Drop the waiver rule, says MMP sire

The man who gave us MMP now wants a change which would have meant New Zealand First got only one seat in the 1999 election instead of the five it has.

Sir John Wallace, chair of the 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System then first chair of the Electoral Commission made his comments in a paper prepared for a conference at Victoria University Law School at the weekend to mark the retirement of Sir Ivor Richardson as President of the Appeal Court.

Sir John said he now definitely favoured a 5 per cent party vote threshold before a party gets seats in Parliament. The royal commission recommended 4 per cent but he told the conference 5 per cent guarded against “the possibility of ineffective government if there are too many small parties”.

New Zealand First got only 4.3 per cent in 1999, yet is in Parliament. That is because of the “waiver” the royal commission recommended and the government accepted: that if a party wins an electorate seat, it gets seats proportional to its party vote just like an above-5 per cent party.

So New Zealand First has five seats on the strength of Winston Peters’ 63-vote win in Tauranga in 1999. Yet in 1996 the Christian Coalition, which got almost exactly the same percentage of the party vote but won no electorate seats, got no seats in Parliament at all. United Future’s Peter Dunne has won his electorate seat in both 1996 and 1999 but has not won enough party votes to bring any other MPs in with him.

Sir John told the law conference that “some voters regard the waiver of the threshold as a feature of MMP which adds interest and spice to the election campaign.

“It also helps to prevent wasting the votes of electors who vote for a party which does not pass the 5 per cent threshold and, if the party has some support outside the electorate, helps prevent a sole-MP party.”

But Sir John said he now thinks the waiver “is seen by voters as encouraging bargaining or ‘wheeler-dealing’ between two parties as to whether or not both should field a constituency (electorate) candidate in a particular electorate.

“In a close election this can make the difference between a party being able to form a governing coalition or ending up in opposition.

“The New Zealand voting public is unhappy and cynical about political conduct that anything which can have an aura of clever practice is better avoided. I would therefore abolish the waiver.”

Sir John rejected the need for “waka-jumping” legislation, which the government passed but which is now under attack in the wake of the Alliance split.

He said it was unnecessary because:

* “the impact on proportionality and a government’s majority is usually small”;

* “the MP defecting may be the one who wants to keep the party to the principles upon which it was elected”;

* “once elected, MPs have a widely representative function”; and

* “if party hoppers are seen to have acted in a way open to criticism they will inevitably disappear from Parliament in the next election because they will not find a place on any party’s list and will have no chance of success in a constituency” — as, in fact, happened in 1999.

Sir John also canvassed but rejected two suggestions to reduce continuing public criticism of list MPs. He was surprised by the criticism because commentators and MPs in Germany, from where the royal commission borrowed MMP, made no distinction between electorate and list MPs.

“The volume of criticism (of list MPs) has now reduced but those who object to list MPs are not mollified by, and indeed often decline to accept, that there is anything to be said in their favour,” he said.

One way to dampen this which the royal commission had considered but rejected was that voters could be given the ability to amend the order of the lists — but in countries which allow this few voters do reorder the lists. The royal commission also considered providing for the best losers in constituencies to top up a party’s quota but rejected it because “there is then no ability in the party to order the list so as to achieve a good variety of list MPs”.

Among other changes Sir John wants are:

* another referendum to extend the parliamentary term to four years on the ground that MMP has provided checks and balances to the unfettered power FPP governments used to have;

* the Electoral Commission to take over all responsibility for monitoring and running elections instead of some items remaining with government departments;

* requiring a “constructive vote of no-confidence” to remove a government — that is, there must be an alternative government available that has the confidence of Parliament;

* a referendum on whether to keep MMP if enough voters ask for one — but not until MMP has been tested for longer.