As a representative democracy New Zealand’s system of government is supposed to be ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’. So why do our ruling parties go to such great lengths to prevent the public from having a proper say on how we are being governed? With an election just around the corner, isn’t it time that voters collectively demanded the right to hold governments to account?
This question should be at the forefront of voters’ minds when they realise that the National government – like the Labour Government before them – has gerrymandered the forthcoming referendum on the voting system in favour of MMP. They have done this by not only proposing that if MMP wins the referendum a future review will be held to ‘fix’ any problems, but more importantly, by ensuring that every voting option except MMP will increase the number of race-based Maori seats – from the present number of 7 to between 9 and 12 or 13! In other words, they have implanted a poison pill that they know will be unacceptable to most voters in each alternative to MMP. But more on that later.
When New Zealanders voted for MMP back in 1993, most people believed that a follow-up referendum was going to be held after two elections to enable voters to decide whether MMP was worth keeping. However, instead of a second referendum, Jim Bolger’s National government legislated for a select committee review instead! A special committee was to be set up “as soon as practicable after 1 April 2000” to report on whether “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.”1
But coalition politics got in the way. Prime Minister Helen Clark manipulated the review by requiring that the special committee’s decision had to be “unanimous or near-unanimous”. With parties deeply divided over the benefits or otherwise of MMP, the chance of an agreement was remote and no referendum was ever scheduled.
While MPs couldn’t agree on a second referendum, the public had no such trouble: a UMR poll commissioned by the Committee at the time showed that 76 percent were in favour of a binding referendum to decide whether to keep MMP or not. The poll showed that 52 percent of people 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.
The reality is that National short-changed the public in 1993 by opting for a review of the electoral system instead of a referendum. It therefore appeared that their 2008 campaign promise to “Hold a binding referendum on MMP by no later than 2011” was a genuine attempt to ‘put things right’.
At first glance the referendum to be held in conjunction with the general election on November 26th does appear to be giving voters a fair choice over whether they want to keep MMP or change to an alternative voting system. But when you look into the detail, you find manipulation even more outrageous than Helen Clark’s Select Committee fiasco a decade ago. Instead of being presented with a clear and objective choice over whether we want to keep MMP or change to one of the other voting systems offered in the 1992 referendum (First Past the Post, Preferential Voting, Single Transferable Vote, or Supplementary Member) National has overlaid the politics of division and separatism over the whole referendum process.
In the same way that National put the demands of the Maori sovereignty movement for the foreshore and seabed ahead of the ownership rights of New Zealand citizens, it is now doing it again with the MMP referendum – putting the demands of the Maori Party ahead of the rights of the voting public to be given a fair go. The cause of the debacle is National’s Confidence and Supply Agreement with the Maori Party, which states “there will not be a question about the future of the Maori seats in the referendum on MMP.”2 As a result, Schedule 2 of the Electoral Referendum Act 2010 contains the following provision: “The principles for determining the number of members of Parliament who represent Maori electorates will not change.”
In considering the MMP referendum, there are two ways to interpret Maori representation in our Parliament. The first is to look at it from the point of view that Maori hold 7 seats in our 120 seat Parliament. That means that there should be 7 Maori seats in any new Parliament irrespective of which voting system is used.
The second way is to look at it is from an electorate seat perspective. Under our present MMP system, Maori hold 7 electorate seats out of the total of 70 electorate seats – 10 percent – with the other 50 seats made up from party lists. Using this 10 percent figure to determine the number of Maori seats, each of the alternative voting options specified in the referendum, will bring about a dramatic increase in the number, since each of the alternative voting systems has more electorate seats than MMP.
Under First Past the Post Parliament would be made up of 120 electorate seats, with 10 percent of them race-based – that is 12 Maori seats. It is the same for the Preferential Voting system where there would be 120 electorate seats – again there would be 12 Maori seats. Under the Single Transferable Voting system Parliament would consist of only electorate seats, but instead of 120 separate electorates, there would be 24 to 30 electorates, each with 3 to 7 MPs. That would mean around 4 Maori electorates with a total of 12 Maori MPs.
The Supplementary Member Voting system, like MMP, consists of electorate and list seats – 90 electorate seats and 30 list seats. As a result, 10 percent of the 90 electorate seats would result in 9 Maori seats.
The next Maori electoral option is scheduled for 2013. If it results in the number of voters on the Maori roll increasing to produce the equivalent of 8 Maori seats under the present system, then by the time the next referendum comes around in 2014 – if the country has voted for a change from MMP – the number of Maori seats under the alternative voting system would have risen to between 10 and 13 depending on which option the country has chosen.
Strangely, this information about the number of Maori seats is not shown in the Schedule 2 description of voting system that has been included in the Electoral Referendum Act to inform voters. Nor can it be found in the explanations of the voting options on the Electoral Commission’s main website. The only way to find it is to click on the five voting options on the special referendum website at www.referendum.org.nz and then click on the ‘read more’ options that are hidden at the end of each voting summary. If the government had purposely wanted to hide this information from the New Zealand public, then they couldn’t have done a better job!
What is so bizarre about all of this is that the 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System recommended that the Maori seats, the Maori roll and the Maori electoral option should all be abolished if MMP was introduced. They predicted that Maori would be adequately represented through general and list seats, making race-based provisions unnecessary. That has indeed occurred, but instead of letting the public decide whether race based seats still have a place in a modern democracy, National appears determined to take the country backwards towards greater race-based representation.
To be fair, if MMP loses the referendum vote and another voting system wins, then the final detail of the new electoral system – including the number of Maori seats – could be changed when the legislation for the next referendum is drafted by the next Parliament, but as things stand, any significant change would be highly unlikely.
That means that if we change the voting system away from MMP, race-based representation will be increased, not because the New Zealand public wants more racial division thrust upon us – in fact the desire to abolish race-based seats is probably stronger now than it has ever been – but because sleazy coalition deals are forcing unacceptable changes onto the country that citizens are powerless to reject.
I asked this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator Steve Baron, who has been a leader in the fight for greater democratic rights for New Zealanders, to share his experience of the battle for direct democracy, and to provide suggestions on what we need to do to constrain government when it goes off the rails – as National has clearly done with the privatisation of the foreshore and seabed and the forthcoming referendum. In his article Strengthening Democracy – giving voters more power he explains:
“One direct democracy tool that deserves special mention and consideration to put checks and balances on parliament is the Veto (Facultative) referendum. When new laws, or changes to laws have been passed by parliament, citizens can subject them to a referendum if the required number of signatures can be collected in the prescribed amount of time, usually ninety to one hundred days. The new law or change to an old law only becomes effective if the majority of the votes in the referendum were in favour of it. It is worth noting that of the more than 2,200 laws passed by the Swiss parliament since 1874, only 7 percent have been subjected to a Veto referendum. The Swiss people are therefore happy with 93 percent of what their government wants to do—but not always! For me personally, I will always trust the collective wisdom of 3 million voters over the collective wisdom of 121 Members of Parliament.”
As the recidivist manipulation of the voting referendum demonstrates, New Zealanders have no checks and balances to protect our rights when governments go off the rails. It is time that the public demanded the power to correct the situation. When Labour was the government we had no means to overturn the smacking law – even though most knew it would not stop child abuse but would undermine the rights of parents and their ability to raise their children well.
Now under National’s term in government on top of having to suffer the ignominy of our foreshore and seabed being given to the separatists, there is now this new threat to our democratic process that goes to the very core of the voting system itself.
It is long past time for New Zealanders to regain control of their democracy. Helping with our Citizens Initiated Referendum to restore Crown ownership of the foreshore and seabed is something that each and every one of you can do to help show that we will not put up with being trampled on. But in addition we need to put pressure on candidates and political parties to pledge to introduce binding referenda – especially the right of Veto – so that citizen democracy in the future will be much stronger than it is today.
- Muriel Newman, MMP Referendum ↩
- Cabinet, Referenda on Mixed Member Proportional Voting System ↩