I fear that, following the New Zealand general election on Saturday week, I am likely to read either Charles Richardson or William Bowe singing the praises of New Zealand’s electoral system, known as “Mixed Member Proportional” or MMP. If I have read the two above-named men correctly it seems to me they belong to the view (regrettably all too common in psephological circles) that “any old” system of proportional representation is better than a non-proportional system.
I do not belong to that school of thought. Certainly I am willing to defend (and, indeed, I often do defend) the system which applies in all of the ACT, Ireland, Malta and Tasmania. That system is known in the international literature as “proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote” or PR-STV. That is a good, and democratic, system. It is known in Australia as “Hare-Clark”.
Regrettably most proportional systems in the world today are contrivances of one kind or another. The system I most dislike is the one operating in Germany. Unfortunately the New Zealanders copied that system. The reason is that their Royal Commission of 1986 fell for the psephological fads of the day. Instead of recommending the Irish system (as common sense would suggest they should have done) they chose to copy Germany and give a new name (MMP) to the German system. They also made the fatal mistake of recommending an end to the Maori seats. They should have known such an idea was hopelessly unrealistic.
MMP has had one desirable effect. It has made New Zealand’s House of Representatives more representative in terms of ethnicity, race and gender. Apart from that there is little to be said in its favour. Against the recommendation of the Royal Commission the Maori seats continue and their actual operation now constitutes the worst feature of MMP.
To understand why I dislike MMP so much I had best give a brief outline. There will be 70 members directly elected by the people from single-member districts by “first-past-the-post”. The maps of the districts are well designed by an independent expert commission and well named with sensible geographical names. For example the South Island seat of Rangitata is called after the Rangitata River and its major towns are Timaru and Ashburton. Its northern boundary is the Rakaia River.
The 70 constituencies are 47 from the North Island, 16 from the South Island and seven Maori. Added to that will be 50, 51, 52 or 53 party list members. So the total size of the house will be 120, 121, 122 or 123.
Having studied the referendum results of September 1992 and November 1993, and having studied opinion poll data, it is clear to me that a solid majority of New Zealanders believes that the system of single-member electorates is a fair and reasonable way by which to elect 70 members of their parliament. That being so it would be fair to allow political parties to get the full benefit of their winnings of such seats.
However, MMP does not do that. The Maori Party, United Future and Act are allowed to get the full benefit but, under this contrivance, Labour and National are not. For every extra constituency seat Labour and National wins they are robbed of a party list seat.
The contest in the Maori seats best illustrates the point. The Maori Party is likely to clean up the seven seats. However, a very popular Labour member just might win one seat. To do so he must persuade his people that he is more important than the party. Anyone who understands the system knows that his return does Labour no good at all — but the return of a Maori Party member gives that party one extra seat.
The Act party in New Zealand is the sort of party for which Roger Kerr would vote. The Act party has one seat, Epsom. It is an Auckland seat called after the suburb of Epsom and it is the rough equivalent of our Wentworth in Sydney or Curtin in Perth. Rodney Hide wins that seat for Act because the voters know there is no point in returning a National member. If National were to win Epsom it would do National no good at all but if Hide were to retain Epsom it would do Act a huge amount of good under this stupid, unfair contrivance known as MMP. Act, by the way, is sometimes called ACT and stands for “the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers”.
The ballot paper handed to each elector reads “You have 2 votes”. However, ordinary New Zealanders are smart enough to know what that means. If you are on the Maori roll you really do have two votes. Again if you are on the roll for Epsom, Ohariu or Wigram you really do have two votes. For everyone else, however, it is a two-ticks-one-vote system. Your one real vote is your party vote.
When the election is finally wrapped up, and when it confirms every prediction I have long made about this badly-constructed system, I shall send another article to Crikey outlining two possible alternative systems to MMP. However, at this stage let me make it quite clear that I do not favour, and I have never favoured, the abolition of the Maori seats. Actually I favour the election of all specifically Maori members from New Zealand as a whole voting as one electorate by PR-STV. The Maori seats would then be distributed fairly whereas the present system means the Maori Party wins them all.
The thing we do not know is whether New Zealanders really want proportional representation. I do not believe they do. They voted for MMP purely as a way to punish those opposed to it at the time. And those opposed to it were people like Roger Kerr who was thought by a majority of New Zealanders to have had an excessive, and bad, influence on economic policy making.