The Electoral Commission is in the midst of its second round of consultation on how to reform MMP. In recent days, it seems to be getting an oddly uniform message.

As you all should know, the Electoral Commission has put out its preliminary proposals for reform following on from its review of MMP. Those proposals are on the whole pretty modest - the main change it suggests is to abandon the "electorate lifeboat" exception to the representation threshold, whilst also reducing the party vote threshold that a party must cross to gain representation from 5% to 4%.

(For the sake of full transparency, my view on these matters, as indicated in my original submission to the Commission, is that the electorate lifeboat rule should be dropped but that an even lower party vote threshold would be desirable.)

Having made its preliminary proposals public, the Commission is now engaged in a second wave of public consultation on them before passing on its final recommendations to the Minister of Justice. One of the interesting things about that consultation process is that you can read in near-real time what other people are saying to the Commission about its proposals.

So out of idle curiosity, I started flicking through the submissions. And here's something that has jumped out at me.

For the first few days after the Commission's report came out, there's a pretty wide mix of views coming through. There's a fair bit of support for what the Commission is saying. But there's also some people who think it has got it wrong on one or more of the issues addressed, and tell it so. And there are a few folks who take off on odd tangents all of their own ... but such is the beauty of asking the public what they think about anything.

However, over the last few days, the submissions have begun to take on a much more consistent message. They almost uniformly call for a retention of the "electorate lifeboat" rule and keeping the party vote threshold at 5%. And what is more, many of them do so in language that looks oddly familiar.

So, for example, the Commission repeatedly is told not to abolish the "electorate lifeboat" rule as this would not be "practical" (without any indication as what this actually means). And the 5% party vote threshold is said to be necessary to avoid "bring[ing in] more minor parties into Parliament over time, making it even more difficult to form a stable Government" - without, of course, noting that this is exactly what the "electorate lifeboat" rule also does.

To see what I mean, compare the (randomly chosen) submission that Megan Green made to the Commission on Wednesday evening with that made by Jim Johnson the following day. And as you click through other recent submissions, you'll see a bunch more that replicate these views in almost identical language.

Now, I have no conclusive evidence to prove that these similarities aren't just a spontaneous outbreak of like-minded individuals who all believe the same thing for the same reasons and have chosen to express those beliefs in much the same way. But the alternative explanation is that there is an at least semi-organised attempt underway to impress a consistent message upon the Commission as it considers what its final recommendations to the Government should be.

But, so what, you might ask? Isn't everyone entitled to put their views to the Commission on their electoral system? And can't they use whatever langauge they like to do so? After all, form submissions to things like select committees and the like are hardly unknown - they are something of a staple tool of attempted influence use by (for instance) unions or organisations like Forest and Bird.

All of which is true. But here's the issue with a public consultation process on the future shape of the electoral system in which such carbon-copy viewpoints dominate.

First, if they make up a majority of the feedback that the Commission receives, these submissions might actually have the effect of causing it to rethink its initial proposals. I don't actually think this is very likely, given the strength of the Commission's rejection of the "electorate lifeboat" rule in its initial report - but it still could happen.

More importantly, however, after this final consultation period is over, the Electoral Commission will report its recommendations to the Minister of Justice. From there, for them to be passed into law (assuming the recommendations still are that there be change to the representation thresholds), the Minister will have to incorporate them into a Bill and present this to the House for enactment. And it will be much, much harder to do so if a majority of responses to the Commission's recommendations disagree with it.

Because some particular parties already have made their opposition to the Commission's initial proposals quite clear, whilst also calling into question the alleged partisan motives that underlie the recommendations. Those allegations will only intensify should the Commission appear to be ignoring what it is told about its recommended changes. Which could then give a Minister who may herself have reason to be leery of those recommendations an out from having to act on them.

So, the point of this post is not to say that those making form submissions ought to be silenced. As I say, it's their electoral system too, and they have every right to talk about what should happen with it in any way they choose.

Rather, it is to point out to anyone else who cares what happens to MMP for the foreseeable future that you have until 5:00 pm on Friday, September 7 to let the Commission know what your views are on its proposals. Because there are other people speaking up on this, and so if you don't then theirs will be the voices that may ultimately matter.

You can make an online submission to the Commission here. It takes all of a minute to do so. Go on ... it's not like you really are working anyhow.

Comments (9)

by Eszett on August 23, 2012
Eszett
Well, it seems pretty obvious where this is coming from. But I don't see necessarily a problem with a party or organisation campaign to make a certain submission. As long as they are open about it. It's slightly dodgy if they try and do it covertly
by Mike Osborne on August 24, 2012
Mike Osborne

Thanks for the heads up - democracy is a participation sport.

by Andrew Geddis on August 24, 2012
Andrew Geddis

@Eszett,

I wouldn't necessarily say that individuals ought to reveal their party/organisational affiliations when making a submission, even if they are simply repeating lines they've been asked to parrot. And I also suspect the rather obvious cut-and-paste nature of the submissions will diminish their impact on the Commission's actual thinking; the members are smart enough to understand what they are seeing.

The real impact will come in terms of pure numbers - so if (say) the Commission recommends to the Government that the "electorate lifeboat" exception be abolished, but also reports that (say) 55% of those commenting on its recommendations opposed this move, then that's going to make it a lot easier to ignore what it says.

by Eszett on August 24, 2012
Eszett
@andrew, i wasn't implying that the people who submit should openly declare their affiliation. Rather if a party or organisation is asking them to submit a cetrain pre-defined text or message, they should be open that they are going so.
by Peter Green on August 24, 2012
Peter Green

Go on ... it's not like you really are working anyhow.

Crap, how did you know?  Are we being watched?

by Caroline Glass on August 24, 2012
Caroline Glass

Is it worth my while making a submission to the second round of the MMP review, when I made a detailed 10-page submission to the first round? The commission's recommendations agree with me on some matters and are less sensible on others, but I know they read my submission, because they cross-examined me about it. So, seeing as my views haven't changed (they were already correct), would I achieve something by re-stating some of them in a new submission to be counted in this round of feedback?

by Andrew Geddis on August 24, 2012
Andrew Geddis

So, seeing as my views haven't changed (they were already correct), would I achieve something by re-stating some of them in a new submission to be counted in this round of feedback?

My personal view is that it is worth briefly telling the Commission whether you support or oppose each recommendation, and state what you'd prefer to see them recommend on those issues you disagree with them on. But I certainly wouldn't make (and haven't made) anything like as detailed a submission as I did in the first round.

As I say in my post, I suspect it would take something pretty major to move the Commission's views ... some form of overwhelming rejection of its proposed recommendations from a large number of submissions. However, once those recommendations move into the parliamentary sphere, I do think this feedback will be used to paint the Commission's views in a particular light. Which is why, I suspect, we are seeing a concerted attempt to put on the record one perspective on the Commission's proposals. 

by Frenchy on August 26, 2012
Frenchy

That's nothing compared to the Gambling Charities' efforts on Flavell's Gambling (Reduction of Harm) Bill. They sent requests to every club, association etc that they'd ever funded asking them to submit against the Bill. Some even provided template submissions. Is it underhanded or sinister, or just democracy in action?

by Mike Osborne on September 11, 2012
Mike Osborne

Talk about game the review - http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10833188

From that article:

Who supports what
Party vote threshold of 4% or 3%
Support: Labour, Greens, Mana, UF, Conservatives
Against: National, Act, NZ First.

Remove electorate threshold
Support: Labour, Greens, NZ First
Against: National, Act, UF, Maori, Mana, Conservatives

Which parties appear to be voting on principles and which on self-interest?

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