The old British dominions of Australia, New Zealand and Canada make for an interesting psephological compare/contrast exercise.

First, the good news. British Columbia, the most western of the Canadian provinces, is to have a provincial general election on Tuesday, May 12. More importantly, however, that election is to be accompanied by a referendum on what they call “BC-STV” which is short for “British Columbia Single Transferable Vote”.

Up to the present all Canadian politicians, federal and provincial, have been elected by the system known in the academic literature as “Single Member Plurality” or SMP. That system is colloquially known as “first-past-the-post” (FPP). Dissatisfaction with that system has reached the point, especially at the provincial level, that several Canadian provinces have engaged with their electorates to replace it. However, only British Columbia has come up with a viable alternative. BC-STV is, essentially, what we call “Hare-Clark” in Australia.

A referendum was held in 2005 (in conjunction with the provincial general election) at which 57.7 per cent of voters supported BC-STV. However, the legislature had decided not to implement BC-STV unless it received 60 per cent support, but also to run the referendum again in conjunction with the 2009 provincial general election. The smart money now is on the affirmative vote easily exceeding 60 per cent.

Assuming the news is good Tasmanians, especially, will have two reasons to celebrate. It just so happens that May 12, 1909, was the day on which the first 30 Tasmanian politicians elected by Hare-Clark took their seats inn the House of Assembly. One of those men was a Labor candidate, Joseph Aloysius Lyons, later to become one of our better Prime Ministers, admittedly by then on the other side of the political divide.

Second, the bad news. On a Saturday early in June there is to be a by-election in the Auckland seat of Mount Albert, vacated by former New Zealand Prime Minister, Helen Clark. However, readers would be entitled to ask me: “Why is the prospect of a by-election bad news?” My answer is that the holding of by-elections is completely inconsistent with proportional representation.

In November 1993 there was a referendum at which 54 per cent of New Zealand voters supported the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system while 46 per cent supported the old FPP system. Consequently the House of Representatives now has 122 members of which 70 are elected by FPP, supplemented by 52 chosen from party lists. If the 52 party list members were distributed proportionally between the parties (as in a system known as Mixed Member Majoritarian) then by-elections would still be appropriate.

However, that is not the way the system works. The 52 party list members are distributed according to the so-called “principle” known as “top up”. In that way the New Zealand system copies that of Germany, a country which has party list members plus constituencies for which no by-elections are ever held. In Germany a seat such as Mount Albert would go to the next available candidate on the party list. In that way the proportions established by the general election vote are preserved.

Had New Zealand fully copied Germany (instead of copying it in a half-baked way) then the next candidate on Labour’s list, a certain Damien Peter O’Connor, a defeated member of the previous Parliament, would have become the member for Mount Albert. That would have saved the Labour Party the cost of fighting the by-election. The MMP system is clearly unfair to parties where most members are elected by constituencies and favours parties whose membership comes wholly from the party list. For example, the Greens have nine members, all of whom come from the party list. If one of them dies or resigns then replacement is automatic and costs the party nothing.

How likely is it that Labour will lose Mount Albert? If one looks at the constituency vote one would think it a safe Labour seat. Helen Clark received 20,157 votes, the National Party candidate 9,806 and all the others a total of 4034. However, if one looks at the party vote a very different pattern emerges. Labour secured 14,894 votes, National 12,468 and all the rest a combined total of 7,601. My National Party contact tells me they will contest the by-election “and we are planning to run a pretty vigorous campaign.”

The crazy thing about MMP is that parties get list seats as a reward for failing to win constituencies. Thus if National were to win this by-election it would be laughing all the way to the beehive. As its reward for failing to win Mount Albert last year it now has a party list seat for a certain Aaron Wayne Gilmore. If it wins the by-election it then gets another seat. New Zealand should scrap this system and replace it by a better one.

Peter Fray

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