Nov 13, 2009

Kiwis voting system to go to referendum

Malcolm MacKerras has been trying to persuade New Zealand’s politicians to replace their Mixed Member Proportional electoral system with a better one.

We Australians so often tend to look across the Tasman and think we are looking at a country whose politics is less interesting than our own. However,  I have a different view. Because of my interest in electoral systems, I have found New Zealand to be very interesting and Australia less so. Essentially we Australians have had no serious wrangles about our electoral systems. By contrast the New Zealanders had an almighty argument that appeared to be resolved in 1993 when 54% of voters chose the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system to replace their old British First Past the Post (FPP) system to elect their unicameral House of Representatives. MMP is a generic term invented by New Zealand but its system is, more or less, a copy of the German system. There are several technical differences between the two but the idea is essentially the same, namely to have proportional representation while also retaining the British system of single-member constituencies. In every respect where Germany differs from New Zealand, the German system is better and more logical than that in New Zealand. However, I have never been an admirer of the German system, anyway. As a consequence of my interest, I have been trying to persuade New Zealand’s politicians to replace MMP with a better system and, in August 2008, I was given an interview with John Key, then leader of the Opposition. I put to him a proposal by which I hoped New Zealand would have a better system operating from its 2017 general election. Now that Key is Prime Minister I can record progress to this Crikey audience. On October 20 (of 2009, of course) the minister in charge of electoral matters, Simon Power, announced the Cabinet’s decision. In conjunction with their 2011 general election (likely in November) there would be an electoral referendum at which the people will be asked two questions: "The first will ask voters if they wish to change the voting system from MMP. The second will ask what alternative they would prefer from a list of options". Later the statement reads: "If a majority of voters opt for a change from MMP, there will be second referendum at the 2014 general election. This will be a contest between MMP and the alternative voting system that receives the most votes in the first referendum." On the whole my reaction to this is one of pleasure, save only that alarm bells are raised in my mind from this sentence: "The second will ask what alternative they would prefer from a list of options". I argue that there are only two alternatives to MMP. They are the Single Transferable Vote (what we in Australia call the Hare-Clark system) and the Mixed Member Majoritarian system. STV is a proportional representation system while MMM is semi-proportional. MMM has essentially the same structure as MMP save only that MMM is a genuine mixed system whereas MMP is a type of proportional representation. The cabinet has not told us which systems are to be included in this list of options. However, I assume that STV and MMM would make the list. I suspect a third system to make the list would be the old FPP. Consequently, I have written an e-mail to the top bureaucrat having carriage of this topic. I wrote as follows:
It would be disastrous to include more than two options and my point can be illustrated in this way. Suppose there are three options on that list, STV, MMM and FPP. Suppose STV gets 35 per cent, MMM 33 per cent and FPP 32 per cent. Suppose the other question produces 51 per cent to change the system and 49 per cent to keep MMP. Then the 2014 referendum would see STV run off against MMP. STV would be seen to have no mandate at all with no hope of beating MMP. By contrast, if the list is sensibly confined to the two obvious choices then the winner would have a very good chance to defeat MMP in 2014. Then New Zealand would have a sensible system when it conducted its next general election, likely in November 2017.

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4 thoughts on “Kiwis voting system to go to referendum

  1. Kirk Broadhurst

    Surely if there were three options, and I chose Single Transferable Vote, then I’d be able to allocate my second and third preference from the other options.

    Similarly, if I chose Mixed Member Majoritarian I’d be able to allocate ‘some’ of my vote to MMM and ‘some’ of it to another option…?

    And anyone who chooses FPP doesn’t get to allocate any second preference at all. Perfect!

  2. New Cassandra

    Stick to the best system in the world – ours! – Full preferential voting – this way the least unpopular candidate wins – which is the fairest all round result.

  3. Kirk Broadhurst

    Our system isn’t the worst, but it’s hardly the best. I’d much prefer a NZ (or German) style system where minority views can contribute to Government.

    I have 12 representatives for my state who are essentially useless stooges for their respective parties, and I have one local member who less than 40% of my community picked as first choice. Who is my local champion? A proportional system ensures that other voices are heard, and keeps us away from the dreaded 2-party system.

    Transferrable vote is hardly the ‘fairest all round’. The National Party regularly poll less than 5% support across the nation, yet have 9 seats in the House of Reps. The Greens, on the other hand, poll closer to 10% across the nation (and have consistently more support than the Nationals) – yet have the princely sum of zero seats. Family First poll around 2-3% yet also have zero seats. I know that the Senate is supposed to resolve this issue, but unfortunately we only have 6 states in the country.

    Proportional Representation is the only ‘fair’ way.

  4. mike f.

    First of all, New Zealand isn’t going to ditch MMP; New Zealanders will regard STV as a too-complicated way to produce the same results as a list-based system. They’ll reject MMM as an attempt to pull a swifty, and the Australian lower house system as completely out of the question.

    And here’s why. I want Green MPs. And thanks to my electoral system, I got them. Nine of them. Under the Australian system, what I get told instead is, “your vote didn’t count! What of the other party would you give your vote to?”. And then, suddenly, instead of getting the MPs that I wanted, I get my vote sucked into a system that results in my vote electing someone from the Labour party. But, and I think this is pretty important: if I wanted Labour MPs, I would have voted for the Labour Party.

    Essentially, the Australian system is designed to make people go through a list of things they don’t want, and choose one; so instead of getting what I want, which is a Labour Party that has to listen to and deal with a bloc to the left of it, I get what I really don’t want, especially considering that our parliament is unicameral: an outright Labour majority.

    And, as for MMM (which is being referred to as ‘supplementary member’ here), that’s a nothing system. It means that our number one gripe with first-past-the-post is still in play. It means that someone with 42% of the vote can form a majority government, because they did something arbitrary. In this case, that arbitrary thing is win a majority, no matter small, in enough geographic constituencies. The MP for New Plymouth has a majority of 108. And the MP for Waitakere has a majority of 300. In fact, several MPs have small majorities; a lot of them belong to the National Party, and are why they won 40 out of 70 electorates. Now, with 42% of list votes, National can get the 21/50 seats it needs to have 61/120 and a majority administration; this in the name of proportionality or fairness! Some of our most hated FPP governments formed administrations on larger shares of the vote.

    As for the lack of one-off preferential choice in the 2011 referendum, that’s the right thing to do. Changing your electoral system is a big undertaking, and maybe we should have some time to chew things over. That way, we can make sure that they thing we actually wants wins.

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