Monday, 7 September 2009

New Zealand may ditch fair voting system

I came to the UK sixteen years ago, almost to the day. I remember how many people in the Liberal Democrats and a few beyond, were very interested to know about how and why New Zealanders had changed our voting system. People asked (and still ask) if there were any lessons from NZ that could be applied here. The answer is yes. But Kiwis may be about to make another change– to a voting system that is much less “proportional” and looks more like first past the post.

In a referendum held on the same day as the 1993 general election, Kiwis voted by 54 to 46 percent to scrap “first-past-the-post” and bring in the mixed member proportional (MMP) system. [For further details, click here and here]. General elections were held using MMP in 1996, 1999, 2002, 2005 and 2008. After last year’s vote, a coalition led by the (centre right) National Party took over. (The line-up is National/ACT/Maori Party/UnitedFuture NZ)

National promised to hold a binding referendum on MMP, to be held no later than 2011, when the next general election is due. This would:
“. . . give people a choice between retaining MMP without any further consideration, or having a further vote on MMP alongside another electoral system or systems.”

That seems fair enough. When the change to MMP was made, it was expected that Kiwis would one day have a chance to review their decision. Five elections on, they should be able to look afresh at the voting system.

But National’s election policy left open a lot of questions, such as the timing of the vote, how many referendums will be held and what the options will be.

It now looks as if the government plans a two-stage process. The first referendum, which would be held at the time of the 2011 election, would ask voters whether they thought there should be a change of electoral system. If change was favoured, a second referendum would be held before 2014 on the options. We still don’t know what the options will be: the cabinet is still working this one out.

Prime Minister John Key has said today that:

“New Zealanders have become accustomed to a proportional system, so I personally have been of the view it would be unlikely to go back to first past the post.”

He went on:

"Whether they might consider an alternative proportional system is something that's in their hands. I think it's a bit early to tell at this point."

Smelled a rat yet? Key personally favours the supplementary member (SM) system, in which the vast majority of MPs would be chosen from single member constituencies with a smaller number from party lists, to provide a limited “top up” for parties who had not won constituencies in proportion to their overall support.

SM is a “proportional” voting system only in the sense that a whitebait is a fish. It would advantage the two major parties over the smaller ones (apart from, possibly, the Maori Party). But it would almost certainly help National more than Labour. [There’s more on this point, here.]

And isn’t it funny how the anti-MMP campaigners, former Telecom chairman Peter Shirtcliffe (who led the pro-first-past-the-post campaign in 1993) and commentator Graeme Hunt are backing the supplementary member system?

UK electoral reformers should keep watch what the Kiwis do. Just as they used the NZ precedent as a model that can be followed, their opponents can do the same if Kiwis eventually get rid of MMP.

With an eye to any future UK vote on electoral reform, they should also watch the process and timetable used for the MMP referendum. For instance, the Greens’ co-leader Metiria Turei has called for an independent review, with full public consultation on how the system is working, before any referendum is held. These things are all about party advantage -- just like the debate on voting systems itself.

1 comment:

Nicola Wood said...

It has since been made clear that there will be no spending caps on campaigning for this referendum regardless of the fact that it's to be held in conjunction with a General Election which does have a spending cap. So unfair (See: Peter Shirtcliffe's bank balance v Campaign to Save MMP's bank balance).