Comment

It’s MMP - but not as we were sold it

The recent announcements from the Representation Commission regarding boundaries for the 2020 and 2023 General Elections continue the trend of making our electoral system less proportional and more unrepresentative, says Peter Dunne

As a result of the latest changes by the Representation Commission, the next two Parliaments, barring overhangs, will be made up of 72 elected Members (65 general electorate seats and seven Maori seats) and 48 Members chosen from party lists, preserving the total of 120 Members overall.

Yet, when the Royal Commission on the Electoral System reported back in 1986 and recommended the introduction of the MMP system, it did so on the basis of there being 60 electorate seats (including General and Maori seats) and 60 list seats to achieve proportionality.

Contrary to popular mythology, that recommendation was never adopted by either the Labour Government in office at the time or the National Government which followed.

The true proportionately of the original 50:50 split between electorate seats and list seats envisaged by the Royal Commission will have long since disappeared ...

When the legislation establishing the MMP electoral system for the 1996 General Election and beyond was passed in 1993, it was for a 120 seat Parliament divided between 65 directly elected Members (60 in general seats and five in Maori seats) and 55 Members selected from party lists.

Since then, the number of general seats has increased in accordance with overall population movements by five (including the latest changes) and Maori seats by two, while the number of list seats has been reduced by seven.

It is estimated that by the time of the next boundary changes, due for the 2026 General Election, the numbers of general seats will have increased to 66, and Maori seats to nine, leaving only 45 list seats in a Parliament of still 120 seats overall.

The true proportionately of the original 50:50 split between electorate seats and list seats envisaged by the Royal Commission will have long since disappeared – with the system heading towards a hardly proportional at all 65:35 split between electorate and list seats.

While the Labour and National Parties have won the majority of the list seats since 1996, list seats have nevertheless been the primary way smaller parties have gained representation in Parliament.

This trend is bad for our democracy, and completely contrary to the “Towards a Better Democracy” mantra the Royal Commission promoted.

While the Labour and National Parties have won the majority of the list seats since 1996, list seats have nevertheless been the primary way smaller parties have gained representation in Parliament. Therefore, reducing the number of list seats reduces the capacity of smaller parties to be represented in Parliament, thus eroding the concept of Parliament as a House of Representatives.

Add to this the current Government’s previously stated plan to abolish the one-seat threshold (now in fascinating abeyance, it would seem, as the possibility of electorate “deals” to save both the Greens’ and New Zealand First’s electoral bacon are mooted) and the prospective electoral mountain that smaller and emerging parties have to climb to gain Parliamentary representation gets that much higher.

One way of overcoming this would be to compensate the loss of list seats, so that every time the Representation Commission increased the number of electorate seats because of population growth, an equivalent list seat was added. Now, ever since the Margaret Robertson Citizens’ Initiated Referendum of 1999 calling for the size of Parliament to be reduced to 100 Members, Parliamentarians of every persuasion, fearful of a public backlash, have been similarly opposed to any increase in the size of Parliament beyond 120 Members, but it is surely now time to review that.

Since 1996, New Zealand’s population has grown by nearly 30 percent. Had the size of Parliament been increased over those years to compensate for the reduction of list seats, it would have risen in number to 127 seats in 2020. That is a modest increase of just under 6 percent in Parliament’s size, compared to the 30 percent rise in the general population.

... our Parliamentary democracy is becoming less intimate, and, as a consequence, less representative.

However, it would still leave things far short of the proportionality the Representation Commission recommended. To achieve that goal, the size of Parliament would need to increase to 144 Members in 2020 – 72 from electorate and Maori seats, and 72 from party lists.

Realistically, no government is going to make such a radical move, but, interestingly, even that would still be only a 20 percent increase in Parliament’s size, compared to the larger general population increase.

There is another aspect to this. In 1969 Parliament’s size was increased for the first time since 1902 from 80 (76 general seats and 4 Maori seats) to 84 seats (80 general seats and 4 Maori seats). The total adult population quota per seat was just over 30,000 people. Today, the quota for determining the size of electorate seats is around 65,000 people – more than double the figure of 50 years ago. This is not an argument for doubling the number of electorate seats – that is clearly preposterous and never going to happen – but it is a case of reinforcing the fact that our Parliamentary democracy is becoming less intimate, and, as a consequence, less representative.

In addition to that, over the last thirty years, there have also been significant changes to the shape and size of our second tier of government – local government. Now, with our unicameral Parliament and long tradition of strong Executive Government, alongside a significant reduction in the number of local bodies, we have developed a rather lean and efficient system of government that, while it generally serves us well, is not the most representative of systems. Nevertheless, as a small country – just under 5 million people – we have always to be mindful of the risk of over-government. However, that is currently a distant worry.

When compared to another similar sized country – the Republic of Ireland, for example – we do not do all that well. Ireland’s Parliament, the Dail Eireann, currently comprises 158 directly elected members (the provisions of the Irish Constitution require that there must be one Teachta Dala, TD – or MP – for every 30,000 citizens), about half the current New Zealand quota. But, in addition, Ireland also has a non-elected Upper House (Seanad Eireann) of 60 Members, making a total of 218 members over the two Houses. While there is no suggestion of an Upper House being restored in New Zealand, (or credible reason to do so) the relevant point is about the total number of Irish Parliamentary representatives, compared to New Zealand.

One day, when there is a meaningful and thorough public debate about constitutional reform (remember,  this is the discussion every government says is inevitable, but which no government has ever had the basic courage to initiate) issues like this will hopefully receive their proper airing.

Maybe we will then be brave enough to confront and resolve not only the bigger questions about our constitutional structure – such as when we become a republic – but also more basic and immediate questions about how unrepresentative our current Parliamentary system is steadily becoming.

Sadly, though, that day seems as far off as ever, which means the erosion of our proportional representation system is set to continue for some considerable time yet.

Get it early – This article was first published on Newsroom Pro and included in Bernard Hickey’s ‘8 Things’ morning email of the latest in-depth business and political analysis. Get it early by subscribing now or starting a 28-day free trial.

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