Ticks and crosses

What should be one of the most important decisions voters can make on November 26 is being obscured by the contest to gain control of the Treasury benches. Political editor Dene Mackenzie writes that deciding on our future voting system is an important decision for us all.

On November 26, we will be asked to decide on the voting system New Zealand will have in the future.

It seems a long time ago now that New Zealanders ditched first past the post (FPP) in favour of another voting system - after indicating their dissatisfaction with the old system in a referendum in 1992.

Mixed member proportional representation (MMP) narrowly beat the FPP incumbent (54% to 46%) in a vote the following year and the first coalition negotiations began in 1996.

For many voters, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters quickly became the epitome of all that is wrong with MMP. In two elections, he prevaricated before deciding which major party to support.

In one election it was National, and in the other it was Labour. Prime Minister John Key has ruled out working with Mr Peters again, while Labour appears to be hedging its bets.

Just this week, the Vote for Change campaign launched billboards featuring Mr Peters holding a "NO" sign underneath a "save MMP" slogan.

Other voters are disgruntled with the electorate part of MMP.

MPs such as Peter Dunne and Rodney Hide have dragged MPs into Parliament from their party lists, who then spend anonymous and unremarked years on the back benches.

On the other hand, the success of the Green Party in Parliament provides an example of the way in which the democratic process can work to advantage.

The Greens are polling about 10%, but without an electorate seat they would have no representatives in Parliament under FPP. Under MMP, as a party that will easily cross the 5% list-vote threshold, they can expect to end up with 12 MPs in Parliament after the election.

There are changes that should and could be made to MMP. And while some fondly remember first past the post, they conveniently forget the wild swings and unannounced policy adventures that finally soured the system's reputation in the minds of many.

Late prime minister Sir Robert Muldoon swept into power in 1975 and immediately threw away everything the previous Norman Kirk-led Labour Government had implemented, initiating instead the Think Big projects, some of which still haunt us today.

Then we had the David Lange-led Labour Government selling state assets and removing subsidies from farming and manufacturing - none of which was in the election manifesto.

A return to a National administration in 1990 saw the implementation of benefit cuts, the near-death of collective bargaining and unions, and the cut in pensions for the elderly.

Proportional representation has taken the huge policy swings out of the equation and has forced each MMP government to find a way of working with other parties to achieve its ends.

There does not seem to be a groundswell of support to change the MMP system, and the debate is being starved of oxygen by MPs who are focused on winning power on the same day.

But the debate does have its advocates.

Jordan Williams is a personable young lawyer from Wellington who has taken three months of unpaid leave to campaign full-time for the removal of MMP.

He is the main spokesman for Vote For Change, which on Sunday endorsed Supplementary Member as its preferred replacement for MMP.

Asked by the Otago Daily Times what got him into the electoral system debate, he says he first campaigned in his home province of Hawkes Bay to remove two Labour MPs, Rick Barker and Russell Fairbrother.

"We booted these two local guys out but they both got back into Parliament through the list. One of them now doesn't live here but he is still back on the list," he says from his mother's home in Hawkes Bay.

Mr Williams remembers speaking at a public meeting about the dangers of the MMP list when Peter Shirtcliffe tapped him on the shoulder and invited him to lead the debate for change during this election.

Mr Shirtcliffe is remembered in New Zealand for not only chairing Telecom but also using his considerable financial resources and networks to wage an unsuccessful campaign to retain FPP.

This time, Mr Shirtcliff is taking a back seat, Mr Williams says.

Mr Williams does not hold back when criticising the current electoral system, and the others up for debate this year.

"All systems end up electing useless MPs. Democracy is not good at electing the best people. The best argument for democracy is having MPs sitting in Wellington knowing that if they don't do the right thing, they will lose their seats."

Under MMP, MPs know it is better to do what the party wants to ensure they keep their seats in Parliament through the list if they lose in an electorate, he says.

Privately, some MPs tell Mr Williams he is doing a good job on the Vote for Change campaign. But when it comes to a public forum, they advocate the party line of retaining MMP, he says.

"There is nothing more frustrating than that."

MMP has turned politics into a "brand" because only the party vote matters. Instead of having individuals prepared to say what they think, they just follow the party line, he says.

Dunedin-based MMP activist Philip Temple says retaining MMP in the referendum on election day is the only way to ensure New Zealand maintains a proportional electoral system that is fair and truly representative.

While there seems no great push for change from the voting public, the Keep MMP campaign is taking nothing for granted, he says.

Recent polling shows 40% are in favour of retaining MMP, 30% would like to see it dumped and 30% are undecided.

"We are not at all complacent," Mr Temple says.

The one thing Messrs Williams and Temple agree on is that if Prime Minister John Key gets involved in the debate, then people will take notice. But that seems unlikely to happen, as Mr Key is focused on winning the election and dealing with the ongoing earthquake rebuild in Christchurch, the stranded Rena, and other matters such as the recent gas-line fault in the North Island.

Mr Temple says it would have been better to have a review of MMP before the referendum, rather than after the vote. Some changes should be made to MMP, he says.

If the review had been held first, voters would have been in a better position to vote on whether MMP should be retained or FPP should be returned.

But even with the review following the referendum, voters who are largely content with MMP but unhappy about the electorate deals that allow successful electorate candidates to drag list MPs into Parliament with them can opt to modernise the MMP system by voting to retain it.

The independent review of MMP is one of the most important aspects of the referendum on the voting system, Mr Temple says.

"We know some people get annoyed when parties pull in one or more MPs on the coat tails of a win in one electorate, even if they haven't reached 5% of the party vote.

"But this and other tweaks people want to MMP can be fixed in the review of MMP that the Government is already committed to, if a majority of people vote to keep MMP on November 26."

After six elections, it is time to take a closer look at how MMP is working, he says.

University of Otago political scientist Bryce Edwards is a supporter of MMP but believes the system can be tweaked, as there is voter dissatisfaction with some aspects.

One aspect that particularly irks him is the electorate lifeline, something on which nearly everyone involved in the MMP debate agrees.

He also points to the Dunedin North electorate, where Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei and National Party list MP Michael Woodhouse are standing against Labour candidate David Clark.

Neither Mrs Turei or Mr Woodhouse need to stand in the electorate, as both are assured of getting back on the list, and the contest is, in some ways, "silly" and a charade.

Dr Edwards favours candidates standing in either the electorate or on the list. Not both.

Labour MP Lianne Dalziel is expected to do well in her Christchurch East electorate because of her decision to stand only as an electorate MP.

Likewise, it is a make-or-break campaign for MP Damian O'Connor, who is standing for Labour only as an electorate candidate on the West Coast.

"Let's get rid of the threshold and see democracy in action. Even a 3% threshold is undemocratic," Dr Edwards says.

If extreme parties, or religious parties, get even 1% of the vote, they should be entitled to representation in Parliament.

Dr Edwards is critical of MPs who are giving the referendum the brushoff. He believes they should be leading the debate.

The closest any MP of significance has come to expressing his opinion has been Finance Minister Bill English. At Otago University Vote Chat, Mr English said he had earlier campaigned hard to retain FPP but now believed the Government had proven that MMP was workable. National had worked with Act New Zealand, the Maori Party and the Green Party in the current parliamentary term.

He now favoured keeping MMP 


The options

MMP - Mixed Member Proportional

This is the system we currently use to elect our Parliament.

There are 120 members of Parliament (MPs). There are 70 electorates, including the Maori electorates. Each elects one MP, called an electorate MP.

The other 50 MPs are elected from political party lists and are called list MPs.

Each voter gets two votes.

The first vote is for the political party the voter chooses. This is called the party vote and largely decides the total number of seats each political party gets in Parliament.

The second vote is to choose the MP the voter wants to represent the electorate they live in. This is called the electorate vote. The candidate who gets the most votes wins. They do not have to get more than half the votes.

Under current MMP rules, a political party that wins at least one electorate seat or 5% of the party vote gets a share of the seats in Parliament that is about the same as its share of the party vote.

For example, if a party gets 30% of the party vote it will get roughly 36 MPs in Parliament (being 30% of 120 seats). So if that party wins 20 electorate seats it will have 16 list MPs in addition to its 20 electorate MPs.

Coalitions or agreements between political parties are usually needed before governments can be formed.

FPP - First Past the PostThere are 120 members of Parliament.

Each of the 120 electorates, including the Maori electorates, elects one MP.

Each voter has one vote to choose the MP they want to represent the electorate they live in. The candidate who gets the most votes wins. They do not have to get more than half the votes.

Large parties - and in particular the winning party - usually win a share of the seats in Parliament larger than their share of all the votes across the country.

Smaller parties usually receive a smaller share of seats than their share of all the votes.

A government can usually be formed without the need for coalitions or agreements between parties.

PV- Preferential Voting

There are 120 members of Parliament.

Each of the 120 electorates, including the Maori electorates, elects one MP.

Voters rank the candidates - 1, 2, 3, etc - in the order they prefer them.

A candidate who gets more than half of all the first preference votes wins.

If no candidate gets more than half the first preference votes, the candidate with the fewest number "1" votes is eliminated and their votes go to the candidates each voter ranked next.

This process is repeated until one candidate has more than half the votes.

Large parties - and in particular the winning party - usually win a share of the seats in Parliament larger than their nationwide share of the first preference votes. It is hard for smaller parties to win seats in Parliament, but votes for smaller party candidates may influence who wins the seat because of second and third preferences.

A government can usually be formed without the need for coalitions or agreements between parties.

STV - Single Transferable Vote

There are 120 members of Parliament.

Each electorate has more than one MP.

This includes the Maori electorates. It is likely the 120 MPs would be divided between 24 and 30 electorates, each with three to seven MPs.

Each voter has a single vote that is transferable. Voters either rank the individual candidates - 1, 2, 3 - in the order they prefer from all the candidates, or they may vote for the order of preference published in advance by the political party of their choice.

MPs are elected by receiving a minimum number of votes. This is known as the quota and is based on the number of votes in each electorate and the number of MPs to be elected.

Candidates who reach the quota from first preference votes are elected.

If there are still electorate seats to fill, a two-step process follows.

First, votes the elected candidates received beyond the quota are transferred to the candidates ranked next on those votes. Candidates who then reach the quota are elected.

Second, if there are still electorate seats to fill, the lowest polling candidate is eliminated and their votes are transferred to the candidates ranked next on those votes.

This two-step process is repeated until all the seats are filled.

The number of MPs elected from each political party roughly mirrors the party's share of all the first preference votes across the country.

Coalitions or agreements between political parties are usually needed before governments can be formed.

SM - Supplementary Member

There are 120 members of Parliament.

There are 90 electorates, including the Maori electorates. Each elects one MP, called an electorate MP. The other 30 seats are called supplementary seats.

MPs are elected to these seats from political party lists and are likely to be called list MPs.

Each voter gets two votes.

The first vote is to choose the MP the voter wants to represent the electorate they live in. This is called the electorate vote. The candidate who gets the most votes wins. They do not have to get more than half the votes.

The second vote is for the political party the voter chooses. This is called the party vote. The share of the 30 supplementary seats each party gets reflects its share of the party vote.

For example, if a party gets 30% of the party vote, it will get about nine list MPs in Parliament (being 30% of the 30 supplementary seats) no matter how many electorate seats it wins.

This makes SM different from MMP where a party's share of all 120 seats mirrors its share of the party vote.

Under SM, one or other of the major parties would usually have enough seats to govern alone, but coalitions or agreements between parties may sometimes be needed.

Source: www.referendum.org.nz

 



What happens

Voters will be asked two questions on November 26. They can choose to answer both or only one.

The first question asks voters whether they want to keep mixed member proportional (MMP) or whether they want to change to another voting system.

The second question asks which of four other voting systems they would choose. The four to choose from are: first past the post (FPP); preferential voting (PV); single transferable vote (STV); or supplementary member (SM).

The result

If at least half of voters opt to keep MMP, there will be an independent review of MMP next year to recommend any changes that should be made to the way it works. The Electoral Commission will conduct the review, with the public having the opportunity to express their views.

The Electoral Referendum Act specifies that the review must include:The 5% threshold for a party to be eligible for allocation of list seats; the one electorate seat threshold for a party to be eligible for allocation of list seats; the effects of population change on the ratio of electorate seats to list seats; the effect of a party's candidates winning more seats than the party would be entitled to as a result of the party vote; the capacity of a person to be both a constituency candidate and a list candidate; a party's ability to determine the order of candidates on its party list and the inability of voters to rank list candidates in order of preference; other matters referred to it by the minister of justice.

The size of Parliament and Maori representation will not be reviewed.

The commission must report back to the minister of justice by October 31, 2012.

If more than half the voters opt to change the voting system, Parliament will decide if there will be another referendum in 2014 to choose between MMP and the alternative system that gets the most support in the second question in the 2011 referendum.

 


 

 

 

 

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