Comment

The problems with an MMP-tweaking referendum

MMP badly needs reform – especially the iniquitous five per cent threshold – and the Government’s idea of holding a referendum on it has a lot of merit. But Bryce Edwards argues that there are many reasons to be wary of the proposed 2020 electoral reform referendum. 

The suggestion of MMP reform was rightly labelled as “marvellous” by deputy prime minister Winston Peters a few weeks ago in an interview on Q+A. The electoral system certainly needs some decent tweaks now that we have had eight general elections under MMP, and we can clearly see some of the inadequacies.

The two elements of MMP most often identified as needing reform are the five per cent MMP threshold and the “coat-tailing” provision. These were also identified by the 2012 Electoral Commission review as requiring alteration.

The idea of fixing these issues via a referendum is generally a sound proposal. Electoral reform requires constitutional change which can have a significant impact on election outcomes, and therefore it’s appropriate that the voting public get to decide. The incumbent political parties should not have the final say on issues that they themselves have such strong self-interest in. 

Of course, that’s where the whole proposal for a referendum becomes a problem. All parties in Parliament have an interest in what MMP tweaks are proposed. That’s why the then-Minister of Justice, Judith Collins, shelved the Electoral Commission’s 2012 review recommendations – the National Party felt they would be disadvantaged by the changes. 

So, does that mean the Labour-led Government might be given an advantage as a result of any changes to the electoral system? Quite possibly. The new Minister of Justice, Andrew Little, has indicated that a referendum question would likely involve implementing the 2012 review recommendations to abolish the “coat-tail” rule and reduce the threshold to four per cent.

The parties most likely to benefit from this are New Zealand First and the Greens, who often struggle to stay above the current threshold, putting their Parliamentary survival in doubt. Therefore, a reduction to four per cent would advantage those two parties, and make the future re-election of the current government more likely. Meanwhile, by abolishing “coat-tailing”, the Act Party would lose its dream of building its MP numbers via David Seymour’s hold on Epsom. Self-interest exists all round. 

What’s more, New Zealand First is said to favour having as many referendum questions as possible to accompany the Greens’ cannabis reform question, if the referendum option is held at the same time as the 2020 general election. New Zealand First fears that having only the cannabis question would affect voter turnout, with many additional liberal voters casting a vote because of the attraction of drug reform, advantaging parties like the Greens and disadvantaging New Zealand First. 

New Zealand First is therefore lobbying to have questions on euthanasia and MMP included in the referendum omnibus. And, not surprisingly, the Greens are arguing against this – preferring that the cannabis question be solo. 

There are other reasons to be wary of having three different questions asked alongside a general election. Would the public really get the chance to have a proper debate on any of the individual issues? Or would it just become a morass of too much change to properly consider the merits?

The lesson of the last three decades of MMP is that having any threshold is acting as an anti-competitive barrier against the development of new political parties.

Then there is the problem of the options that the Government seems to be suggesting for MMP reform – the abolition of “coat-tailing” and the reduction of the threshold to four per cent. These recommendations from 2012 are possibly discredited now and, if anything, the Government needs to assess their merits first, especially since we’ve had two further general elections since these recommendations were made.

Even back in 2012 the recommendations were highly contentious. Many critics – including myself – said that these reforms would do little to improve MMP, and they might even make it worse. This is especially the case with the idea of abolishing the “coat-tailing” rule – which would mean that smaller political parties are further discriminated against by the electoral system. For example, if a party won one electorate seat and three per cent of the vote, they would still only be represented by one MP – which is not proportional.

Similarly, the recommendation to keep the threshold – albeit make it slightly lower, at four per cent – also operates to keep small parties out of Parliament. The lesson of the last three decades of MMP is that having any threshold is acting as an anti-competitive barrier against the development of new political parties. Instead of fostering new political parties, it seems that MMP is actually leading to fewer parties. 

After losing parties from Parliament such as the Alliance, Māori Party, Mana and United Future, we almost appear to be headed back towards a two-party system. The promised new parties haven’t prospered, and even though parties like TOP could get 63,261 votes (or 2.4 per cent), the current anti-democratic rules keep them out. 

For this reason, electoral reform campaigner and blogger, No Right Turn, has blogged today to say: “on the current proposal, I will be voting against, and encouraging everyone who wants a properly representative democracy to do likewise.” He adds that “Labour's preferred changes are blatantly driven by self-interest: support their coalition partners while nobbling National's”, and that overall such a referendum proposal would be a “step backwards, not a step forward”.

The worry is that there is probably only one chance to have a public debate on tweaking MMP. And if the Government goes with the current options, it will be a waste of an opportunity for a more thorough and proper fixing of the system.

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