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The maturity of New Zealand's voting system is about to be tested following the release of the Electoral Commission's proposals for changes to MMP. Among the most controversial proposals will be the party vote threshold for the allocation of list seats to be lowered to 4% from the current 5%; the proposition to abolish the one electorate seat threshold for the allocation of list seats will be less so.
The integrity of the voting system was tarnished at the last election by the farce in Epsom when Prime Minister John Key met with Act candidate John Banks in a public sign that National supporters should tick National in the party vote, but tick Mr Banks for the electorate vote. Act was in turmoil, having dumped a leader, put MPs in unelectable positions and having been told by Prime Minister John Key that then leader Don Brash would not serve in his cabinet. Much of the country was aghast at the manipulation, which, to be fair, happened also when Rodney Hide held the seat for Act. A similar stunt is pulled also in Ohariu, where United Future leader Peter Dunne hangs on to his seat because National runs a list-vote-only campaign.
Predictably, the two men most opposed to any change to the one electorate seat threshold for the allocation of list seats are Messrs Banks and Dunne. In the past, Act and United Future have brought MPs into the house, thanks to one MP winning a seat. In each case, list MPs brought in broke ranks in some way with the party from which they were elected. In the case of United Future, a new party was formed with MPs sitting unelected in the House - hardly the result for which supporters had voted. It is expected this suggested change will receive widespread support.
New Zealand has a history of declining participation in general elections, something the lower 4% threshold may fix because electors will see their vote as counting towards something. Overall turnout in 2011 as a percentage of those eligible to enrol fell 6% from 2008 (from 75.73% to 69.57%). The last time there was a similarly large drop was between the 1999 election and the early mid-winter election in 2002, when turnout fell 5% (from 77.19% to 72.49%).
Non-voters gave largely the same reasons as in 2008 for not voting: "other commitments" (14%), "work commitments" (9%), "couldn't be bothered" (14%), "could not work out who to vote for" (11%). The number of non-voters giving the response "it was obvious who would win so why bother" as a factor influencing their decision not to vote increased from 19% in 2008 to 31% in 2011. But lowering the threshold to 4% would not have changed the 2011 result, because both the Green Party and New Zealand First got above 5% of the party vote without winning an electorate - exactly what MMP was designed to do.
The Electoral Commission does appear to have taken a too-timid approach on two areas about which the public has strong views. They are that list MPs should continue to be able to contest by-elections and that political party officials, rather than members, continue to have responsibility for the composition and ranking of candidates on their party lists. The sight of list MPs standing in a by-election, failing to win, and then going back into Parliament after an often second rejection from an electorate vote is galling.
If a list MP wants to stand for an electorate, he or she should abide by the wishes of the voters and not scurry back into the safety of the party net when defeated. There has also been ongoing criticism about the way parties structure their lists, particularly National and Labour. The Green Party uses wide party consultation in its selection, even changing the rankings after pressure from grass-roots supporters.
Public submissions close on the proposed changes on September 7 and the final report is to be delivered to Justice Minister Judith Collins in October. It is possible that changes will be in place for the 2014 election. However, it will be no surprise if the Government takes no action on the recommendations - after all, National has been a beneficiary of the system and stands to lose if many of the proposed changes are implemented.