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.

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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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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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