No flicker left to fan

Random thought on the MMP review committee

Random thought on MMP Helen Clark once led the charge against MMP. Now she has doused the fires of public resentment with cautious centrism. The MPs on the review committee had no flicker left to fan into life.

So, unless Parliament as a whole has a fit and decides to overrule its committee, MMP stays intact.

MMP won support in 1992 and 1993 because of anger at single-party governments imposing rapid economic reform. Even then it only won by a whisker.

After 1996, when voters thought they had voted National out of office only to find they had in fact voted it back in, they were understandably angry at the system. Big majorities developed for a return to FPP (first-past-the-post), in effect venting disapproval of New Zealand First’s betrayal.

The fact that in 1999 voters could vote for a discernible alternative government and succeed in electing it and then find it operating much like per-1984 governments took the sting out of their anger. The committee had no popular groundswell on which to base bold measures — even a referendum which might have given the option of the much preferable single-transferable-vote system (STV).

As an insurance policy in 1999, voters heavily backed a non-binding citizens-initiated referendum to reduce the number of MPs. But if MMP is to stay, it needs somewhere near 120 MPs to operate the committee system — which has been one of Parliament’s successes in the past 10 years. Committees now routinely change legislation in response to evidence from the public. In the days of single-party governments ministers dictated to committees what to do.

So MP numbers are is a matter of the mechanics of MMP, not the substance of the electoral system. MPs could safely ditch the notion of a binding referendum.

In fact, nearly everything has got short shrift from the committee. Thoughts of abolishing the strange rule that gives proportionality to any party that gets one electorate seat — perhaps traded off with a lowering from 5 per cent to 4 per cent of the party vote threshold otherwise needed for seats — faded long ago.

The committee’s paralysis stems also from having adopted the practice that has grown up under MMP of requiring the business committee, which broadly sets Parliament’s agenda, to make decisions only with near-unanimity. The big parties and the small parties have such diametrically opposed interests in the electoral system that they could never agree.

And the big parties have no stomach for forcing change — not even, say, to a system which divides the two votes so that proportionality is only of list MPs and would give many more seats to National and Labour, an alternative which many voters in 1993 thought they were endorsing and which many would-be reformers would have settled for.

In fact, the big parties are getting adjusted to MMP. They still call most of the shots. Which is pretty close to business as usual pre-MMP. When did Helen Clark last call for a return to FPP?

So is that it? MMP forever? Some MPs have muttered that it was too early to test the new system. Maybe after another couple of elections…