – (a) Maori representation; (b) the total number of members of Parliament”.[1]

Peter Shirtcliffe and Graeme Hunt of Put MMP to the Vote have concluded that the best voting alternative to MMP is Supplementary Member (the system used in the Scottish and Welsh parliaments) with 90 electorate MPs and 30 top-up list MPs in a 120-Member Parliament, and 80 electorate MPs and 20 list MPs under their preferred 100-Member Parliament.To read Peter’s article click here

It is also worth noting that Dr Don Brash, the former leader of the National Party, in a speech written in 2006 on the need to change MMP stated: “My personal preference would be to adopt the Supplementary Member system with a total Parliament of 100 members. 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”.[2]

New Zealand’s experience with proportional representation has categorically demonstrated that MMP gives minority groups a disproportionate influence. That comes at a cost to democracy. We only need to recall the smacking debate to remember that the Green party was the tail wagging the dog in that case. The fact that the National Party is now planning a cosy long-term partnership with the Maori Party – in spite of the fact that they have no mandate to impose the Maori Party’s racist agenda onto the country – is a direct consequence of MMP. So while MMP delivers proportionate representation, the disproportionate influence can have an ugly side. We’ve witnessed that over recent weeks in the secret backroom deals between National and the Maori Party.

1.NZ Government, Electoral Referendum Bill
2.Don Brash, We Deserve Another Referendum on MMP