Sunday, November 16, 2014

Steve Baron: A $25.7m blunder waiting to happen

I suspect the government is about to make a huge blunder. They are investing $25.7 million in a flag referendum but they have made a crucial mistake in selecting the voting system to decide the referendum. As my mother always told me, if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing properly—especially when spending this amount of money on a significant issue.

A briefing paper issued by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Bill English) has recommended the use of the First-Past-The-Post (FPP) voting system in the first referendum. This referendum will choose from a potential list of three or four flags that will go up against the existing flag in a second referendum. Using FPP in the first referendum is a disaster waiting to happen and could cause ongoing derision for generations to come. 

Unless there is an absolute clear preference (50%+) for just one flag (highly unlikely) in the first referendum, using the FPP voting system may actually mean that the LEAST
favoured flag could win and that really would be a disaster.

How can that happen?

When votes are tallied in the first referendum, they may very well be evenly split across all four flags. Let us say, 26%, 25%, 25% and 24%. This means the flag that goes up against the existing flag in the second referendum may have won the first referendum with just 26% of the vote. In other words, this flag could be the least preferred flag of all with 74% of voters actually disliking it the most, yet this is the flag that wins.

However, one can learn from the following experience. In December 2008, Wanganui voters were asked to prioritise four projects in a referendum: an events centre/velodrome, Kowhai Park development, the widening of Mosston Road and a new library or upgrade to the old one. 38% of voters chose the events centre/velodrome project as their first choice, with the Mosston Road Upgrade receiving 27%. However, taking first, second and third choices into calculations, under the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system that was used, the library development won with 67% of the vote. This gave the most popular project overall, the go-ahead, rather than a project that would have had 62% against it.

Why then has the FPP voting system been recommended by the Deputy Prime Ministers office for the first flag referendum? Simply because these advisors think that voters will be too confused if a preferential voting system like STV, is used. In addition to that, these advisors have stated that the Electoral Commission would require additional funding to modify its postal ballot scanning and vote counting software. An estimated cost of this is an additional $500,000.

There is some truth in the comment that STV can be confusing. However, this is usually when voters are faced with two voting systems at the same time, as when voting for a City Councillor at local body elections using FPP, but also having to vote for a District Health Board representative but using the STV voting system. If STV were used in the first flag referendum, with an appropriate media campaign to describe the process, voters would have no trouble understanding what to do. They would all know they needed to place 1, 2, 3 and 4 next to the list of flags in order of their preference. STV is not new to New Zealand. In fact, seven local authorities used STV in the 2013 local body elections to choose their councillors and all elections for district health boards use STV.

The arguments above, to use STV and not FPP, are also applicable to how we choose electorate Members of Parliament. Unfortunately, those in positions of authority in New Zealand politics are of an age where they are still stuck in the last century First-Past-The-Post mentality. They also have little faith in the intelligence of their fellow New Zealanders. While it may be reasonable and appropriate to use FPP in a vote between just two flags, or just two electorate Members of Parliament (this just does not happen) it is not appropriate to use it to decide the first referendum.

I suggest Mr English that you and the heads of your department, give your fellow citizens the credit they deserve and spare us from decades of dispute.

Steve Baron is a political commentator, co-editor of the book ‘People Power’ and the Founder of Better Democracy NZ.


paul scott said...

Yes, very bad indeed Steve. The cart before the horse. John Key seems to have the bee in his bonnet over this, and I think we can expect opposition and apathy. I am not sure how we can change this blunder waiting to happen

Anonymous said...

This whole flag change thing has been done wrong there was no real desire for change among the general population and the referendum has been called by John Key who has proven that he does not regard referendums highly The first referendum should have been one to see if change was wanted or not Not doing this proves the agenda by JK for change


Let's assume there is a wish to change the flag.

The first thing would be to examine the possibilities. Therefore a nationl design competition would be helpful. That could include the current contenders.

From that competition a panel of worthy and artistic and flaggy people could produce a LONG LIST.

From that, it should be possible to reduce to a short list.

The short list (including the present flag) could then be voted on a preferential voting basis with appropriate percentages required to prevent precipitive outcomes.

Anonymous said...

I wonder why John Key is so keen on a flag change - does he see it as a step towards becoming a Republic and therefore Presidential jobs for politicians?

Terry Knight said...

I am very afraid that this referendum will be a disaster like the recent MMP referendum because it does not address the first question which must be answered before any discussion of alternative designs - does a majority of the population want a change, yes or no. At the moment John Key is placing the cart firmly before the horse. Voting on whether or not to change the flag would save the country most of the $27-odd million dollars the government intends to spend on the second step in any further process.243

Don said...

By choosing one of the designs in the first poll it will be assumed you want change - if you do not want change I assume you vote against all the proffered designs. The order of the polls is back to front.
My personal preference is:

David Stott said...

Couldn't agree more Steve.

STV is not a complicated way to vote. It's simply a bit complicated to calculate the winner. But that doesn't affect the actual voting itself as voters simply rank their options rather than choosing a single one. Where there are 20 or so options as in Australian political voting this can be a chore. But with the four or so flags we would be voting for, it's far simpler.

The calculation method has well know independent software available from around the world and all that is needed is for the public to be assured (by all parties in government agreeing) that the software chosen is numerically fair and unbiased.

I would strongly support spending the extra money to get a fairer, more representative outcome. I'm just sorry that STV wasn't chosen instead on MMP for our political elections as well.

Dave said...

Wait for every wacko to crawl out from under a rock and lobby for their choice of flag, then there is the PC brigade and the Maori activists all wanting to impose their flag on us. The end result is we will end up with a more divided nation than we already have, more racial disharmony and a huge cost that should be spent on more important things like our health system.
Why is Key doing this, could it be that he is wanting to take the attention away from more pressing issues, like the economy and divided race relations.
The key government has ignored the wishes of the majority of New Zealanders, on issues like the anti smacking law, legal highs, Waitangi tribunal decisions and other important things that they are to timid to confront or even publicly discuss. The flag debate will cost a lot, divide us even more and perhaps more importantly take our attention away from the disturbing paths our country is taking.

Don Nightingale said...

There is no general wish to change our Flag, which has represented us world wide , and served us well. Before any referendum is undertaken Mr. Key should run a poll to see just WHO want a change. Money could , and should be better used. Don Nightingale