Referendum debate at risk of missing the real point

With just a few days left of the referendum campaign, one gets the sense that we are watching a version of a beauty pageant, where the voting systems are getting primped and preened to look better than they are - their oddities and quirks sprayed over with fake tan. This is a far cry from what the referendum debate should be about.

Like everyone else joining in this debate, we have an opinion about which system New Zealand should have. But our bigger concern is not that people vote the way we would like, but rather that voters actually understand what type of representation and parliament the voting systems produce.

The systems are not just mechanically different. They produce different outcomes based on different understandings of good political representation. To chuck stones at FPP or PV for not being proportional is like blaming your local burger shop for not serving sushi - you are asking it to be something it was never meant to be.

Likewise, blaming MMP and other proportional systems for producing coalition governments misses the point that that is exactly what they are designed to do. New Zealand's voting systems debate needs to focus on how we understand parliament and representation, rather than just sloganeering.

One of the biggest divides between the different voting systems is whether they are proportional or majoritarian.

Proportional systems, like MMP, are meant to ensure that parties get the same proportion of seats in parliament as the proportion of votes they received across the country, while majoritarian systems, like FPP, operate on the principle that whichever party has a majority of the seats in parliament should be able to govern. Neither is inherently bad or "unfair". They are designed to produce different outcomes, and both have their strengths and weaknesses.

Advocates of proportional systems say that they are "fairer" because of an assumption that the composition of MPs elected to parliament should mirror the representation of interest groups in society. MPs are seen as delegates who govern according to the wishes of the identity group whom they represent. But this is not the only way to think about representation.

The other model of representation is the "trustee" model, which assumes that MPs are supposed to use their discernment to make decisions on behalf of the whole community whom they represent, including those who did not vote for them. Under this model, the local electorate MPs are directly accountable to voters through their electorate vote, and the representation of local electorates matters more than how proportionate each party's representation in parliament is.

Each voting system contains elements of both models of representation to varying degrees, but no system can provide for everything. They are all trying to strike a balance. The advantages of each system generate disadvantages that ought to be acknowledged. For example, an advantage of proportional systems is that they can produce coalition governments, which can reduce one party's ability to ram through laws on a whim. The disadvantage is that voters can find it hard to know exactly what policy programme they are voting for, and it cannot be predicted precisely which parties will form a government.

Another advantage of proportional systems is that they are supposed to allow for the many different groups in society to have a voice in parliament, in proportion to how much support voters give them. But a proportional parliament does not necessarily mean that all parties or interest groups have a proportional influence on the laws that are made. It is possible for a minor party such as Act New Zealand - with 3.7% of the vote - to be in Government, while Labour - with 33.9% - is in opposition.

Act gets to help set the government's agenda, while Labour does not.

Majoritarian systems, on the other hand, are prized for their ability to produce a clear and stable government.

MPs are also directly accountable to electorates who can vote them out if they are not performing. Yet majoritarian systems also have their limitations. They can mean a big proportion of the population - sometimes more than 50% - end up with a government they did not want.

This is because election results are determined by which candidates win their electorate seats. Even though a party can win a significant share of the popular vote, it will not have any seats in parliament unless it wins a majority of the vote in specific electorates. Minority voices can struggle to be heard, and while majoritarian systems give voters a clear government and opposition, that also means there is little need for compromise and negotiation in making laws.

Does all this mean we might as well give up? Are there are no good systems on offer at the referendum? Not at all.

The point is just that we need to look at the merits and drawbacks of all the systems and determine what we prefer.

Deciding how to vote in the referendum should not just be an issue of slogans and system mechanics. It should be about asking how we want parliament to work and what sort of representation we think is best for New Zealand. The debate needs to be at this level.

 - Steve Thomas is a researcher and Annette Pereira communications manager at Maxim Institute. The institute is a research and public policy think tank.




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