Dunne: Let’s get rid of MMP altogether

The Government's proposed electoral reforms need to be rejected outright in favour of moving to a single transferable vote system, whereby every MP is directly elected by a constituency and is accountable to that constituency, says Peter Dunne.

When politicians start to talk about making changes to the electoral system, it is time to be wary. They do not do such things unless there is something in it for them.

So when Justice Minister Andrew Little starts musing about a referendum to “tidy up” one or two “quirks” of the MMP system, rest assured that he is not doing so out of genuine concern for its credibility and wellbeing, but rather for the protection of the electoral wellbeing of the Labour Party.

Over the last thirty years since the Royal Commission recommended the move to MMP, both the National and Labour Parties have done their best to subvert it.

First, they rejected the Royal Commission’s recommendations of winning 4 percent of the party vote or one electorate seat as the thresholds for representation, in favour of a 5 percent party vote or one electorate seat threshold, thus immediately making it more difficult for smaller parties to gain representation. And then, during the public referendum process in the early 1990s, the leaders of both parties warned the public of the "dangers" of moving to MMP, thus assuring its adoption in the 1993 binding referendum.   

... neither wishing to give up on a system which, over the years, has comfortably assured both of a period in government, every few years.

Both Labour and National have long been uncomfortable with the one seat threshold, even though both on occasion have been happy to rely on it when it came to enabling them to form a government. (Labour had no such qualms in 2005, nor did National in 2014, to be precise.)

Now, Labour - presumably at the behest of New Zealand First, a previous beneficiary itself of the one seat rule - is trying to get rid of it, with the sop of reducing the party vote threshold to 4 percent. That would still leave the bar for representation higher than that recommended by the Royal Commission all those years ago.

If amendments are to be made to the electoral system the fundamental principle they should follow is to enhance the opportunities for the representation in Parliament of different ideas, not reduce such opportunities. Any proposal that further limits the chances of small or new parties gaining representation should not get beyond constitutional first base.

And yet, since the advent of MMP neither Labour nor National have ever proposed changes to either the electoral system or the Electoral Commission’s election funding rules and allocations to make it easier for new parties to gain representation. They have constantly sought to lift the representation barrier, rather than lower it, and protect their own historical positions when it comes to election funding, claiming all the while that that is in the interests of democracy.

The problem is while both Labour and National have each led good and stable governments under MMP so far, both have never really got the hang of nurturing support partners, although the 2014-2017 Key/English Government probably came closest. Ideally, both the old parties would still prefer to govern alone if they could, the complete antithesis of what proportional representation is meant to be all about. 

Labour and National have an understandable fear of greater diversity causing political fracturing and instability. But that high-blown portrayal of principle really comes down to neither wishing to give up on a system which, over the years, has comfortably assured both of a period in government, every few years. While any risk to that may not suit their particular interests, it is a matter for the electorate to resolve, and ultimately its choices have to be respected, however inconvenient for the two old parties.

Labour tried a pre-nup with the Greens in 2017 more to protect against the loss of too many votes to their left at a time when the Greens were rising and Labour plateauing (and then along came Turei and Ardern to turn things completely upside down). In the end, it all counted for nothing because of the formation the current coalition of convenience, where New Zealand First fires all the shots anyway. And right a now a senior National MP (and leadership aspirant) is out there saying National should simply forget about support parties, and just go all out to govern alone after future elections.

How fair is the current system when for example, nearly one third of our current Ministers were rejected in individual electorate contests in 2017?

While there is a still a long way to go, there is a possibility that the 2020 election will see Parliament returned to the comfortable two party club it was for most of the time under First Past the Post. Although the two old parties might rejoice at that prospect, they should never forget that it was the public‘s distaste for that Tweedledum-Tweedledee oligarchy that set us off down the proportional representation road in the first place. An astute politician might infer therefore from that that the best way to guard against that public scorn in the future is to broaden the scope of Parliamentary representation, not restrict it.

A truly bold politician might go even one step further and promote the replacement of MMP altogether, and so do away once and for all with the alleged need for tinkering amendments, by moving to STV, the single transferable vote, whereby every MP is directly elected by a constituency and is accountable to that constituency. That would do away with the party list system whereby so many unknown candidates find themselves MPs, even if the electorate had failed to elect them  directly, or had even voted them out on election day. (How fair is the current system when for example, nearly one third of our current Ministers were rejected in individual electorate contests in 2017?)

Now shifting to a system where every Member of Parliament was directly elected would be a reform worth doing. It would certainly shake up the system; provide fairer and better representation; and make every MP directly accountable to a particular electorate, rather than the party bosses. For those reasons alone, there will be no politician bold enough to take it up, when the option of “tweaking” the system to preserve partisan advantage is so much easier. 

That is why the Government‘s present proposals deserve to be rejected outright.

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