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Peter Shirtcliffe

Why and How we Should Change from MMP

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The forthcoming referendum is a one-shot opportunity to dismiss a voting system which has been:

1. A governance failure, compared to the expectations of it.

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.

2. A significant negative influence on the economy, compared with its potential.

The degree of reliance on coalition government has prevented common sense driving the major economic decisions. The distribution of wealth has had priority over creation of wealth. Retention of MMP will make the present government’s goal of economic parity with Australia by 2025 virtually impossible.

3. A blight on our democracy.

There is a big difference between Parliament and Government. The challenge in any electoral system is to put bums on seats in a way that works for both. MMP and First Past the Post are at the extremes, with MMP making Parliament strong and Government weak, and FPP making Government strong, but Parliament weak. Kiwis need to find a happy medium, a balanced system with some proportionality that can retain the advantages of a representative Parliament, but without the downsides of MMP – imbalance, cost and contradiction in Government, too many List MPs, party-hopping, post-election horsetrading and so on. Let’s not forget the political farces we’ve seen with the likes of Alamein Kopu and friend Winston. The Supplementary Member system, which received significant support from the Royal Commission, would provide such a happy medium. The influence and status of electorate MPs would be enhanced, the tail would find it much harder to wag the dog, but there would still be some diversity in the House

The terms of the referendum, as outlined by the Government, taken together with the Prime minister’s repeated statements that he “will probably vote for MMP” add up to a bias in the process towards the retention of MMP. This bias can be largely removed by:

  • 1. Holding the second referendum 12 months after the first, so that implementation of any change happens at Election 2014. The proposed delay till 2017 will simply turn the public off, and gives opportunity for political manipulation in the interim.
  • 2. Voting preferentially on the four options i.e voters should rank them in order of preference on the ballot paper. The intention is to have the second referendum as a “run-off” between MMP and the winner from the first vote. It is quite possible that the winner has only, say 32% of the vote, giving little credibility to the second vote.
  • 3. Offering a 100-seat Parliament with the four alternatives. Over 10 years ago there was a Citizens Initiated Referendum which overwhelmingly endorsed a 99-seat Parliament. Last year I co-funded a poll which showed continued support for a smaller House, even at the cost of some proportionality, and the Justice Minister’s dogmatic statement to me that “the referendum on MMP will not address the number of seats in the House of Representatives” says it all.

The online petition to which this article is linked gives you the opportunity to express support for these changes to the referendum before the authorizing Bill gets very far in the House.

Reflecting more generally on the referendum, we need a more principled approach, rather than the appalling laissez-faire stance exhibited by government. It is following the path of least resistance, and has shown itself unwilling to engage in any discussion about possible outcomes. Given the number of List MPs, this is perhaps hardly surprising, and is symptomatic of the weakness in MMP. The government should adopt a leadership approach, which it could do in a way which enhanced its political status.

Finally, it is proposed that if the public vote to retain MMP, its workings and structure will be reviewed by the Electoral Commission. This is a mischievous proposal, since it will appeal to those who want a ready-made excuse not to fret about the issue. It would put the matter into the hands of a body with little status or experience. It would be more profitable to read the Royal Commission’s report. Additionally, the public would not know what it was voting for, since by the time the Commission was sitting, the referendum process would be finished. MMP is a frog, and no matter how many times the princess kisses it, it won’t turn into a prince.

In essence, this is a matter which should be decided by voters through a fair and unbiased process, and to date we see that process dominated by a self-interested Parliament which has a “tick-the box-on-an-election-promise” mentality.