Monday, November 2, 2009

To MMP, or not to MMP, that is the question...

Nearly half say they will vote to ditch MMP
4:00AM Monday Nov 02, 2009
By Patrick Gower

The Background:
The campaign to ditch the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system from use in NZ began almost as soon as it was voted in by a referendum in 1993. Proponents of strong government tend to mistrust MMP, while advocates of a weak government tend to support it.

In 1992, when the initial referendum was held, there was a great deal of public dissatisfaction with the governments of the past 10-15 years. New Zealand had changed considerably under the Labour governments' Rogernomics reforms, the impact of the 1987 stock market 'crash', and National Finance Minster Ruth Richardson's "Mother of All Budgets", and people wanted to find something to blame. The electoral system, which had been the subject of a Royal Commission of Inquiry in the 1980s, bore the brunt of the backlash, and people decided to get rid of First Past the Post (FPP) in favour of something else.

As a consequence, a referendum was held in 1992 to ask the voters two questions. The first was whether or not FPP should be replaced by another system, and the second asked which system voters would prefer if FPP was replaced - the choices being MMP, STV (Single Transferable Vote), SM (Supplementary Member system), or PV (Preferntial Voting system). Both STV and PV involve voters ranking the candidates in order of preference, while SM (otherwise known as the Mixed Member Majoritarian system or MMM) reserves a certain number of seats in Parliament for an FPP style electorate vote, and the rest to be determined along MMP lines.

The result of the vote was clear. 84.5% of voters voted to replace FPP, and 70.3% voted for MMP to be the replacement.

As planned, this led to a final and binding referendum in 1993, held in conjunction with the national election to encourage as many people as possible to participate. This was a pure run-off between the existing system, FPP, and the most popular challenger, MMP. Because of concerns about minority governments and increasing the number of MPs from 99 to 120, MMP lost a lot of support, but still won 53.44% of the vote and thus replaced FPP in the 1996 poll and all subsequent elections. NZ has now conducted 5 MMP elections - 1996, 1999, 2002, 2005, and 2008. National has been elected as the majority party in government in the first and last of those elections, while Labour was successful in the three middle ones.

The Situation:

The Herald-DigiPoll survey referred to by the article reveals that some 49% those polled would vote to get rid of MMP in the upcoming 2011 referendum, announced by the Prime Minister last month, while only 35.8% indicated that they would vote to keep it.

If the referendum, to be held at the same time as the next election, indicates that voters want to get rid of MMP, there will be a second referendum - in 2014 - where voters will be given the choice of MMP or another alternative. How that alternative is to be chosen has not been made clear.

Anti-MMP campaigner Peter Shirtcliffe expressed dissatisfaction with the timing of the referendum, arguing that it made any change would take 8 years to implement. However, MMP supporter Metiria Turei, who is also a co-leader of the party that can be said to have prospered most under MMP, believed that the poll simply indicated that more people needed to be educated about MMP, claiming that many people's dissatisfaction may only be with aspects of the system rather than MMP as a whole.

A public education campaign on the referendum will be conducted in the lead-up to the 2011 referendum, with a budget of $6 million.

My opinion
I am not a fan of MMP, but I fear that the public has a short memory. The problem with rule by the masses (aka democracy) is that most people are politically illiterate, and wilfully so. Many people do not take their part in government seriously; they refuse to educate themselves on the matters of importance to them, and often vote blindly or emotively.

FPP was deeply unpopular in the early 1990s. Several governments had been elected, with considerable majorities, despite actually getting less votes overall than the main opposition party. This had allowed governments to force through programmes of considerable change, safe in the knowledge that they had the numbers to vote the changes into law.

If MMP has done anything, it has made governments more responsible.

This does not in any way disguise the flaws of MMP, and there are many. The most notable flaw is that some minor parties have been able to punch well above their weight; the tail wagging the dog, as many critics argue. The status of List MPs has caused some disgust, with many leaving the parties which had got them into Parliament and then retaining their seats as unelected parasites. The problem of MPs getting into Parliament via the Party List after losing popular election for an electorate seat has also riled many. Sue Bradford was a key example of this problem - her unpopular 'Anti-Smacking' legislation has been seized upon as a major shortfall of having unelected MPs driving legislation.

In my opinion, we need some changes, but we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Here are my suggestions to creating a workable political system which will deliver strong government and an effective opposition in a fair manner:

1) Keep the 120 seats. NZers are still under-represented at national level when compared to other countries of our size.

2) Create a cap of 80 electorate seats - 26 for the South Island, 44 for the North Island, and 8 Maori seats. While electoral boundaries may change and shift, the number of seats must remain the same - and the South Island must be guaranteed a minimum of 20 seats no matter what population shifts occur. Including the Maori seats eliminates the chance of an overhang.

3) Create 40 List seats. These seats are voted for by the Party vote, which affects ONLY this category. Thus, if Labour wins 40% of the vote, they win 40% of the List seats in addition to however many electoral seats they win.

4) Retain the 5% threshold (or even increase it to 6%) but eliminate the 'bring-a-mate' policy. If a party wins an electorate seat, so be it - but unless they win 5% of the vote, they cannot bring any other party members in with them. This would eliminate the disproportionate power held by NZ First, the Alliance, ACT, United Future, and the Greens at various times over the past 13 years.

5) List MPs should be entitled to vote on legislation but not permitted to introduce it. Also, prohibit any List MP from being eligible to be Prime Minister - if the leader of the political party which wins the most seats loses theirs, they must step down as PM. Any List MP who defects or is expelled from the party they have been chosen to represent immediately loses their position and status as an MP and is to be replaced by the next person on their party's list.

These changes, to my mind, would make our system fairer and more workable.

And that's my two cents to sense.

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