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.