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Dr Muriel Newman

Time to have your say on our voting system

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The review of MMP is well underway with over 2,000 submissions already received, swamping the 200 to 800 received during previous reviews. While the deadline for written submissions is not until May 31st, for oral submissions it is April 5th.

The Review was announced by the government in the lead up to the 2011 referendum on our voting system. Many believe this promise of a review to ‘fix’ MMP effectively gerrymandered the outcome, lulling voters who wanted change into supporting MMP on the understanding that it would be improved.

The problem is that the MMP Review is fundamentally flawed. Not only does it exclude two of the key objections with the voting system – namely the Maori seats and the size of Parliament – but instead of voters deciding on the final changes through a nation-wide referendum, the government intends making that decision itself. This is a major concern. A country’s voting system should be controlled by voters, not self-interested politicians. New Zealanders must demand that voting system changes can only go ahead if there is majority support through a public referendum process.

One of the key concerns about MMP is the existence of the race-based Maori seats. Introduced in 1867 as a temporary measure for a five year period, they are an anachronism from the past. When 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System suggested the adoption of MMP as New Zealand’s voting system, they also recommended the abolition of the Maori seats. They believed that the new system would provide for adequate Maori representation. Since that has been shown to be the case, the opportunity for voters to recommend the abolition of the Maori seats should have been a key feature of this MMP Review.

A second major concern of voters is the size of Parliament. When MMP was first introduced in 1996, the number of MPs was increased from 99 to 120. In 1999 Margaret Robertson’s Citizens Initiated Referendum to reduce the number of MPs back down to 99 received overwhelming public support. This issue should also have been a key part of the MMP Review.

The reason given by the government for excluding these two matters is that they can be raised during the forthcoming review of New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements. But that is ridiculous – they are a key part of our voting system and should be part of this Review. The real reason for their exclusion is, of course, political – National does not want to upset its coalition partners, preferring instead to sideline important matters of public interest. Doing so has turned this Review into a sham.

There is another serious problem with MMP that has not been specifically identified in the Review, but which should be forcefully raised by as many submitters as possible – it is the urgent and compelling need for stronger democratic safeguards for citizens. Under MMP voters need a mechanism to curb the excessive legislative power that main parties give to minor coalition partners. These parties often have quite radical agendas that attract support from only a small proportion of voters, yet they are given the power to introduce sweeping law changes that are not in the public interest. Now that we know MMP is here to stay, the time has come to remedy this situation as a priority.

Two occasions spring to mind where main parties allowed coalition partners to impose extreme legislation that was strongly opposed by mainstream New Zealand. The first, in 2007, was the Green Party’s bill to ban smacking. A radical piece of legislation direct from an anti-family agenda being driven by the United Nations, the smacking ban was opposed by the vast majority of the population. It was seen as a sinister law that interferes at the deepest level with how families raise their children. However, the bill was passed and society is now paying the price through a relentless increase in the number of ill-disciplined and delinquent children. The second case was, of course, the Maori Party’s radical bill to privatise the foreshore and seabed to the tribal elite. This bill was passed in 2011 in spite of the overwhelming opposition of the public.

The obvious safeguard for citizens would be to restore an Upper House of Parliament to act as a watchdog on the legislature. But since there is little public appetite for such a reform, an alternative safeguard in the form of a Citizens’ Right of Veto over new legislation, similar to that used in Switzerland and many US States, should be adopted. In both countries, citizens have the right to lodge a notice of veto once a bill has been passed by the legislature. If sufficient voter support is gathered within a set period – usually around three months – a binding referendum of all voters is held on whether to accept or reject the new legislation. Experience shows that such vetos are rarely used, as ruling parties become much more closely attuned to the views of voters and the need to consider the public good. The introduction of a Citizens’ Right of Veto safeguard would significantly strengthen our democracy and the public’s faith in MMP. Supporters should raise this matter in their submissions under “Other Issues” that “directly relate to how the MMP voting system works”.

The MMP Review is being carried out by the Electoral Commission, a Crown agency responsible for the administration of parliamentary elections and referenda. The Commission consists of three members, Chairman Hon Justice Sir Hugh Williams QC who is a retired High Court Judge, Deputy Chair Jane Huria who is a professional company director and chair of He Oranga Pounamu, and Robert Pedan, the Chief Electoral Officer. The Commission plans to travel to the main centres to hear submissions between April 24th and May 18th – with hearings in provincial areas if there is sufficient demand.

Once the Commission has considered the views of the public, a ‘Proposal Paper’ will be released in mid August for public submissions. The final report will be presented to the Minister of Justice at the end of October. However, the next step in the process is missing. Once the proposal has been considered by Cabinet, all changes should be voted on by the public through a binding referendum. Politicians with their enormous vested interest must not be the ones to decide on the final shape of our voting system.

The MMP Review focuses on a number of factors that affect the democratic election process and the shape of Parliamentary representation. The key element of MMP is that it should deliver MPs into Parliament from a mix of electorates and party lists, with each party’s share of seats equal to their overall party vote. The current design of the system however, means that proportionality can be skewed particularly in the case of a Parliamentary overhang, where for example the Maori Party has always had more constituency MPs than their party vote allocation allows. The result is an increase in the size of Parliament – in 2005 we had 121 MPs, in 2008 122 MPs, and in 2011 121 MPs. For a country that wants fewer MPs not more, this situation is unacceptable. The simple solution is to require proportionality, with final Parliamentary representation based on the party vote. That means that if a party wins more electorate seats than its party vote entitlement allows, these additional seats should be forfeited, with second ranking candidates in an electorate declared the winner. Parliament should never be increased above 120 MPs.

Probably the most contentious issue in the review is the question of thresholds. At present, there are two ways that parties can achieve representation in Parliament – either by gaining 5 percent of the party vote or by winning an electorate seat. As the system stands, a party that wins a single electorate seat but doesn’t cross the 5 percent threshold can ‘coat tail’ its other list MPs into Parliament. This anomaly became obvious in 2008, when ACT, with 3.65 percent of the party vote won the Epsom electorate seat and gained a total of 5 MPs, while New Zealand First won 4.07 percent of the party vote and had no MPs. Many believe this anomaly should be removed, so that parties like United, ACT or Mana, that win a single electorate seat, should get no additional MPs until they cross the 5 percent party vote threshold.

Thresholds were introduced into our MMP system to prevent a proliferation of small parties in Parliament. Over the years the proportion of ‘wasted’ votes from small parties that fail to win a seat or reach the 5 percent threshold has varied: in 1996 the wasted vote was 7.5 percent of total party votes, in 1999 it was 6 percent, in 2002 it was 4.9 percent, in 2005 1.3 percent, in 2008 6.6 percent, and in 2011 it was 3.4 percent or 75,493 votes. The final party vote of all other parties in Parliament is increased proportionately to take into account this ‘wasted’ vote.

Other issues covered by the Review include ‘dual candidacy’ – whether MPs should be able to stand as candidates for an electorate seat at the same time as being on their Party list. This situation becomes particularly controversial when an electorate rejects their sitting MP only to find them back in Parliament via the party list.

Then there is the question of whether voters should have the power to influence the order of candidates on party lists. Since it is unlikely that voters will know many of a party’s candidates, a more sensible option would be to require political parties to disclose their members’ list rankings of candidates, as well as the final board ranking. This would provide the public with a better understanding of the regard in which candidates are held by party members, as well as party bosses.

As New Zealand’s population continues to increase, the question arises of whether the size of Parliament will need to be increased to maintain proportionality. When MMP was first introduced in 1996, there were 65 electorate seats (60 general seats and 5 Maori seats) and 55 list seats. Now, there are 70 electorate seats (63 general seats and 7 Maori seats) and 50 list seats. A problem with proportionality will apparently occur when the number of electorate seats increases to 77 and the number of list seats reduces to 43. However, since that problem is not expected to occur until the year 2051, this is not something to worry about now!

I asked this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, Jordan Williams, a Wellington based commercial and public lawyer, who led the Vote for Change electoral reform campaign, to outline the changes to MMP that he would like to see. In his article Review of MMP and why it sets a dangerous precedent, Jordan reminds us that it is imperative that the voting system is only changed through a public referendum:

“Our voting system should be controlled by voters.  Our politicians should ensure that proposals are put to the people. Labour and National must do more than require cross-party consensus on electoral matters. They should ensure changes to our voting system will be put to the people in referenda. The current approach implies a belief that our electoral system is for politicians. It is not. Changes should be approved by voters, not the very people likely to benefit.”

He concludes, “The MMP ‘review’ process will make screwing the scrum tempting. We must stand against such a path and prevent the MMP ‘review’ from turning into National’s version of the Electoral Finance Act, a tool used by politicians for their own political advantage.”

Full details of the MMP Review can be found on www.mmpreview.org.nz. The deadline for oral submissions is April 5thand for written submissions 31st May.