Voters looking for lead on MMP

Once New Zealanders voted to keep the mixed member proportional electoral system in last year's referendum, the next step was the launch of a review of the system, which has troubled some voters since its introduction in 1996.

As required by law, the Electoral Commission undertook the review, the first by an independent body since the Royal Commission on the Electoral System reported in 1986, 26 years ago.

There have been some glaring errors with the MMP system.

Most recently, the deal between National and Act MP John Banks in Epsom has caused the most anger.

National's candidate campaigned only for the list vote to enable Mr Banks to enter Parliament again as an Act MP after previously serving as a National minister of the Crown.

Through thick and thin, Prime Minister John Key has stuck by Mr Banks, giving the impression that National's wafer-thin majority in Parliament is more important than integrity in New Zealand's voting system.

National would win Epsom in a walk, but there is a danger the proportionality of Parliament would change.

The concern has been that electorate-winning MPs from minor parties have been able to take with them to Parliament list MPs, provided a low threshold has been passed.

None of the minor party electorate-winning MPs has done this in the current term, but the memory of governments being held to ransom by a few renegade list MPs still grates.

The commission has provided a set of recommendations that, if adopted, should cover most of the objections posed in the submissions process - all except for those calling for a return to first-past-the-post.

Pleasingly, the commission has recommended the one electorate seat threshold for the allocation of list seats should be abolished and that the party vote threshold be lowered from 5% to 4%.

At the current 5%, the threshold is higher than it needs to be to strike the right balance.

It could be lowered to 4% without any risk to the effectiveness or stability.

The one electorate seat threshold should go. There's no doubt about it. An exception to the party vote threshold is not a necessary feature of MMP.

While it does increase the proportionality of Parliament, it does so in an arbitrary and inconsistent way that would be better achieved by lowering the party vote threshold.

It gives voters in some electorates significantly more influence over the make-up of Parliament and causes excessive focus to be placed on a few electorates - such as Epsom - and distorts election campaigning.

When MMP was introduced, it was understood New Zealand would have 120 MPs.

However, that has not proved the case.

Overhang seats have been a focus of some administrations and the recommendation to abolish the provision for overhang seats is welcomed.

Parties that win electorate seats would keep those seats but the size of Parliament would remain at 120 seats because no extra list seats would be allocated.

Importantly, the commission called for political parties to give a public assurance by statutory declaration they had complied with their own rules in selecting and ranking their list candidates.

The perception is that unpopular electorate MPs, tossed out by voters, can return to Parliament through being sheltered by a high list ranking.

The low esteem in which many New Zealanders hold MPs is likely to significantly improve by public accountability.

But all of this rests on a decision yet to be made by the Government.

There are parts of the commission's extensive report that will not sit comfortably with the Government.

However, voters will be looking for some reasoned leadership on electoral reform.

Any sign of political expediency instead of openness is likely to be punished at the ballot box.




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