The recent general election in Tasmania again has taught me something I have known for a long time: Hare-Clark is an excellent electoral system. I say that because I give talks about elections fairly frequently and I come across attitudes that essentially amount to this: some people are for proportional representation, others against it. For example, Charles Richardson and Guy Rundle are for proportional representation but editorials in The Australian newspaper are against it.
I have a different view. I like the Single Transferable Vote form of PR but I dislike most of the other PR systems. Of the STV systems Hare-Clark is the best but I was recently compelled to tick off a senior journalist in the Canberra press gallery whose printed commentary on Tasmania referred, in passing, to the “dysfunctional Hare-Clark system”. While not using the term Hare-Clark, Ireland and Malta employ what they call PR-STV but their methods are essentially the same as our Hare-Clark system by which the Tasmanian House of Assembly and the ACT Legislative Assembly are elected.
The system for which I have an special dislike is New Zealand’s Mixed Member Proportional, or MMP. For that reason I am trying to persuade the people of New Zealand to scrap their MMP system and replace it with a better one. I am not hopeful of success but there is no harm in trying.
Anyway, in August 2008 I sought an interview with John Key, then the leader of the Opposition in New Zealand. I suggested to him that the National Party should promise a referendum on MMP and I gave him some details of what I thought to be sensible. He listened politely, made one very interesting comment, and suggested we stay in touch. Consequently I have been in fairly continual touch with his chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson. Each time I send him material he thanks me, says he thinks the material interesting and repeats that “we must stay in touch”.
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My proposal to Key (now Prime Minister) was that, in conjunction with their 2011 general election there should be a referendum with a simple choice for voters between STV and the Mixed Member Majoritarian (MMM) system. By STV I meant (and still mean) Hare-Clark, not the Australian Senate system. Then at the following general election in 2014 the winner of 2011 should run off against MMP.
The detail of my Hare-Clark proposal has 18 North Island general electoral divisions and six for the South Island, each electing five, for a total of 120. The seven Maori members would be elected from the Maori roll with New Zealand as whole voting as one electorate. That would mean a total House of Representatives of 127 members.
The MMM system is simple to explain: you would keep the current 122 members of whom 70 are elected from single-member constituencies by first-past-the-post and 52 are party-list members. However, whereas MMP distributes these party-list seats according to what they call “the principle of top-up” MMM would distribute the party-list seats proportionally between the parties. Whereas the present statement “You have two votes” on each ballot paper refers to a de facto two-ticks-one-vote system MMM would be a genuine two-vote system. Under MMM it would be possible for either Labour or National to win a majority of seats — because these parties would then get benefits from constituency wins. By contrast MMP is a contrivance designed to ensure that there is never majority government.
It does that by ensuring that neither Labour nor National ever gets any benefit from constituency wins. By contrast the Maori Party gets the full benefit of its constituency wins and the Maori Party presently has five of the seven single-member Maori seats, with Labour holding the other two.
Late last year Eagleson handed me over to Phil de Joux, chief of staff to the Minister of Justice, Simon Power, who is to have carriage of the referendum. In February Power issued a statement stating that “the referendum, to be held in conjunction with the 2011 general election, will ask voters two questions. First, whether they wish to retain the present MMP voting system, and secondly what alternative voting system they would prefer from a list of options, regardless of how they voted in the first question.” The statement went on: “The options are First-Past-the Post, Preferential Vote, Single Transferable Vote and Supplementary Member … The Bill is expected to be introduced to Parliament in April.” It is worth noting that the term “Supplementary Member” is that which New Zealanders use for what the rest of the world calls MMM.
My reaction to this statement is simply to say that the inclusion of first-past-the-post will muck up the second part of the referendum, the list of options alternative to MMP. There exists no chance of New Zealand returning to the old days. However, first-past-the-post will get a large vote and that will damage the chances of those who wish to replace MMP.
Although I do not hold much hope that MMP will be replaced nevertheless I expect to be asked my opinion when the referendum comes next year. I shall advise New Zealanders to vote for change on the first question and for STV on the second.