Why would I choose to make my vote less equal? Or, the growing challenge from the Supplementary Member system and how MMP can adapt and triumph in the referendum

The battle lines over the referendum on MMP are chrystal clear now that the Judith Tizard list fiasco has washed over the body politic.

The editorial wailing over Labour's so-called rorting of the list rankings system – aided and abetted by the usual hopelessly partisan noise from the blogs – all point to the inevitable elevation of Supplementary Member (SM) by those opposed to our current electoral system.

In this vein Dominion Post columnist Richard Long – National's Chief-of-Staff in earlier times – damned the list as a "blatantly undemocratic by-product of MMP." He concluded by saying we shouldn't tinker with MMP but adopt a better electoral system. Long then offers SM as the answer because it maintains an element of proportionality and would encourage, like MMP, more women and minority candidates (even though all international research simply debunks Long's assertion: in fact, the more disproportional an electoral system the fewer women and minorities we will see in our parliament).

Long naturally doesn't reflect on the obvious absurdity of his own argument. Supplementary Member still has a list, albeit a smaller one, so doesn't remotely address the Tizard problem, which would continue unabated under the rules of SM. What would fix it would be for Labour to simply mimic National's current rule, that all its candidates need to get board (read: party) approval before accepting any offer from the Chief Electoral Officer to replace a retiring, resigning or otherwise disgraced member.

Or, if MMP is retained, any number of equally simple solutions can be made. I like the idea that all candidates who fail to gain representation form a candidate's pool so that in the event of an MP leaving mid-term, parties can then weigh up in light of their changed circumstances who amongst that pool is now considered the best fit to come in. Non-problem solved.

The MMP list is also less an undemocratic by-product of MMP as a perfectly natural one that has shown positive benefits in our village democracy.

In a country with only a tiny pool of available political talent, the list has allowed some individuals to enter politics who otherwise would or could not. Indeed a significant proportion of the current National Cabinet's intellectual heft is provided by two of its list MPs, Tim Groser and Chris Finlayson. The Cabinet's chief fixer – Steven Joyce – is likewise a child of the list system.

Another argument against MMP is the tail-wags-the-dog phenomenon. Expect to see billboards elevating Winston Peters as the exemplar of this. Trouble is, if one looks at the actual operation of MMP since 1996 the problem has been less the extortions made by minor parties than one of the-tail-falling-off-the-dog. Members of the Alliance, NZ First, and now the Maori and Hide Party's probably find little solace in what MMP critics describe as their holding National and Labour-led governments to ransom.

The eventual framing by SM advocates will go something like this: SM is a half-way house between MMP and FPP. It is NOT. SM's properties do not make it MMP-lite. Instead SM is merely First-Past-the-Post with lipstick. Let me explain why.

In a perfectly proportional electoral system disproportionality would be zero. This would means that every vote is perfectly equal. In the five MMP elections held since '96 the disproportionality of MMP has averaged 2.98%. Contrast that with FPP electoral systems, where the disproportionality index exponentially rises to around 13.56% on average. Two of my colleagues, Professors Stephen Levine and Nigel Roberts, have analysed our election data to also reveal that had SM been in force since 1996 the disproportionality would have been 9.54%.

What this means, and what you certainly won't hear from proponents of SM, is that if we were to move to SM our votes would cease to be as near equal as they are now. People's votes in key marginal electorates would be worth far more than votes in clear Labour or National-held electorates.

Worse still, over time it's inevitable that SM would deliver us an effective three-party system, one comprising National, Labour and (currently) the electorate-driven Maori Party, with the latter party deciding each close election.

There are also several compelling reasons to maintain the status quo by voting to retain MMP at the referendum, not least to trigger an independent review by non-politicians to sort out the obvious anomalies.

Like the distortion of National proxy Hide's multiplier effect from being ceded Epsom to bring in four additional Act Party members with only 3.65% of the vote versus NZ First gaining no representation after receiving 4% of the vote at the 2008 election. Or like the problem of the list whereby MPs rejected by voters in electorates are nonetheless returned via the list, and like the so-called Tizard problem of between-elections change.

The most positive reasons to support MMP, other than keeping our votes as equal between us as they can be include: its indisputable contribution to making us a more representative democracy, with greater female and ethnic representation, thereby better mirroring New Zealand society; second, MMP's goodness-of-fit in anticipating our dramatically changing demographics.

Finally, what really worries me, as a supporter of retaining MMP, is if a second electoral system change was made within a generation how easy will it be – especially if we choose a significantly more disproportional system like SM – for future generations to change the system again and then, at what point, will we potentially have electoral system instability.

I suspect that the SM campaign can only run on smoke and mirrors. It can't promote SM in terms of the issues I have raised here – try promoting the concept that SM will see our votes less equal than now, or that it will facilitate a less representative democracy, or that it cannot match MMP in adapting to our changing demography, or that it might potentially create a maladaptive path dependency leading to greater electoral system instability.

MMP, for all of its annoyances, has served us very well, especially for those of us who endured being in the harness during the 'elective dictatorship' between 1984-92. The change to MMP was also entirely consistent with the history of the franchise in New Zealand in that we have always moved in the direction of more and greater democracy.

Any advocacy on behalf of SM that posits that it is a half-way house between FPP and MMP is pure snake-oil sophistry. Expect during the next eight months to be served up a lot of it. But then ask yourself this: Why would I willingly choose to make my vote less equal than it is today?

Comments (19)

by Judy Martin on April 08, 2011
Judy Martin

"Or like the problem of the list whereby MPs rejected by voters in electorates are nonetheless returned via the list"

I'm surprised to see you including this old chestnut in your list of things that could be "sorted out" in a review of MMP. A candidate who does not win a particular electorate may nonetheless be placed high on a list to represent a national "community of interest". Jeanette Fitzsimons springs to mind.

Also, how many electorate MPs are clearly selected by a majority of electorate voters? Not all, I suspect. Does this invalidate them as well?



by Dr Jon Johansson on April 08, 2011
Dr Jon Johansson

Judy - It is an old chestnut for many people, which is why I included it, but my own view is that the electoral market effectively takes care of it. If a party is seen to be rewarding too many party loyalists rejected by voters in an electorate these same voters tend to react negatively, causing political problems for said party (think: Labour after the 2005 election). The only aspect of the review that I feel strongly about is the one-seat rule. That most certainly requires change. It would also help to reduce the already low disproportionality of MMP even further. 

by onsos on April 08, 2011

Nice piece, Dr Jojhansson.

Further to the 'elected dictatorships' from 1984 onwards, you might add Muldoon's National government, particularly from 1981 when they won less votes than Labour, but were returned to govern nonetheless. Proportionality is integral to the democratic process.


by Graeme Edgeler on April 08, 2011
Graeme Edgeler

Thank you for copying your piece over here (and it's good to see you back). I thought when reading Long's piece in the 'paper that he was doing a very good job of presenting arguments against himself. If his concern was as was stated, then his solution was STV, not another list-based system.

The only aspect of the review that I feel strongly about is the one-seat rule. That most certainly requires change. It would also help to reduce the already low disproportionality of MMP even further.

Abolishing the one-seat rule would increase disproportionality, not lower it.

The Gallagher index of the 2008 election was 3.84%. Without a one-seat exemption, the Gallagher index would have been 5.75%.

Denying the 85k ACT voters the 3.65% of Parliament (4 or 5 seats) their votes should get them is obviously going to increase disproportionality, not least because not only would ACT voters be vastly under-represented, National and Labour voters would be even more over-represented (National would get two extra seats - taking them to 60 - and Labour three more).

You do not decrease disproportionality by denying ACT voters their proper representation in addition to denying it to NZ First voters, you decrease disproportionality by giving both sets of voters their appropriate level of representation.

I had, until late last year, supported the one-seat rule precisely because its existence lowered disproportionality. It was a mechanism to remedy the distorting impact of the threshold (which increases disproportionality). In the end, the desire for equality of votes between Epsom voters and others won me 'round, but I'd very much like to see the threshold lowered, if we must have one, then 2.5% seems about right to me.

by Ian MacKay on April 08, 2011
Ian MacKay

The hooha about Judith Tizzard seemed contrived I suppose to undermine MMP.

Doesn't National have a clause that allows the Party/Caucus the right of veto over the appointment of the next on the List? At least the final decision for those next on the Labour List was their own decision.

by stuart munro on April 08, 2011
stuart munro

There is a fair to middling chance that MMP will be displaced - any reigning system is prone to being overturned when the economic outcomes are sufficiently poor.

Whatever else MMP has delivered, it has not delivered governments prepared to grapple with New Zealand's Treasury induced long term economic decline. Historically, systems tend to get punished for that.

by Morgan Jones on April 08, 2011
Morgan Jones

I've often wondered if MMP could be adjusted so that the list is not filled by the party itself but instead by how well their candidates did in their electorate - i.e, the candidates that lost their electorate by a very small margin would be placed at the top of the list and those that came a very distant second ranked near the bottom.


I'm sure this has some inherent flaws I've not thought of but I think it would solve the current issues with the list while also encouraging more MP commitment and competition in their electorates.

by Dr Jon Johansson on April 08, 2011
Dr Jon Johansson

Onsos - agree.

Graeme - quite right you are, although I didn't extend my thought, which concerns the trade-off between abolishing the one-seat rule and lowering the threshold. That is, if the one-seat rule is changed and the quid pro quo is a lowered threshold we might conceivably improve proportionality but it is dependent, as you know, on what new level of threshold was established. I've never attempted the maths to see what that lowered threshold would need to be so any further thoughts would be appreciated.  

Ian - In National's case it's the board. I totally agree with your sentiment. I was staggered to see the Prime Minister's musings about Labour's lack of transparency in the Tizard biz go unchallenged given; a) the whole mess played out entirely publicly for days, and; b) National's rule guarantees the absence of transparency. Strange times. 

by Andrew Geddis on April 08, 2011
Andrew Geddis


Re National's rule ... they may say this, but they couldn't actually enforce it in law. So if the next person on the list (the equivalent to Judith Tizard) were to say "I don't care what the Board says, I'm coming to Parliament anyway", there's nothing National could do to stop them.

Of course, the Party then could expel the new MP from the caucus/Party and force them to sit as an independent ... but they'd lose an MP.

by Dr Jon Johansson on April 08, 2011
Dr Jon Johansson

Andrew - No doubt and no dispute from me, I just don't think it would play out that way in practice. A quiet word in a chap's ear (and chances are it would be a chap) seems to have worked well for the party during its history. In contrast, and I think back to Labour's last term in office particularly, I always found it ironic that all of Labour's so-called attacks on democracy and lack of transparency ended up as such protracted public spectacles. Whereas...I still don't know why Richard Worth resigned.  

by Iain Butler on April 08, 2011
Iain Butler

Great article Jon,

I still don't quite know what the 'problem' with the MMP list is, anyway.

Defeated candidates "sneaking back into Parliament by the back door", as Anthony Hubbard put it in the Star-Times? they're only performing the same act of sneakery that list MPs who don't contest an electorate do.

Besides, barring an electoral walk of shame (as Hubbard argues for) would have ruled out the "rising star" Darren Hughes from the House this term, and Act founding leader Richard Prebble would have been barred from getting a foot in the door, having been turfed out of his electorate in '93.

The list is less democratic? How? Do you ever get to choose your spread of electorate candidates?

And if you think about it, the results of an electorate contest don't come with anything like the voter-determined sanctity that MMP opponents seem to think they do. Marginal seats are virtually always 'won' with less than half the vote, and in a blue- or red-robbon seat, how many of those massive majorirties are due to voters of another persuasion not bothering to cast a wasted ballot?

List MPs are annonymous do-nothings? Heard of Steven Joyce? Don Brash? Rodney Hide? Equally to the point, who could pick Jo Goodhew, Paul Hutchison or Iain Lees-Galloway out of a line-up?

Richard Long's condemnation of list "tinkering" is even more specious - who but the most obsessive-compulsive democracy devotee casts their ballot on the strength of the party's choice at number 35?

MMP allows parties to uncouple talent from geographical representation and allows mutliple MPs (Kris Fa'afoi and Hekia Parata for example) to take constituent concerns to Parliament.

Why on earth would we chuck that away because some people don't like Judith Tizard?

by Draco T Bastard on April 08, 2011
Draco T Bastard

The list is more democratic not less as the MPs on the list can be held to account far more easily than electorate MPs. Richard Worth and Darren Hughes resigned (probably with encouragement from on high) and was suitably removed from parliament when things went south for them. Philip Field got kicked out of the party but couldn't be kicked out of parliament because of his electoral seat. I suppose this could be changed by adding a recall option to electorate seats but it will still be far more complex to hold an electorate MP to account than a list MP.

As for the one seat tail... The solution is simple - a 0.8% (1/120) threshold. If a party gets enough votes nationwide for one seat then they should have one seat. It is inexcusable in a democracy that we should be preventing people from having their desired representation.

One other modification I'd like to see to MMP is electorate seats being voted on via STV.

by Andrew R on April 08, 2011
Andrew R

Why have electorates at all?  After all this is a nation-wide election for parties to represent us.  Why not just a party vote?

by Toby on April 09, 2011

I don't really agree with the criticism of defeated electoral MPs still being able to enter parliament via the list. if the rule was that a defeated electoral candidate could not then be a list MP, wouldn't the result be that any talented individual whose party wanted them in parliament would be encouraged to remain as a list candidate until they could be parachuted into a safe seat?

a system of representation should be judged on the strength of the connection between the representative and their constituents, and the above situation would weaken that connection - not only by denying the candidate the experience of being  an electoral candidate, and dealing directly with the concerns of their constituents, but also by creating further division between the party head office and the grassroots electorate members of a safe seat like Botany or Mt Albert when a promising list candidate is forced on them.

by The Falcon on April 09, 2011
The Falcon

Ugh this post just about puts me off MMP.

1) Why do we care about ensuring women/minorities are represented? Why not just pick the best person for the job, rather than appointing tokens from every demographic even if they're incompetent? For example, I would prefer Parliament to be staffed by 120 Judith Collins clones than 120 John Key clones, even though John Key supposedly "represents" my gender better.

2) Why do left-wing commentators always focus on ACT getting less votes than NZ First and getting into Parliament? Yes it was unfair - but the Maori Party rorted the electorate system FAR worse than Act. 2% of the vote vs 3.65%, yet both parties have 5 MPs. Worse still, Rodney Hide at least won a legitimate electorate, whereas the Maori Party won race-based seats.


I'm pretty much a fan of MMP, but if you want the wider public to get behind MMP you need to stop making it out to be a sooky left-wing system obsessed with electing tokens from every demographic. Otherwise no one will vote to keep it.

by Richard on April 09, 2011

Andrew R: Why have electorates at all?  ...  Why not just a party vote?

Because we wouldn't end up with a geographically representative parliament.

Having some electorates is vital to ensuring that regions are all represented.

Falcon: 1) Why do we care about ensuring women/minorities are represented?

Because the government governs women and minorities too. It's immoral to try to govern people without ensuring that they are represented in the government itself. Even if that wasn't an issue, it is more stable long-term to ensure good representation of minorities in government. Failure to present a convincingly representative government eventually leads to revolution.

Falcon: Why not just pick the best person for the job, rather than appointing tokens from every demographic even if they're incompetent?

Nobody advocates picking incompetent people for government. 

What is advocated is that competent people are picked who are also representative of the governed population. It is also significant that who looks competent or not often depends on who is doing the looking,

by The Falcon on April 09, 2011
The Falcon

No. Again, I would vote for a government full of Ayaan Hirsi Ali clones. I wouldn't care that my gender and race wouldn't have a "representative" in Parliament because I'm not obsessed with identity politics.

Those who obsess over identity politics often have very little else in their life to cling to - e.g. Metiia Turei, who has achieved very little in her life, so tries to compensate by obsessing over the fact that she's Maori and a woman, as if those are somehow achievements.

by Richard on April 09, 2011

Falcon: No. Again, I would vote for a government full of Ayaan Hirsi Ali clones.

Good for you. However, it is not about just making you personally happy.

It is about making all the people who are consenting to be governed, happy about who the government is, and making sure that the government takes into account the views of minorities and that minorities can see that it is doing so.

The most straight-forward way of doing that is making sure that everybody is represented in the government.

by Hesiod on April 18, 2011

more beltway blah.

you tell  you live in a democracy when people argue the point.

Judith tizards observations were not a fiasco. she is entitled to her viewpoint as much as richard long is.

johansson is just trying to generate more work and economic commisions for punditing when he should be thinking about policy instead of the trappings.

why cant all these beltway blags stick to the point instead of trying to be something they are not.

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