Thinking about a referendum on MMP

Written By: - Date published: 5:54 pm, May 10th, 2009 - 21 comments
Categories: election 2008, MMP - Tags:

There is an interesting paper by Mai Chen in NZ Lawyer Online about the pros and cons of the referendum on MMP that National has promised by 2011 – “Is the MMP referendum likely to result in electoral reform?”

The current position is that MMP has managed to operate effectively in the NZ environment. Both the parliamentarians and voters have adapted to the changed political environment.

Our political parties have learned to operate under MMP (indeed a dwindling proportion of MPs have first-hand experience of the pre-MMP era), and they have developed constitutional conventions and practices to accommodate MMP, which are now recorded in the Cabinet Manual. Our political culture is now used to ‘agree to disagree’ provisions under different configurations of support which allow coalition governments (mostly minority governments) to govern from day to day.

The article points out the requirements to change the voting system.

Legislative requirement to change or repeal MMP (entrenched)
It does not matter if Labour and all of the minor parties, except ACT, would vote against amending or repealing MMP. National can use the majority at a public referendum to reform this entrenched provision. Under section 268(1)(f) of the Electoral Act 1993 (Act), section 168 of the Act, on the method of voting, can only be repealed or amended if passed by a majority of 75 per cent of all members of the House or if it has been passed by a majority of votes at a poll.

There is considerable discussion about the pros and cons of MMP. But as the author points out

To varying degrees, these problems could be addressed by reforming the MMP system, rather than changing to an alternative.

For the particular effect shown in the 2008 election of ACT getting a smaller vote than NZ First, but being able to get into parliament because of the Epsom electorate result. However the author also suggests that for that particular inequity :-

This could be remedied to some extent by either:

(a) Reducing the threshold to three per cent or removing the threshold altogether, which would likely result in a greater proliferation of smaller parties; or
(b) Requiring all parties to meet the five per cent threshold before they can have any List seats over and above their constituency seats. In the 2008 election, this would have meant that ACT would only have one MP, and the only minor party to obtain any List seats would be the Greens who won 6.72 per cent of the party vote.

Implementing either of these options would only require the amendment of section 191 of the Act, which is not entrenched under section 268 of the same Act.

In other words, with a simple act of parliament.

In discussing the Supplementary Member system that John Key has said would be included in the referendum, there was an interesting analysis of the effect at the 2008 election. Effectively it would have allowed National to govern on its own with a comfortable majority (which is probably why Key favours it being on the referendum list), but with all of the same parties represented in parliament.

The conclusion of the article is

The 1986 report of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform was entitled Towards a Better Democracy. After five MMP elections, it is time to ask whether our democracy has been improved, and if there are further changes that would make it still better. Hence, a referendum, and the debate and discussion it will engender, is welcome. However, the stability of recent MMP governments suggests that while voters may want to contemplate significant tweaking of the MMP system, they are less likely to clamour for fundamental change involving a switch to another electoral system.

I cannot see any particular reason to switch voting systems. There are a few inequites that would be nice to iron out, especially winning an electorate seat and then pulling in list seats. That would get rid of a lot of the tail wagging the dog issues shown with ACT, United Future or Progressives with single electorate MP’s bringing in list MP’s (NZ First managed to poll above 5% except for the last election). However where that has happened, the public has steadily cut back the party percentage votes over time.

There doesn’t seem to me to be any major move in the public to want to shift to a full First Past the Post, or partial FPP system like Single Transferable Vote. The Supplementary Member system looks more like an opportunist system to retain power in the major parties that seems unlikely to interest a voting public used to coalitions. The most likely outcome of a referendum would probably be to keep the status quo.

21 comments on “Thinking about a referendum on MMP ”

  1. Graeme 1

    The article points out the requirements to change the voting system.

    Legislative requirement to change or repeal MMP (entrenched)
    It does not matter if Labour and all of the minor parties, except ACT, would vote against amending or repealing MMP. National can use the majority at a public referendum to reform this entrenched provision. Under section 268(1)(f) of the Electoral Act 1993 (Act), section 168 of the Act, on the method of voting, can only be repealed or amended if passed by a majority of 75 per cent of all members of the House or if it has been passed by a majority of votes at a poll.

    The article overstates this a little. We could abandon MMP for first-past-the-post with a simple majority in Parliament.

    Edit: also, referring to STV as a partial first-past-the-post system is to massively understate the differences.

    • lprent 1.1

      STV is still a FPP system in that it is purely electorate based. There is no party proportional system across the whole country. The only difference is that there is a more complex calc for what is defined as ‘first’. The gerrymander works as well in a STV system as it does in a pure FPP. Manipulate the electoral boundaries and you manipulate the outcomes.

      We have been running politics almost entirely on party lines for over a century and electorate seats always distort the popular vote because of gerrymander, I now favour having a major portion on party proportional lines. It means that the gerrymander is ineffective and elections have to be fought on national issues as well as local.

  2. Sorry LP but you don’t seem to come to a conclusion.

    Are you saying there shouldn’t be a referundum?

    I suspect given your comments that this is the conclusion you would like to draw but given the “democracy under attack” spin here over the Auckland super shitty plans, you’re kind of hoist by your own petard methinks?

    Isn’t this exactly the type of issue that should be settled by a referendum?

    • lprent 2.1

      I thought I stated my conclusion. Yep – last line.

      The most likely outcome of a referendum would probably be to keep the status quo.

    • Anita 2.2

      For me the question isn’t whether it should be settled by referendum (of course it should : ) but what should be the trigger for a referendum and how should the question and/or sequence of questions be set.

  3. Personally I think “What voting system should we have” it is more of a technical question than a values question so probably isn’t the kind of thing to have a referendum on.

  4. What consideration should also be given to the CIR Act 1993, in any election changes? Mai Chen’s partner in crime, former Prime Minister and Professor, Geoffrey Palmer says in his book ‘Bridled Power’… The Act should be repealed. It appears to offer a chance for citizens to influence policy but in substance that opportunity is like a mirage in the desert. Referenda should be reserved for those few and important issues of constitution and conscience that should be bound by the people’s voice.’

    I suggest it’s about time we gave this Act the teeth it deserves, which is to give voters more checks and balances on parliament. It is also the next logical step on from MMP. An important part would also be to include the recall, thereby giving voters the opportunity to remove a List MP that sneeks in through the back door.

    • Pascal's bookie 4.1

      It’s not a back door at all. List MP’s are just as legitimate as electorate ones. Why should an electorate have a veto over the people that voted for the party list?

  5. dave 5

    yeah the SM comparison was interesting, although, unlike lowering of the threshold, wouldn’t have got NZFirst into parliament at the 08 election. National would have taken two off the Greens and one off Act, and the rest off Labour compared to MMP because SM gives more power to electorate seats. In other words if a minor party gets more seats but a smaller proportion of the vote compared to party who gets a little more of the national vote but fewer seats – the former party gets more seats in the House. SM is no good for the Greens – it doesn’t get seats, or Act – its vote is low, and has only one seat, but perfect for the Maori Party.

    Lowering the 5% threshold and altering the list/ elecotrate seat balance in favour ore electorate seats would be more equitable than SM.

    • felix 5.1

      …altering the list/ elecotrate seat balance in favour ore electorate seats would be more equitable than SM

      Why is it desirable to make the system less proportional at all?

  6. inpassing 6

    The CIR 1993 – be gone!

    Losers and loners waste so much money and time and peoples’ patience in pushing short-sightedness into the public opinions’ market place.

    For me, make solid reform out of the party list vote insofar true parity with traditional electorate MP vote status — that is to say Party first not also ran. But party with serious national policies. And implementation.

    • Graeme 6.1

      If we’re going to have CIR, then the Italian model seems a much better idea. Basically, it allows a people’s veto over legislation. Get enough signatures, and you get a referendum at which a legally binding vote is held as to whether a new law is overturned. Certain laws are exempted – the budget, for example – and everyone gets a simple precise question to answer. Meaningful CIR without questions like “Should there be a reform of our Justice system placing greater emphasis on the needs of victims, providing restitution and compensation for them and imposing minimum sentences and hard labour for all serious violent offences?”

      • Ag 6.1.1

        Don’t you think it is at all slightly odd to be recommending a political mechanism that operates in ITALY????

        Italy… the world’s most politically dysfunctional democracy.

        What’s next? Are we going to take our anti-corruption policies from South Korea?

        • Ari

          You know, ad-hominems are uncool in the first place, but you just did it to an entire country. Congratulations.

          Just because Italy has issues doesn’t mean every political idea they have sucks. All those EFA haters could’ve had their day in the court of public opinion, and you can’t tell me that’s bad for the overall health of our democracy, even if it might have stripped back some useful reforms.

  7. SPC 7

    The act of parliament options should be
    1. lower the threshold
    2. require a 5% result before gaining any list MP’s
    3. a combination of the above – whereby a FULL quota of list MP’s is only obtained on getting 5% of the vote, but where the vote is under 5 % only a PARTIAL quota of list seats can be realised (this reduces the zero or 6 seats barrier betwen 4.9 and 5.0%).

    5.0% of the vote a FULL QUOTA of 6 seats.
    4% of the vote a PARTIAL QUOTA 3 list seats (3 list seats + an electorate seat for parties with one).
    3% of the vote 2 list seats, IF also having an electorate seat (total 3 with the electorate seat) .
    2% of the vote 1 list seat, IF also having an electorate seat (total 2 with the electorate seat).

    • nowombats 7.1

      As long as the entry of list seats is dependent on presence of an electorate seat you retain the opportunity for distortions and compacts between parties to force particular electorate results or completely counterintuitive voting – as in the last election where Labour voters should have voted National for the electorate vote.
      The end system must both provide a proportion of seats in parliament that closely reflects the party vote (won’t be precise because of threshold and high Maori electorate votes but low party) and also be easy for voters to vote so that their intentions are fulfilled.

  8. My preference would be to go to 120 List MPs with a 0,8% threshold. It would get rid of the gerrymander and the need for separate Maori seats, all in one go!
    We would then be voting for policies instead of personalities.

  9. dave 10

    hi back now….. I think this is how it works…

    Dropping the MMP threshold and allocating list seats proportionately under a lower threshold is more proportionate than SM as it assists lower parties, as had the MMP threshold been 3% – or 0.8% – or one electorate seat, NZ First and Act would be in Parliament. The Maori Party would gain a list seat.

    However, under SM, NZ First would be out (National would get most of the seats), Act and the Maori Party will have the same as a 3% MMP threshold as a SM list seat only kicks in if the party get 0.8% and an electorate seat.

    But if the threshold was dropped to that 0.8% or one electorate seat, things only change if a party gets between 0.8% and 3%. That’s why dropping the MMP threshold and allocating list seats proportionately under a lower threshold is more proportionate than SM itself. The debate should be how far it is to be dropped, as a party that gets 2.9% and no seats is out under SM, out under a 3% MMP threshold, but in with two seats – under a 0.8% MMP threshold.

    But even with 0.8% we should still keep the Maori seats. Not to do so would mean there would be no constituency Maori MPs in Parliament dedicated to Maori interests.

    • uroskin 10.1

      “But even with 0.8% we should still keep the Maori seats. Not to do so would mean there would be no constituency Maori MPs in Parliament dedicated to Maori interests.”

      With 0.8% threshold list MPs only there would be no constituency MPs, not just no Maori ones. Voters then can adopt their own MP from the 120 instead of the other way round. The last thing we need is narrow-focused sectarian MPs.
      My bet is that there would be far more MPs with Maori links elected than currently are in parliament – and with the added bonus they don’t need to focus on Maori issues only. And this is the case for all other European/Asian/Pacific/gay/women/superannuated members too.

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