Legal Beagle by Graeme Edgeler


On Consensus

It appears that there will be no major changes to our MMP system before the next election.

I'm okay with that. While I support each of the recommendations in isolation (I think the 5% threshold is too high, and the one-seat rule gives unequal power to arbitrary groups of voters), I also recognise that not everyone agrees with me. Just because I think the recommendations would be an improvement over the status quo doesn't mean they should be enacted. The referendum set up a process by which there would be a review, but how should you have voted if you like MMP exactly as it is now?

Every party in Parliament - with the exception of New Zealand First - has adopted a position on the recommendations of the Electoral Commission's Review of MMP consistent with their own political interests. I am not saying that is necessarily why they have adopted those views, although I do note that Labour's position supporting the recommendation to drop the one-seat rule was announced before the Electoral Commission made that recommendation, and indeed, before the referendum. And that the stated reason for their support for removing the one seat rule was that it would stop ACT being in Parliament. The position of National, ACT, and United Future is clearly one of self-interest, but it's a club open to parties across the political spectrum.

I do not think that the Electoral Commission having made these recommendations means that National should support them, but I also think the excuse offered for not doing anything is rather poor - the need for there to be consensus on changes in our electoral law is something that simply doesn't exist.

Where was the consensus on denying short-term convicted prisoners the right to vote, in a parliamentary vote the National Party won only with the support of an ACT Party which actually opposed the bill, but which hoped to get support for three strikes?

Where was the consensus when Labour passed a law creating Maori Seats on the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, or when National passed a law that did not have Maori seats on the Auckland Super City?

Where was the consensus when National replaced the Canterbury Regional Council with appointees, and abolished the election to be held in 2010, and will prevent another this year? Where was the consensus when Labour passed a law electing Harry Duynhoven to Parliament?

Where was the consensus when Labour passed a law shortly before the 1975 election which would have increased the number of Maori seats?

Where was the consensus when National passed a law shortly after the 1975 election (before Labour's law had taken effect) which re-set the number of Maori seats at four?

Where was the consensus when National changed the Broadcasting Act to ensure New Zealand First didn't get any broadcasting funding for the 1993 election? Oh wait, that change actually had consensus, and it was an appalling decision! The increase in the threshold from 4% as recommended by the Royal Commission to the 5% we have now was basically a consensus agreement between Pete Hodgson and Murray McCully, designed to make it harder for new parties to challenge them.

Partisan changes to our electoral laws have a long history in New Zealand.  Where there's a Labour Party Electoral Finance Bill, there's a National Party country quota. And our history has often seen consensus when that meant agreement between National and Labour to benefit themselves, including, for example, with the continued presence of Government and Opposition members on the Representation Commission (which draws electorate boundaries), and who have, for a very long time, only ever come from the Labour Party and the National Party, and the continuation of the refund of nomination deposits, which mean National and Labour pay nothing to run candidates in general elections, while minor parties pay many thousands of dollars.

It just doesn't seem sensible to expect MPs to vote against their own interests. The best we can hope for is for them to set up a process by which we get to make the decisions, as happened in the 1993 referendum that introduced MMP. On matters like this, it should probably happen more often.

Do I think there should be changes to the MMP system? Yes. But I really don't think our MPs should be making them. And if they ever do think about making changes of this nature to our electoral law, they shouldn't be doing it to affect the next election, but one down the track. Major electoral law changes should all take effect effect one term distant to (if only slightly) minimise the incentive for self-interest to trump principle.

And when they do propose changes, they should be upfront about the effects of their proposals. The recommendations of the MMP Review would have the effect of decreasing diversity in Parliament, and increasing disproportionality. I'm okay with that as a trade-off for increased equality between voters (though I would prefer to avoid this trade-off, by reducing the party vote threshold further), but some members supporting these changes seem reluctant to admit they'll have the effect of silencing some voices. If they believe it is worth it, they should have the courage to say it.

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