10/10/11
by

Politics With Paul – The 2011 Referendum.

The impetus for the original shift away from First Past The Post (FPP) to our current Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system was a result of prolonged public distrust in government.

The Muldoon era provoked withering confidence in the New Zealand Government, and led the Labour Party to campaign in both 1981 and 1984 on a commitment to review our electoral system. Winning in 1984, the Fourth Labour Government kept their election promise, and set up a Royal Commission on the Electoral System in early 1985.

The Royal Commission recommended New Zealand switch to the German-style MMP system. However, despite remaining at the forefront of subsequent election campaigns, little action was taken on the recommendation. By the early 1990s when the National Government finally agreed to hold an indicative referendum, the public had endured ‘elective dictatorship’ not only under both Muldoon and the blitzkrieg structural adjustments of the Fourth Labour Government, but also under the Bolger administration, whose first term was characterised by a raft of broken election promises.

While only 55 per cent of voters took part in this first indicative referendum, 85 per cent of those voted for change, with MMP emerging as the preferred system. Labour leader Mike Moore commented at the time: “The people didn’t speak on Saturday. They screamed.”

The second, binding referendum was held in conjunction with the 1993 general election, and following a bitter campaign, the election saw an 85 per cent turnout, with MMP narrowly emerging as the favoured system for future elections.

Despite the ‘politics-free zone’ mandated by the Rugby World Cup, the lead-up to the November 26 referendum is likely to be characterized by an equally bitter campaign.
The arguments for and against MMP were fleshed out in the previous issue of Salient. However, the referendum asks two questions of voters and while last week’s discussion might help you to determine whether you think we should retain MMP or not, the second question offers four alternatives to choose between whether or not you think MMP should be replaced.

First Past The Post

Under FPP, voters choose only between candidates for their own electorate. The benefit of this is that all MPs are directly accountable to a geographic community, and represent their interests in Parliament.
Third parties, who enjoy even distribution of support across geographical constituencies, but lack majority support in any particular electorate are thus under-represented. This was clearly evident in the 1981 election where the Social Credit Party won over 20 per cent of the popular vote, but only saw a 2.2 per cent share of the seats in Parliament.
Moreover, because candidates are elected by a plurality, this can lead to discrepancies in resulting representation from the major parties. Indeed, again in 1981 the National Party won the election having been rewarded with 51.1 percent of the seats in Parliament, for 38.8 percent of the vote, while the Labour Party who had received over four thousand more votes than National, was disproportionately awarded only 46.7 per cent of the seats.

Thus, while the FPP system makes for strong and efficient government in that a single party usually has majority control of Parliament, the legitimacy of the government is undermined as the ruling party may only enjoy minority support. More concerning is an electoral system that results in majority Government under the Westminster model’s fusion of the executive and the legislature. With no effective checks on executive power, this led to a situation whereby Muldoon recognized he could dream up a policy in the morning, draw it up in the afternoon, and have it passed into law that evening. A return to FPP with no alternative checks and balances would see the same result.

Finally, FPP leads to seriously disproportionate representation from a demographic standpoint. As Dr Jon Johansson points out, since 1996 MMP has indisputably led to a far more representative Parliament. “In our last FPP parliament only seven of its members were Maori and some 22 per cent females. After the 2008 election 14.75 per cent of parliament’s members are Maori, and women, for the second consecutive election, represent 32 per cent of House members—not a perfect fit with our demographics, but considerable progress.”

Preferential Voting

Preferential voting (PV), otherwise known as the Alternative-Vote (AV), is the system currently used to elect the Australia House of Representatives. Voters rank candidates in order of preference, rather than just voting for one. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, the candidate with the least number of first preferences is eliminated, and the votes for that candidate are redistributed according to the voter’s second preference, until one candidate emerges with a majority.

The system is seen as fairer than the FPP system, because even though Parliament is still elected wholly via constituencies, the issue around wasted votes is largely rectified. However, while somewhat ameliorating the level of distortion that sees a party awarded a disproportionate number of seats in Parliament relative to their share of the popular vote under the FPP system, under PV this would endure, albeit to a lesser degree. Of course, the focus solely on electorate representation that would mean that minor party representation would be minimal. For example, despite currently being the third-largest party in Parliament, The Greens as they stand would fail to gain any representation under PV.

Supplementary Member

Supplementary Member (SM) is a semi-proportional system. The system works much the same way as MMP, but with significantly less proportionate results. Ninety seats are contestable via single member constituencies as in FPP, and the remaining thirty would be elected via party lists.

Professors Stephen Levine and Nigel Roberts have analysed election data, and have determined that based on the last five elections, SM would have see a disproportionality of 9.54 per cent. This figure is much closer to the 13.56 per cent that would have resulted under FPP than it is to the very proportional MMP system, which has a disproportionality index of only 2.98 per cent across those elections. Thus, despite being marketed as a middle-ground system, the disproportionality of SM puts it much closer to the majoritarian FPP system.

The key problem with the system, is that despite retaining a level of proportionality, the overwhelming electorate-focus of SM is likely to sideline most minor parties, running the risk of seeing a single-party majority, or a solitary minor party that wags the dog to a far greater extent than any of the current minor parties do.

Single Transferable Vote

The Single Transferable Vote (STV) offers the best alternative to MMP in terms of proportionality, although it can still only be defined as semi-proportional. Under STV, a candidate must achieve an established quota of votes to be elected. Candidates are eliminated sequentially and their votes are transferred to other candidates, with the candidate eliminated at each stage generally being the one with the fewest current votes.

While the STV system does see minor party representation, it’s preferential nature means it remains less proportional than MMP. Furthermore, under STV, each electorate has more than one MP. A key flaw in this is that the system sees candidates from the same party competing for votes, and as such, personal interests can undermine the stability and cohesion of political parties. Nevertheless, STV is the most preferable option after MMP, in terms of retaining a check on executive power.

Strategy in 2011

It’s should be obvious by now that I am a staunch advocate for retaining MMP, and for those of us committed to MMP, it is important to consider a strategic vote in the referendum.

At present, opposition to MMP is split into two camps: older voters who reminisce over the ‘good old days’ of FPP, and those who champion SM. Those who vote to retain MMP would be best served by a vote for STV out of the four alternatives. With opinion split between FPP and SM among those voting for change, even if change is narrowly favoured, if all those who support MMP choose STV, then that option could potentially beat out the far less proportional FPP and SM options. Therefore, in a second binding referendum where MMP was pitted against STV, it would at least be a proportional system versus a (slightly less) proportional system, meaning that the benefits of MMP would not be lost with change. Moreover, if STV was the alternative, the concerns of the anti-MMP crowd wouldn’t be addressed anyway, and their campaign would likely wither.

Whether or not your support MMP or one of the alternative options, the referendum on the electoral system is the most important decision New Zealanders have faced in 18 years. Even if you’re entirely ambivalent toward the General Election result, which already seems a foregone conclusion, every eligible student on this campus should research the electoral system options, make a decision and vote in 2011 referendum.

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  1. STV-PR is NOT, in itself, less proportional than MMP. If you implement both voting systems with same ‘district magnitude’ they will produce near identical results in terms of overall party proportionality. But when STV-PR is implemented, voters rightly say they want guaranteed local representation as well as overall party PR. So STV-PR is nearly always implemented with districts that reflect local communities or regions, each electing several MPs together. If you implement MMP with the same district magnitude you’ll get more or less the same party PR.

    Where a party nominates two or more candidates, those candidates will, to some extent, be in competition with one another. But if you ask the voters, they may well tell you they would like to be able to choose among candidates of the SAME party and to be able to decide which of those candidates should be elected. After all, elections are for electors!

  2. Evan says:

    @ James As Michael Cullen has said, under STV the “electorates” would be so large that local representation would be far more illusory than it is today. In STV in Australia, the voter is able to candidates or tick “above the line”. When they tick (say) National above the line, all the National candidates are ranked according to the Party’s ranking. I have heard that over 90% of of votes are cast this way.

    The reality is that voters don’t know enough about the 50 or so candidates that they are selecting from, so they take this short cut. STV is pointless, but I do agree it is 2nd best after MMP.

  3. Philip Temple says:

    STV is second best to MMP but very much second best because proportionality cannot be guaranteed. There have been major aberrations between proportions of votes v. seats in Ireland, the only country (other than tiny Malta) that has ever used STV to elect its national parliament. The effective threshold for minor parties under STV is high, 17% in a five member electorate, for example. But perhaps the biggest drawback of STV for New Zealand would be the size of the electorates. Under MMP, the South Island, with 16 FPP electorates, already has size problems with West Coast-Tasman and Clutha. Under STV the South Island would likely have only six electorates – an impossible situation. Ireland’s population is almost identical to NZ’s but its area is only half the size of the South Island, meaning there is not an electorate size problem for their 160-odd MPs. STV is brilliant for close communities of interest – such as Wellington and Dunedin cities – and where the party vote is unimportant and the quality of individual local candidates is paramount. But not for national party-based politics and Parliament.

  4. alex says:

    If MMP does make it over the line and get a review, which I’m hoping that it does, what kind of changes would be likely? At the moment there are aspects of MMP which are quite unpopular, for some the 5% threshold is too high, others don’t like list MPs getting in on the back of an electorate win. Would they be taken out? Or would the review be likely to recommend no changes?

  5. Evan says:

    @ alex The original recommendation was for a 4% threshhold – I think the reality will be a 4 or 5 seat threshhold – whatever percentages necessary for that.

    The threshhold will apply to scenarios like ACT and Epsom. The extra seats are supposed to reward for candidate winning against the odds. The reality has been that the single seat for ACT has been to overcome the odds for the party! Not good enough.

  6. alex says:

    Wouldn’t a more democratic method be to remove the threshold altogether, and thus do away with the coat-tails scenario? At the moment a vote for a less mainstream minor party is wasted. There are arguments against this, such as the likelihood of one MP parties, but surely people recognise that these parties already exist anyway, and furthermore, isn’t the point of MMP to count every vote equally?

  7. Smiley says:

    You Sir/Madam are the enemy of cnofusion everywhere!

  8. James Gilmour says:

    An interesting development:

    German Court Overturns 5 Percent Hurdle
    http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,796774,00.html

    German supreme court rules 5-percent hurdle unconstitutional
    http://www.siamdailynews.com/world-news/europe-news/2011/11/09/german-supreme-court-rules-5-percent-hurdle-unconstitutional/

    I wonder what precedents this might set for other countries?

    JG

  9. alex says:

    We don’t really have a constitution here to be unconstitutional with, so it might not set an exact precedent. Having said that, the 5% threshold could be considered to distort the overall result by wasting a varying percentage of the vote, so perhaps there are similar arguments for changing that here as well as in Germany.

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