In November voters achieved a change of government, just like in the old first-past-the-post (FPP) days. But will that save MMP?
MMP has been on life support since Winston Peters, who had made a career of accusing other politicians of breaking promises, put back into office a man he had said was not fit to be Prime Minister. Big majorities of voters have consistently told pollsters they want back to FPP.
On election night those same voters were treated insultingly by the Electoral Office’s meander through the count. It wasn’t all the Electoral Office’s fault – the politicians could have modernised the voting system in 1997 but chose not to. But the ultra-slow count was unforgiveable.
Whether the Electoral Office will be forgiven will depend on the review commissioned by Justice Secretary Colin Keating, in whose department it is inappropriately housed, and then on the parliamentary justice and electoral law committee’s triennial review of electoral law and practice.
An obvious organisational improvement, rejected in the 1997 post-election review, is to create a one-stop shop electoral commission, as in Australia, to handle enrolment, education, registration of parties, allocation of free broadcasting time and running the election.
This is now split among three agencies. Rolling them into one organisation would not stop the work bunching around election day, of course, but it would provide more expert and organisational hands at the top at critical times.
Another obvious step, also rejected by obtuse politicians in 1997, would be to modernise the count. Now the official count cannot begin until 10 days after election day, to allow time for special votes cast outside voters’ electorates to be taken to their home electorates. But bullock carts went out long ago; couriers take one day; aeroplanes can bring votes from foreign parts within 48 hours, faxes within minutes.
And that’s with 1970s technology. Using smart cards and email, the count could be wrapped up on election night, judicial recounts over in a week.
Don’t hold your breath. Computer and telecommunications quirkiness makes politicians and bureaucrats rightly nervous. A truly electronic election, with the result known at, say, 7.01pm, is a long way off.
And the fun would go out of the election count. The coalition’s majority hung for 10 days on the Coromandel result, then another week on the recount in Tauranga.
But this “fun” comes from the fact that MMP sets a hurdle of 5% of the party vote for parties to get seats in Parliament (the Christian Coalition, with 4.3%, had no seats in the 1996-99 Parliament) but takes the hurdle away if a party wins an electorate seat (New Zealand First, with 4.3%, has five seats in this Parliament).
Logic requires either the threshold to be abolished (the Israeli situation) or proportionality to be reserved to those who get 5% (or maybe 4%), with any electorates won by a sub-threshold party counted as independents’ seats are now.
That is one issue for the special MMP committee chaired by Speaker Jonathan Hunt. There are many other issues, including whether to go along with the non-binding citizen’s-initiated referendum demanding a cut in MPs to 99.
Doing that would distort proportionality during the 2000s decade as the number of electorates rises under the existing formula after each census (69 likely for the 2002 election, including seven Maori electorates, up from today’s six). Maintaining proportionality would require the ratio of electorate and list seats to be fixed, say at 66-33 – but that would over time reduce the number of electorates in the South Island, provoking loud protests, and might also require capping the number of Maori seats, provoking even louder protests.
Deciding those issues would probably need a referendum. It would definitely require a referendum to replace MMP – whether with FPP or, more likely, with the supplementary member system, which is FPP with, in addition, a small number of list MPs allocated proportionately to parties.
But could the parties agree on a referendum? National and Labour might – any change would advantage them because they almost all the electorate seats. But there is a strong view in Parliament that Hunt’s committee should move only by consensus and all the smaller parties need MMP. A National/Labour gang-up on them might rebound badly.
A recipe for paralysis? Some – even among those in large parties who have to manage the review – are hoping that if the Clark-Anderton government operates moderately well and good economic conditions improve the popular mood, public urge for change will fade.