The National Government isn't going to bother even thinking about the Electoral Commission's recommendations to reform MMP. I wish that they'd told us this was the plan before we spent our time and effort engaging with the issue.

So it looks like the Electoral Commission's review of MMP, complete with recommended changes to fix those parts that haven't been working that well, is dead. As I intimated in this post, I'm not overly surprised by this fact. However, it does piss me off quite a bit.

Explaining why that is the case requires a bit of a trip down memory lane. This may be somewhat lengthy and winding, but I hope the destination justifies the ride.

You may remember we had a referendum vote at the 2011 election on whether to keep MMP or change to another voting system. The only reason why that referendum took place was that National had promised to have one back when first elected in 2008, and wanting to appear all honest and trustworthy upon coming into office, it thought it should carry through with its commitment.

Of course, the referendum itself was a complete waste of time (and several millions of dollars) - as I pointed out at the time it was announced:

[W]hatever the motivation behind [National's promise], 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 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.

I reiterated that claim in a later post where I argued;

[M]y own view is that MMP has been good for New Zealand, and that there is no good reason to change from it now. (Whether in the abstract MMP is a better voting system than, say, STV is a different question ... my point is rather that MMP is the system we have and it is not failing badly enough to justify the cost and uncertainties of moving from it.) Furthermore, irrespective of my personal evaluative views, my empirical prediction always has been that barring a major political upheaval such as the complete collapse of the current National-led governing arrangement, a majority of voters will choose to stay with the status quo of MMP.

So it was no surprise whatsoever to me that the referendum delivered a stronger endorsement for MMP than the original 1993 referendum did: 58-42, as opposed to 54-46. We spent a lot of time, money and effort simply confirming what anyone with a half-decent grasp of the dynamics of electoral change could have told you was the case.

Interestingly, it appears John Key himself is a somewhat late convert to this point of view. As recounted by Jon Johansson in the comment thread of this post;

When the PM launched our post-election book 'Kicking the Tyres' a couple of weeks ago he lamented holding the MMP referendum (which he blames, increduously, on Don Brash) and said he wished it had, instead, been on the length of the electoral cycle. That was the second time in a month I'd heard this from the PM.

Snarkiness aside, the point is that National decided off its own bat back in 2008 that it was really, really important that the public revisit the issue of what electoral system we use to elect our MPs. And having made this decision, National moved to introduce the legislation necessary to allow the referendum to be held. The then Minister of Justice, Simon Power, did an exemplary job of designing that legislation, while the National Party's MPs were also to be commended for compromising with those who believed spending caps on referendum advertising was a necessary part of a fair voting process. So in terms of how the referendum was structured and conducted, you'll hear no complaints from me.

However, having run this referendum and seen the voters decide they wanted to keep MMP, the process adopted by the National Government did not end. Built into the legislation providing for the referendum was a requirement that if the voters chose to retain MMP, the Electoral Commission had to review how various aspects of that voting system were performing and make recommendations on any changes it felt necessary. As a part of that review, the Commission was statutorily required to engage in a process of public consultation.

And so we had two rounds of the Commission hearing from the general public (which, of course, includes supporters of all sorts of political parties and ideologies, as well as normal people). The first one attracted some 4,600 submissions from 5,800 people on the various issues the Commission had to consider. Following its hearing from these submitters, the Commission produced an initial proposals paper, complete with suggested recommendations. After another round of public consultation, in which another 1000 submissions were made, it formalised these recommendations in its final report.

Before we remind ourselves of what the Commission said, let's just pause and consider the status of its report and recommendations. They are by no means legally binding on the Government (much less on Parliament). The Commission's views are just that - its views. However, those views belong to three independent, impartial individuals who have been tasked to consider the problems with MMP, receive the public's views on the matter and say what should be done about them. Some of the views it heard may have been no more than knee-jerk responses to things that happened during the 2008 election campaign. But a reasonable number of them were highly reasoned and backed up with substantial evidence. So in terms of assessing both what is the public mood regarding MMP's various rules, as well as what is the range of expert opinion on those rules, the Commission is in a far better position than any other body in New Zealand.

What, then, did the Commission say needed to change with respect to how MMP operates? Well, not all that much. Its general approach was "if things ain't clearly broken, they shouldn't be fixed". And after examining issues like how political parties select their candidates, whether list candidates should be allowed to run in electorate seats, and whether list MPs should be allowed to contest by-elections, it concluded there weren't really problems with MMP at all.

However, there was one area in which it did recommend some fairly major change. With regards the "thresholds" that parties must cross in order to gain representation in Parliament, the Commission said that the "electorate lifeboat" rule that permits parties with an MP elected from a constituency to gain additional list seats ought to be dumped. And to compensate, the Commission also recommended lowering the party vote threshold from 5% to 4%.

Now, you may or may not think this was the right call by the Commission. My own preferred approach was to see the electorate lifeboat rule dropped, with the party vote threshold lowered to 2.5%. However, here's the thing. As I noted when defending the Commission's decision here, the large majority of submissions wanted to see a party vote threshold set at 4% or higher. So for the Commission to come out and say that MMP ought to be changed to include a significantly lower party vote threshold (say, my preferred 2.5%) would raise real legitimacy problems - exactly why should the Commission's view (or my view, for that matter) as to what a "proper" electoral system must look like trump the expressed views of the several thousand New Zealanders who gave their opinion on this matter?

Anyway, that's what the Commission presented to the Government. A report with fairly conservative recommendations for improving MMP, based upon the best evidence the Commission could get on the issue and reflective of the majority sentiments of the thousands of people who took the time and effort to tell it what they wanted to see in their electoral system. And what did the Government then do with it?

Well, as far as can be seen, the Minister of Justice wrote a letter to the other political parties in Parliament asking them what they thought of the report and its recommendations. And when some of those parties said they didn't like it, she (and the rest of the Government she sits in) decided to ignore it completely.

As I said at the outset, this pisses me off for a number of reasons.

First of all, there's the sheer bad faith involved in opening up the issue of electoral reform and inviting the ordinary public to participate directly in what they are told is a process of improving their electoral system so that it reflects the rules they think it ought to have, only to turn around and say that because the political parties who fight elections under those rules aren't happy with the outcome of that process, nothing will change. And then we have parliamentary select committees that wonder why voting rates in New Zealand might be dropping.

(Furthermore, I know that the original decision to have the Electoral Commission review MMP was driven by Simon Power, and the current Minister Judith Collins has not always looked kindly on his actions whilst he occupied her office. But I'd have thought a Government that is proposing to tie its successors to a policy for a period of thirty five years might at least be able to maintain some consistency in approach from one term to the next.)

Second, the claim that consensus amongst political parties is a necessary pre-requisite to changing the rules of MMP is a transparent ex post facto excuse to avoid having to do what the Commission recommends. The point is so obvious it hardly needs making, but I'll do so in bolded italics anyway.

If the National Government had simply wanted to see if other parties thought MMP needed changing in any particular way, it could just have asked them ... or, at most, set up a parliamentary committee to look at the matter rather than engage the Commission.

But that would have been a complete waste of time, because quite clearly the parties in Parliament are not going to all agree on whether and how to change the rules of MMP (especially with regard to the rules that get parties into Parliament in the first place). Which is why the Commission was tasked with this job - because it could produce a recommendation that was free from the overt biases and partisan calculations that the parties inevitably will bring to bear. So to now say "the Commission's recommendations were only ever going to be followed if all the parties agreed with them" is to, in effect, say "the Commission's recommendations were never going to be followed." In which case, we're back to my first gripe - why did the National Government set out to waste my time (and the time of all the others who engaged in the review process) in this way?

Third, there's the giant elephant in the room. If adopted, the threshold rules that the Commission proposed will make it much harder for National and its allies to win re-election in 2014. You may very well think that without the chance of some coat-tailing list MPs following them into the House, John Banks' and Peter Dunne's chances in their respective electorates would take a hit. And even if they do return as effectively independent electorate MPs, any additional party votes they attract would almost certainly be wasted. So when Judith Collins says there was no "consensus" as to the Commission's recommendations, what she really means that her Government and its allies decided they didn't like what those recommendations meant for their immediate future prospects.

Now, I accept that the partisan impact of the rule changes cuts both ways. I'm sure part of the reason that Labour and the Greens are so supportive of the Commission's recommendations is that they think they will have just this effect on National and its allies. So I wouldn't have been completely averse to seeing the Government introduce legislation to adopt the Commission's recommendations for the 2017 election, thereby allowing another electoral cycle to pass before their impact took effect.

But to reject outright the changes proposed by the Electoral Commission smacks of the rankest partisan gerrymandering to me - just as did Labour's decision to introduce the Electoral Finance Bill without cross-party negotiations on its content. The media, and one newspaper in particular, had a lot to say about that particular episode in New Zealand's electoral law history.

Let's see what they have to say about this one.

Comments (20)

by onsos on May 15, 2013
onsos

Any bets as to how many column inches the Herald will commit to questioning this decision?

by Andrew Geddis on May 15, 2013
Andrew Geddis

Here is Audrey Young's "scathing" take on the issue from today's paper. You could go back in time and compare it to, say, this article on the Electoral Finance Bill.

And here is John Armstrong's take on the issue just after the Commission reported its recommendations to the Government. Short version - "all the parties have vested interests, so it really doesn't matter what any of them do (or don't do)." That's top commentary from "New Zealand's Best Columnist".

by Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere on May 15, 2013
Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere

Andrew,

I know that the original decision to have the Electoral Commission review MMP was driven by Simon Power, and the current Minister Judith Collins has not always looked kindly on his actions whilst he occupied her office.

Quite. Was there any indication by Simon Power when he was Minister about his plan for the Commission's report? Surely it would have involved something more than simply writing a letter to other parties? It seems astonishing that Judith Collins can't/won't be held to account on this, given the sinking of process seems to be entirely her own doing.

I'm sure part of the reason that Labour and the Greens are so supportive of the Commission's recommendations is that they think they will have just this effect on National and its allies.

Collins said today on Morning Report that she is not going to act as a nanny and shepard the changes; it's not her job as Minister of Justice. Could Labour and the Greens call Collins' bluff and introduce their own bill accepting and implementing the Commission's recommendations? How could National possibly vote against such a bill (at least at its first reading)?

 

 

by Dean Knight on May 15, 2013
Dean Knight

Power did say this:

"But what I can talk about is the process we've adopted for dealing with electoral and constitutional issues.

Our policy, where possible, is to avoid situations where politicians are too heavily involved in the design of any changes.

That only leads to a lack of real engagement in public concerns about the system, and at least the perception that politicians act in self interest. In short, it's like letting panelbeaters design intersections."

http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PA1009/S00047/power-speech-to-reconstituting-the-constitution.htm

by Claire Browning on May 15, 2013
Claire Browning

"The National Government isn't going to bother even thinking about the Electoral Commission's recommendations to reform MMP. I wish that they'd told us this was the plan before we spent our time and effort engaging with the issue."

This is such a familiar story. For environment groups' part, they don't need to tell us it's the plan, because it's transparently obvious.

DOC restructuring. Sweeping RMA reform. The Land and Water Forum. New rules out in the EEZ. There are some instances of course where even the pretence of engagement is dropped: like ramming through the new laws making protest at sea a crime, or Mrs Adams' latest idea that NZers should not be allowed to make submissions on deep sea oil exploration.

"But to reject outright the changes proposed by the Electoral Commission smacks of the rankest partisan gerrymandering to me ..."

You're right: it doesn't smell very good.

I wonder how long it will take, for the penny to drop.

by Ian MacKay on May 15, 2013
Ian MacKay

John Armstrong: "Naked self-interest rules, pure and simple.

Well may the Government try to blame a lack of consensus amongst Parliament's component parties as reason for not implementing the recommendations of the Electoral Commission-conducted review of MMP........

....When it comes to consensus, National is the one which refused to budge in its opposition to arguably the commission's most important and most controversial finding - that the anomalous, outdated one-seat threshold under which minor party list candidates can coat-tail into Parliament on the back of a MP winning an electorate seat should be abolished.

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/opinion/news/article.cfm?c_id=466&objectid=108...

by Andrew Geddis on May 15, 2013
Andrew Geddis

@Marcelo,

Could Labour and the Greens call Collins' bluff and introduce their own bill accepting and implementing the Commission's recommendations?

Only if they can get it pulled from the Members Bill ballot!

@Dean,

Thanks for that reference. When are you going to start blogging again (and a quick "hooray" on same sex marriage doesn't count).

@Claire,

I'm sure that's true. But this time it affected me directly ... which is, in the final analysis, what really matters.

by Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere on May 15, 2013
Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere

Could Labour and the Greens call Collins' bluff and introduce their own bill accepting and implementing the Commission's recommendations?

Only if they can get it pulled from the Members Bill ballot!

Apparently Labour is just about to seek leave to table such a bill (vs. rely on the ballot) they've already drafted. This isn't going away!

@Dean,

Thanks for that reference. When are you going to start blogging again (and a quick "hooray" on same sex marriage doesn't count).

+1!
by Jacob Toner on May 15, 2013
Jacob Toner

I'm not sure I agree this is gerrymandering. The reduction in the threshold and removal of the electorate seat option are likely to reduce the ability of United and ACT to bring in other MPs but will also mean that their party votes shift towards National which could increase the number of centre right seats won. The Conservatives look more likely to have to rely on the 5% threshold rather than the electorate seat route, and so the proposed changes would increase their likelihood of Parliamentary representation, and they are much more likely to support a National administration. On balance I think the proposed changes do little to push the electoral system to be more likely to elect a National led Government than a Labour one under current circumstances.

Personally I think any change to the electoral system should go to a binding referendum rather than be in the hands of politicians. To push through the changes in a divided house without a true mandate from the public would be a step too far in my opinion. I participated in the consultation and advocated for a larger reduction in the threshold, but as pointed out many advocated for increasing it. The fairest route is to put this to a popular vote.

by Andrew Geddis on May 15, 2013
Andrew Geddis

Jacob,

But you can be sure that a consideration in National's decision is how its support partners (on whom it presently relies for power) might react to it introducing legislation that spells their effective demise. So if we focus on "blocs" in Parliament, rather than individual parties, it looks like gerrymandering.

Further, it may be a fair assumption that some (much of?) the residual ACT/UF  party vote would go to National. But would all of it? There's enough extreme views in ACT that some of them may drift off to the Libertarians (or equivalent) ... or choose not to vote at all.

Finally, don't forget that it's useful for National to have someone on its right flank. If nothing else, it provides them with a source for ideas they might want to have as policies, but think might scare off middle-of-the-road voters. Charter schools?

by Jacob Toner on May 15, 2013
Jacob Toner

@Andrew

I think looking at it in blocs may be a useful way to consider the political element of getting the changes through the House. I do however still feel gerrymandering is quite a strong term to retention of the status quo.

 

by Graeme Edgeler on May 15, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

Apparently Labour is just about to seek leave to table such a bill (vs. rely on the ballot) they've already drafted. This isn't going away!

That is not what they did. Rather, Labour sought to introduce a bill that implements some of the Electoral Commissions' recommendations, but not all of them.

by Andrew Geddis on May 15, 2013
Andrew Geddis

@Jacob,

Sure - reasonable minds may differ. I would note, but, that the "status quo" rules were themselves the result of an agreement between Labour and National back in 1993 to raise the party vote threshold from the 4% the Royal Commission recommended to the 5% we currently have.An agreement intended to make it harder for small/new parties to get into Parliament ... .

So "retaining the status quo" has partisan advantages/disadvantages.

by Jane Beezle on May 15, 2013
Jane Beezle

Political parties behaving badly.

The funniest thing about this all stems from the promise National made for a referendum on MMP as part of the 2008 campaign.

Cast your mind back - it was the "anti - Electoral Finance Act" campaign.  The referendum was promised to capitalise on the frenzy of ill-feeling toward that legislation.

But now, one and a half Parliamentary terms later, the dust has settled on that referendum and bitten National in the arse.  Because the public didn't want a choice on MMP.  They wanted a better MMP system, and one that National has clearly decided is not a politically palatable.

The unfunny thing is that the referendum cost around $11 million to run as part of the 2011 election - a big writeoff in these financially straitened times.  Then around $4 million or so to run the review ...

 

by Ross on May 15, 2013
Ross

The unfunny thing is that the referendum cost around $11 million to run as part of the 2011 election - a big writeoff in these financially straitened times.  Then around $4 million or so to run the review ...

I think the review cost $1.6 million, if I'm not mistaken. But you're right, a lot of money has been spent on getting this far and it seems to have all been in vain.

by Jane Beezle on May 16, 2013
Jane Beezle

The NZ Herald editorial is on point.

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/opinion/news/article.cfm?c_id=466&objectid=108...

A poor showing on "consensus" by the National Party for naked political reasons.

Is it any wonder that the public is disillusioned with its democratic system?  Endless flip flops on memory; big noting over dinner; and now playing monopoly with electoral rules.  The announcement was made out of the side of Judith Collin's mouth in Parliament when it was as they hope it will be swallowed up between Gilmore and the Budget.

I don't think they should be allowed to get away with it.  Labour burned in hell over electoral finance reform, and the statute book now looks remarkably like their first "unholy" effort.  

I'm interested to know Ross where you get $1.6 million from, and whether that just includes the cost of publishing review documents and advertising (which I'd be very surprised if it came to just $1.6m) or also the price of employing some expensive public servants for the planning, admin, writeup.  It sounds on the very thin side.

by Jacob Toner on May 16, 2013
Jacob Toner

The announcement was made out of the side of Judith Collin's mouth in Parliament when it was as they hope it will be swallowed up between Gilmore and the Budget.

Jane, the "annoucement" was in response to a question from Green MP Holly Walker, so the timing was not political at all unless there is some collusion between National and the Greens.

by Ross on May 16, 2013
Ross
by Dean Knight on May 17, 2013
Dean Knight

Andrew and Marcelo:

I fear the shackles of an in-progress PhD means bloggage will be light until it's done.

But, anyways, when are you guys joining the Twitter? #140characters 

by George Hendry on May 18, 2013
George Hendry

I wonder, Claire, which penny you're referring to - you're welcome to elaborate.

Jane, I read the editorial and responses to it, which indicate at least 98% dissatisfaction with National's response. Presumably the government thinks it can get away with it - if so, how might they go about it?

Andrew, I listened to your comments on national radio - eloquently put, no ums and aahs to bedevil the flow, and thankfully no interruptions from the panel. But, do we want to do anything real and constructive about it?

As I've noted elsewhere on this site, all the government needs to be able to do to justify thumbing its nose at its citizens' democratic concerns is to point to its constantly favourable poll results and infer from them that most people are happy with it. And all it needs to have such high ratings is to manipulate the results in secret, hardly improbable given how much else it has been caught out doing in secret.

I think we know that we still have MMP at all because a big enough group of citizens knew enough to take no notice of polls, but campaigned steadily and effectively because they knew MMP was the most equitable system NZ has had, were determined to keep it, and rightly expected opposition to it from a wealthy elite with well-published links to the current government.

I hope that this is not seen as off point, and will someone please explain the presumed authenticity of the polls with which this site is associated.

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