Is it praiseworthy or plain dumb for a government to honour a stupid election promise?

John Key seems committed to sticking with National’s pre-election promise to hold a referendum on MMP at the 2011 election, even though he also appears to believe that New Zealanders are pretty happy with the status quo. As laudable as it is to see a politician keeping his word to the electorate, making the initial promise was silly and holding any such a referendum is misguided and unnecessary.

(Jane Clifton neatly captured John Key's situation on Monday's "The Panel" on National Radio – she likened him to a dog that, after frantically chasing a car, actually catches hold of its bumper and then has to work out what the hell to do next.)

Let's get the easy (dare I say "cheap") shot out of the way. There's an obvious disjunct between National's willingness to spend some tens-of-millions of dollars of tax-payer dollars on holding a referendum that even its leader doesn't really think is needed, whilst simultaneously trumpteting the "hundreds of thousands" of dollars saved by revamping ministerial housing allowances. So much for a recession-era tightening of the public purse strings!

But the National government's real problem is that it isn't just a matter of holding a simple vote on keeping or junking MMP. There is no way, for reasons David Farrer covers, that you can hold a single stage referendum that both asks if the public are content with MMP and (if a majority indicate they are not) also endorses a replacement electoral system. At least, there is no way you can do so and produce an outcome that can claim any form of legitimacy for the future. And if the referendum cannot confer such legitimacy, the exercise is worse than useless – it will be positively harmful.

Therefore, if we are going to have a referendum, it is going to have to be a two-step process, just as we had in 1992 and 1993. The first stage will gauge whether the public wish to stay with MMP; and if not, what alternative voting system they would prefer. The second stage (if needed) would be a straight run-off between MMP and the top-ranking alternative system.

What is more, this second stage of the process really has to be held at general election time, in order to ensure maximum participation. Which means to get it all over with at the next election, we'd need to hold the first stage before 2011 – including the large-scale public education campaign necessary to ensure people know what it is that they are voting on. This is a ridiculously tight time-frame, and I'll go on record here as saying it just can't happen.

Consequently, the first stage of the referendum most likely will be held alongside the 2011 general election, with any second stage held at the 2014 general election. This timeframe could work, but at the potential cost of tying New Zealand up for the next 5 years in arguments over how we should be voting.

Which brings me to the next reason why this referendum is misguided. It
will address the fundamental constitutional issue of what voting system New Zealanders want to use, even as the government is separately deciding the related issue of what our laws should be on election funding, and while National is committed though its agreement with the Maori Party to establish by 2010 a group to review constitutional issues, "including Maori representation".

The fact these deeply interlinked matters are being dealt with in three different ways, each apparently independently of the others, strikes me as plain dumb. Why aren't they all – or, at the very least, the question of MMP's future and the issue of Maori representation – being considered together? Can you meaningfully address one without the other? Isn't the more rational approach to look at all of this as a package, and work out what (if any) changes to the electoral system (and wider constitutional arrangements) are thought necessary or desirable before seeking the public's endorsement of those changes?

I do accept that, at the time of voting in the referendum on MMP, many people believed that there would be an opportunity for the public to pass judgment on any change. My dim, dark memory of those times (which is somewhat clouded by the fact I was then an undergraduate at Otago, with all that that brings) is that I shared this belief. But it simply was wrong – no such follow-up referendum was ever explicitly promised to voters.

National's promise of a referendum thus seems to stem from a mix of a desire to scratch all pre-election itches on the electorate's part (whether real or imagined), and to provide a sop to those hold-outs who hearken back to the glory days of First-Past-the-Post government, which "gave more power to the major party to implement sensible policies". The fact that this latter group contains a fair few wealthy members of the business community may or may not be relevant to its decision.

But whatever the motivation behind it, it was a silly and unnecessary commitment. There simply isn't the sort of deep seated public anger and disillusion with politics that drove the 1992 and 1993 referendum votes. Yes, MMP as it currently operates has some flaws – the "one electorate MP" exception to the representation threshold, the fact candidates can stand both in seats and for the party list, for example. But these are flaws that can be identified by a simple review that receives public submissions; a true "kicking of [MMP's] tyres", to use John Key's phrase. Going beyond this to seek the public's verdict on MMP as an entire system is neither necessary nor worthwhile.

Comments (10)

by Graeme Edgeler on September 09, 2009
Graeme Edgeler

So much with which to disagree. But I'll start with a self-important link to a post I wrote on the referendum proposal when it was announced as National policy pre-election =)

I'm glad you got a say on the electoral system in 1992/1993. I didn't. By 2014 almost no-one under the age of 40 will have been asked what they thought of other electoral systems. That's not to say we need a referedum on the electoral system every quarter century, but the idea that we decided this some time ago doesn't really hold water.

The idea that we were supposed to have a second shot at MMP - what I've called the persistent myth of New Zealand politics - isn't something I recall from the debate at the time (I was 13, but I did pay attention); I'm led to believe it was a post MMP thing (possibly from before the 1996 election, or before the 1999 election), I think Jenny Shipley talking about the review that was promised in terms that didn't match the reality. People have been repeating it since - it's really her political legacy...

Finally - the two flaws you point out aren't flaws. I can accept that many people think the electorate seat exception is a problem, for me, it's a partial solution to the problem that is the threshold. Enough people voted for ACT at the last election that it qualified for 4/5 MPs. The people who voted for them deserve parliamentary representation.

That the greater number of people who voted for NZ First didn't get parliamentary representation shows a problem with the theshold (I'd go with no threshold, but at the most I'd set it around the level required for 3 MPs). You don't solve the problem of the lack of parliamentary representation of NZ First voters by removing representation from ACT voters, you solve it by giving representation to NZ First voters. (Ed's note: You can read a recent thread on this issue here).

But more importantly, that candidates can run on both the list and in electorates isn't a flaw, but a design feature. Why should the Green Party be prevented from standing any of its MPs in electorates? Why shouldn't Winston Peters be able to run in Tauranga as well as lead his party? Are you seriously arguing that the 130,000+ people who voted for New Zealand First in 2005 should have been represented in Parliament for the next three years by a party led by Peter Brown because 366 people in Tauranga preferred Bob Clarkson over Winston Peters?

by Raymond A Francis on September 09, 2009
Raymond A Francis

The local paper "Timaru Herald" asked a fairly random group (judging by the photos) which system they preferred

They were 99% in favour of FPP which rather surprised me

So it is not a given that the vote would go that way, but it will be interesting to see what real polling shows

My biggest gripe with MMP is the power it gives to the Party via the list MPs.

Other than that, it seems to work well, there is always going to be problems with the threshold but I rather we did not go the way of Israel with its mass of splinter parties thanks to not having one at all 

by Graeme Edgeler on September 09, 2009
Graeme Edgeler

There is no way, for reasons David Farrer covers, that you can hold a single stage referendum that both asks if the public are content with MMP and (if a majority indicate they are not) also endorses a replacement electoral system.

I'm not proposing one (I think the process last time was good) but I'd argue it is possible. Parliament Passes the following bills before the next election:

  • The Electoral System Referendum Bill
  • The Electoral (Supplementary Member) Bill
  • The Electoral (Single Transferable Vote) Bill
  • The Electoral (First Past the Post) Bill
  • The Electoral (Preferential Vote) Bill

The latter four having contingent commencement clauses, the first setting up a process by which - at the next election - people will be asked to rank the latter four bills, plus the Electoral Act 1993 in order of their preference. The law which gets majority support in the referendum (as one will) is then the law.

They're not going to do it that way of course, but they could. As an aside, we're being told the 2011 vote will be a binding referendum - how exactly (unless they actually pass all those bills I list above before the election)?

by Sam Vilain on September 09, 2009
Sam Vilain

I guess the problem Graeme is that if there is a single question: which voting system do you want most, then say if 20% vote STV, 35% vote MMP, 45% vote FPP, then FPP would win and a bunch of people who wanted proportional voting would lose.

However I disagree that it is possible to cover in a single referendum.  You could of course skip the voting system names entirely and ask Yes/No questions which can be used to infer them, eg:

  • When you vote, do you primarily vote for a Political Party which represents your views or a particular Local Representative?
  • Would you prefer a single vote (resulting in a vote for a party or candidate not meeting the threshold being "lost") or being able to vote for multiple candidates/parties, in order of preference (more complicated, but resulting in more votes affecting the result)?
  • Do you think that party's total seats should be allocated based on the total number of votes the party gets across the country (resulting in 'list' MPs), or purely elected regional candidates (resulting in non-proportional outcome)?

I don't know if those questions above fully distinguish the different options on the table, but you get the picture ... instead of giving people cryptic acronyms they need to be into politics to understand, ask plain English questions which also make for a clearer mandate.

There should be another question IMHO too:

  • Do you think that there should be a minimum threshold of 5% for parties to enter Parliament, or a much lower threshold, such as enough votes for a full seat?
by Graeme Edgeler on September 09, 2009
Graeme Edgeler

I guess the problem Graeme is that if there is a single question: which voting system do you want most, then say if 20% vote STV, 35% vote MMP, 45% vote FPP, then FPP would win and a bunch of people who wanted proportional voting would lose.

Thus, my proposal (which I again note, I'm not really proposing), that people rank the electoral systems. In your example, because no system got a majority (over 50%) on first preferences, the second preferences of the 20% who initially chose STV would be counted, and MMP would probably get over 50% and would win.

I would note that because some changes to the electoral system require the amendment of reserved sections, these potentially require a majority vote in a referendum (i.e. more than 50%). A 45% vote for FPP over a vote split between STV and MMP might not be enough. How this would play out is unclear - you could pass a law saying that the system that got the highest vote in a referendum would become the law, but the Clerk/Speaker could well muck around with that law in the committee stage of the bill - ruling that certain clauses - passed without a 75% majority in Parliament - were stripped from the bill.

It could get incredibly messy, and I'm guessing the Government really doesn't want to go there.

by Andrew Geddis on September 09, 2009
Andrew Geddis

Graeme,

So many points for discussion!

By 2014 almost no-one under the age of 40 will have been asked what they thought of other electoral systems. That's not to say we need a referedum on the electoral system every quarter century, but the idea that we decided this some time ago doesn't really hold water.

Well, if your argument is that we need a referendum to give people under 40 (actually, it's more like people under 34) a say, then you are arguing that there should be referendum on the voting process every 25 years! Unless you think today's 13 year olds somehow can be bound by this referendum forever more, but you shouldn't be bound by what us old geezers did in the early '90s? The more important point, I'd suggest, is that in 1992/3 there was an unparalleled crisis of confidence in the electoral/political process that needed resolved. Those social conditions simply do not exist today ... so having a referendum just for the hell of it (or because of some hazy suggestion by Jenny Shipley at the tail end of a dying government)  is (I reiterate) plain silly.

Finally - the two flaws you point out aren't flaws.

Agreed that reasonable minds may differ here - I should have written "perceived flaws" or "claimed shortcomings". Personally, I think the "one electorate MP" exception is a poor "fix" to the problem of a too-high threshold. It essentially gives the voters of Epsom (or Ohariu-Belmont; or Wigram) the say over what shape Parliament (maybe even Government) will take. Better to dump it and actually face up to what a proper party vote threshold should be. As for the electorate/list candidate split ... this would be a way to counter the complaint people raise about not knowing which list MPs are likely to be elected (i.e. having to look down to list MP number 40 or below to see who your party vote is likely to bring in). But I wouldn't die in a ditch over the issue.

I'm not proposing one (I think the process last time was good) but I'd argue it is possible. Parliament Passes the following bills before the next election:

Hmmm ... so in the next 2 years Government nuts out the fine detail of legislation to implement 4 different voting systems, educates the public on the content of all 4 systems (as these would be implemented by the particular Bills) as well as reminds them of how MMP works, and hopes like hell you are right that there is a majority preference for one over the other (and not mass confusion!) Possible in theory, maybe.

by Graeme Edgeler on September 09, 2009
Graeme Edgeler

Personally, I think the "one electorate MP" exception is a poor "fix" to the problem of a too-high threshold. It essentially gives the voters of Epsom (or Ohariu-Belmont; or Wigram) the say over what shape Parliament (maybe even Government) will take. Better to dump it and actually face up to what a proper party vote threshold should be.

I think that must be right. The argument against the one electorate MP exception tends to be directed at, for example, Rodney Hide bringing MPs in on his coattails. When it's presented like that, I've tended to argue "no - enough voters voted for ACT to get 5 MPs, it's only right that they get their MPs".

But expressing it in terms of the voters of the electorate, rather than the MP/party leader, brings a different perspective. Enough voters in Epsom voted for Rodney that they got Rodney - they're weren't enough supportive voters in Epsom to earn ACT 5 MPs. If MMP is supposed to guarantee that all votes are equal, allowing this as a threshold exception clearly means that they are not.

Possible in theory, maybe.

I was only arguing the theory!

And using it as an implicit argument against a one-step process: This is what it would take to have a fair one-step process; our Parliament isn't up to it, so they shouldn't do it.

by Luc Hansen on September 10, 2009
Luc Hansen

There are lots of complication in this, for sure.  My first reaction to the proposal was that there is just no way the country would go back to FPP but then I remembered that when I was a callow youth I thought fair dinkum Kiwis would never elect a rogue elephant by the name of Muldoon.  Duh.

Would National really want to go back to FPP just when they are getting the hang of MMP?

Ray's example of Israel is a little misleading as that country exists under conditions of enormous stress which is reflected in its Knesset representation.

True democracy would entail no threshold.  The threshold acts to disenfranchise a segment, however small, of the population.  It's a relic form the past and should go.  I would vote for that.

by stuart munro on September 11, 2009
stuart munro

The problem, Luc, is that parliament can be expected to act, not to preserve the franchise of their constituencies, but to extent the fiat of the ruling elite. To these MMP is a regressive step, and the threshold should if possible be raised. Only a 2 party dog and pony show can reliably prevent the discussion of issues, like economic reform, that both want permanently off the agenda.

by Andrew Geddis on September 11, 2009
Andrew Geddis

Luc,

I'm not sure that the default alternative to MMP is a "pure" FPP system. John Key previously has expressed interest in/support for the "Supplementary Member" system - which basically is FPP with a little bit of proportionality added on top. It may or may not be coincidence that this now appears to be the preferred option of Peter Shirtcliffe - the eminence grise in the battle to junk MMP

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.