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October 2, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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What is our democracy for?

In 1993 Kiwis voted by a slim 53.9 per cent majority to radically transform our voting system.

Instead of a system based on the most votes winning individual constituency seats (first past the post—FPP) we adopted a German style mixed member proportional (MMP) system. Overnight our politics changed from parties needing to win the most individual seats to govern, to a process where party vote branding and negotiating behind closed doors was required to form governments and pass legislation.

During the next eight weeks in the lead up to the election and referendum we are going to be re-examining that decision. We will hear a lot about ‘fairness’, ‘representation’ and ‘accountability’ in our democracy. What voting system ensures that all our votes are fairly attributed? How do we ensure that minority groups in our society have a voice in our Parliament? How do we keep the bastards honest? How much influence should small parties have on a government’s mandate?

The pro-MMP groups want this to be a race between the two extremes: MMP and FPP. The reason Vote for Change are campaigning is to ensure that the three options in the middle, Supplementary Member, Single Transferrable Vote and Preferential Voting examined. How do we achieve some of the benefits MMP has brought us, while minimizing the legitimate criticisms of FPP? For example, the system I personally prefer, Supplementary Member, has the advantages of 30 list MPs, but just as importantly, electorates that matter. Under SM the party vote applies to only the proportion of list MPs. It means that you can give your party vote to one party and your electorate vote to another. The difference to MMP is that the party vote does not trump the other. SM allows for minority representation but keeps the bulk of politicians directly and individually accountable to voters.

Democracy is about accountability but MMP made it accountability to the party bosses.

We all know democracy works not because it picks the best or brightest people for the job, but because it allows us, the voters, to turf rascals out. The ‘threat of the removal van’ has always been the reason democracy ensures that the leaders of our society act responsibly with their power. But having a system where nearly half our MPs are in Parliament because of a list has weakened accountability.

Under MMP electorates are a fiction—for a major party on Election Day a lost electorate is just another list MP (as the party vote proportion applies to the whole 120 parliament). That means that instead of Members of Parliament in a marginal seats standing up for their electorates knowing that they could be booted out if they don’t, under MMP those marginal MPs won’t want to ‘rock the boat’ in caucus, and are far more likely to stick to their party line to ensure that they are protected with a high list ranking. That is not fair and makes 50 of our current MPs focused on keeping their parties rather than keeping voters happy.

Small parties hold the balance of power and can lever laws like VSM.

After every MMP election a small party or parties have held the balance of power. In both the, 1996 and the 2005 elections, the ultimate winner was chosen by one man, Winston Peters. After each election MMP leads to effectively a bidding war, a courtship, by National and Labour to whoever is the balance of power. Vote for Change says that’s not fair.
Some say that it is an acceptable compromise to have a disproportionate amount of power in whatever party(ies) hold the middle 5-10 per cemt to prevent either of the major parties governing, with say only 45 per cent of the popular vote.

But it is not just the middle parties that sometimes find themselves with huge power. Take for example the way ACT managed to get through their Voluntary Student Membership law. It’s widely known that a few weeks ago Simon Power lost the support of the Maori Party for his criminal procedure reform. Under a typical MMP-style deal, on the day it happened, it appears a deal was struck to support a procedural motion to end Labour’s delaying of the ACT bill, on the understanding that ACT would ensure the passage of his reform. So thanks to MMP, now those five ACT MPs, none of which had sat on the select committee or had even likely to have read the bill, are entirely dictating to the Minister of Justice and the Government what clauses stay in and what clauses go. The fundamental right to silence will be determined by a subset of the five people in that caucus. Vote for Change say that is not proportionate power for a small party.

Vote for Change
If you’re uncomfortable about some aspects of MMP, but don’t want to go back to the other extreme of FPP, you must vote ‘change’ on November 26. This debate is important and voting change doesn’t mean ditching MMP or preventing the politicians reviewing it—it means Kiwis get three years to think about the pros/cons of the most preferred alternative and another chance to vote in three years time

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About the Author ()

Salient is a magazine. Salient is a website. Salient is an institution founded in 1938 to cater to the whim and fancy of students of Victoria University. We are partly funded by VUWSA and partly by gold bullion that was discovered under a pile of old Salients from the 40's. Salient welcomes your participation in debate on all the issues that we present to you, and if you're a student of Victoria University then you're more than welcome to drop in and have tea and scones with the contributors of this little rag in our little hideaway that overlooks Wellington.

Comments (1)

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  1. Philip Temple says:

    There is so much garbage written here that it’s hard to know where to start. The un-named writer (let me guess, who could that be?) promotes SM which, of course, is an acronym for something else just as nasty. As any reputable political commentator has stated, SM is simply FPP with lipstick, in drag, whatever. The writer clearly has had no experience of FPP in NZ when, for example, at the last FPP election in 1993, National became a single party government with only 35.1% of the vote. In the 1980s we had a semi-dictatorship of Muldoon as both PM and finance minister who could do precisely what he wanted, to the detriment of the nation. And so on … PV is a variation of FPP that the Poms voted against earlier this year while SM adds a bit of window dressing and ensures that the major parties get the lion’s share of both the electorate seats and the list seats with token representation for minor parties. Perhaps the biggest myth perpetrated by the writer is that somehow electorate MPs are more accountable to the voter than to the party. Parties have always had control of their MPs and the contest within the two old major parties was always to see who could get hold of a ‘safe seat’, kowtowing to party bosses. I can’t believe that NZers want to give up two effective votes for one and a bit or an alternative system where half the votes cast would be wasted, as in SM. Vote to Keep MMP and trigger the mandatory independent review by the Electoral Commission to fix the issues we may have with it. Whatever the endlessly naysaying Vote for Change people (person?) say this is the ONLY way to guarantee a review. It’s in the Referendum legislation.

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