Monday, August 15, 2011

Steve Baron: 2011 Electoral Referendum – A Calculated Political Manoeuvre by PM

I can assure NZCPR readers that MMP, FPP, PV, SM and STV are not sexually transmitted diseases—but depending on which of these options New Zealanders choose in the electoral referendum at the next election, it will make an enormous difference to the eventual make-up of future governments and parliament.

When thinking about a voting system New Zealander's need to ask what it is they want from their electoral system. Is it best to have a system that creates a government that can govern alone, or a system that reflects the make-up of the population as a whole and the wishes of the average voter? Should voters have other checks and balances, like Switzerland's direct democracy system or is just one vote every three years enough? Another question to consider is why another referendum is being held so soon after the change from First-Past-The-Post to MMP?

Five elections have passed since the change in 1996. History tells us that prior to 1996 there was a real and pressing need for change. The main impetus was the 'wrong winner' outcome of the 1978 and 1981 elections. The Labour Party received more votes than the National Party, but the National Party remained the government, because they held more electorate seats. That is how the previous FPP system worked. The second major issue was that of 'wasted votes'. In 1978 the Social Credit Party received 16% of the vote, but only one seat in parliament. In 1981 they received 21% of the vote but only two seats in parliament. In 1984 the New Zealand Party received 12% of the vote, but no seats in Parliament. Citizens quite rightly perceived this as unfair and a huge waste of votes that counted for nothing.

Other options like preferential voting systems allow voters to rank candidates (and parties) in order of preference, but the outcome is not proportional in any way. Supplementary Member means there will still be 120 Members of Parliament with 90 electorate MPs, with the other 30 seats being supplementary seats filled by MPs from the political party lists. This effectively means a return to FPP with minor proportionality. Professors Levine & Roberts concluded in their 2009 study that there would probably have been single-party majority governments on three occasions over the last five MMP elections and that the results of the 1996 to 2008 elections would have been three times more disproportionate than they were under MMP. STV is a preferential system but again, it is not proportional and is effectively the same as FPP. Coalition governments are rare under any of these systems.

On the whole, there does not seem to be major problems with MMP and overall, New Zealander's seem to appreciate the proportionality that MMP offers. It would appear the public’s perceived problem with MMP are only minor issues that could easily be addressed by parliament.

The one-seat threshold could easily be removed to alleviate the disparity that was exposed at the 2008 election, where the Act Party with only one electorate seat were allocated five MPs, even though they received less votes than New Zealand First who did not received any representation with a higher vote than Act. It would also seem reasonable to reduce the party representation threshold from 5% to 4%, as initially recommended by the Royal Commission on the Electoral System. This gives the potential for more parties to be represented in parliament and reduce vote wastage. Voters could also have the option of making a preference selection from party lists and therefore have the opportunity to ensure an unwanted electorate MP does not get back into parliament through the present closed party lists.

If New Zealand wished for a more preferential system rather than simple majoritarianism, other options could still be considered for electorate seats. MMP still uses majoritarian voting in the electorate seats, which often means an MP wins the seat with far less than a majority vote. For example, if the votes are tallied up as 30%, 25%, 25% and 20% to four candidates, this means that the electorate MP with just 30% of the vote wins, a situation that hardly seems fair. Using a preferential system to decide electorate MPs may be far more representative of the average voter.

So why has Prime Minister Key called for this referendum? Perhaps this was simply an astute and calculated political manoeuvre from the Prime Minister who is in a no-lose situation. A change to any of the other systems offered in the referendum would only enhance the opportunity for National or Labour to govern without the need for a coalition—something they prefer. Given the political ratings, this is likely to be Mr Key's National Party. On top of this scenario, by offering voters the chance to 'kick the tyres' on MMP, he portrays himself as a man prepared to listen to the people—even though his government chose to ignore the outcome of a recent citizens initiated referendum.


Anonymous said...

I hear a defeaning silence from you Steve on the Maori seats, the real issue with MMP. I think the public has perceived more than a few small problems with reserving pews in parliament for these racially biased individuals (i.e. Hone's white mfkrs) and one their eyed political agendas. I note the Royal commission recomended their removal under MMP.

Anonymous said...

The Maori seats aren't just an issue under MMP. If we went back to FPP they'd be 12 Maori seats in a 120 seat parliament.

What NZ really needs, of course, is a government willing to make the hard economic and social choices to grow NZ as a country. It is pretty obvious none of these electoral systems do that!

This is why Don Brash, for example, proposed a "fiscal council" that would take all major spending and taxing decisions out of parliament so that the right decisions can be made - the decisions we all know need to be made but are unable to make due to MMP.
- eliminating corporate tax rates
- eliminating high marginal tax rates
- eliminating welfare, state health and state education