Better Democracy NZ is a non-partisan, non-profit organisation.

Our mission is to foster the improvement of New Zealand's democratic system and encourage the use of direct democracy through the

Veto, Citizens' Initiated and Recall referendum.

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Tuesday, 15 June 2010

MMP: To Disembowel or Develop?

By Steve Baron

It was Winston Churchill who said, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Like the names of loves long lost, we often forget, and so it is with

politics. Politicians hungry for power often pray on this weakness of human nature and give us the opportunity to make the same mistakes over again. Yes indeed, we do have short memories, especially on political matters. At the next election voters will decide whether or not to keep MMP or replace it with something else.

So what does history tell us about our voting system and why did we change to MMP? For a start, in 1978 and 1981, the Labour Party received more votes than the National Party but National remained the government, because they held more electorate seats. That is how First Past the Post (FPP) works. In 1978 the Social Credit Party (now Democrats for Social Credit) received sixteen percent of the vote, but only one seat in Parliament, then twenty one percent of the vote in 1981 which gave them only two seats in Parliament. In 1984 the New Zealand Party received twelve percent of the vote, but no Members of Parliament. These results, along with a growing distrust of politicians due to many broken election promises, and New Zealander's innate belief in fairness, led to calls for a Royal Commission, and change.

As one of the many New Zealanders who got to vote for the first time in my life as an eighteen year old, in 1978, it just didn't seem fair that the party that got the most votes didn't become the government, and the votes received by third parties did not reflect that vote in Parliament. In other words many votes were 'wasted votes'.

Even as far back as 1979 there were calls for change, Professor Geoffrey Palmer, later to become Prime Minister in a Labour government wrote,
New Zealand passes too many laws and it passes them too quickly. Legislative overload is not unique to New Zealand, although it is more pronounced here
than in most other countries.
As a proponent of MMP, Professor Palmer saw this as an opportunity to slow this process.

I also remember Garry Knapp, leader of the Democratic Party (formerly Social Credit and now Democrats for Social Credit) and a number of supporters barricading themselves into one of Parliaments Select Committee rooms, as a protest to highlight the unfairness of FPP. They remained there for a number of days, even taking a porta-loo in with them. Knapp was seen on the six o'clock news waving from the balcony in defiance, after requests from the Speaker of the House and Police to remove themselves.

National won the 1990 election and a date was set in 1992 to hold a non-binding referendum to decide if the existing system of FPP was to be retained or if it should be replaced with a new voting system which was to be decided in a later binding referendum. An overwhelming 84.5% of voters wanted the system to changed.

After this, battle lines were drawn and all hell broke loose. All sorts of organisations and lobby groups were set up either to support MMP or to denounce it, leading up to the 1993 general election where the second referendum would take place. The Electoral Reform Coalition was the main advocate for MMP. It was organised by Phil Saxby, a Labour Party member, along with many other individuals, as well as members of many of the smaller political parties who joined together on a shoestring budget to bring about change. Political Scientists also entered the frey saying greater representation of minorities, furthermore, has been shown to lead to greater trust in government on the part of minority citizens.

On the other side of the battle lines was the Coalition for Better Government who opposed MMP. It was organised by wealthy businessman Peter Shirtcliffe, chairman of Telecom New Zealand. He was quoted as saying MMP "would bring chaos". They ran full page adverts in major newspapers at great expense. Some newspapers at the time estimated they spent over $1.5m. Australian academic, Malcolm McKerras, was invited to New Zealand to put his case against MMP. In 1988 McKerras had said the Royal Commission's recommendation was, "so radical that it had virtually no prospect of popular endorsement at a referendum", and following the 1992 referendum, had condemned MMP as "a rat bag scheme". The Green Party later made the comment, “From our point of view McKerras became our secret weapon with his arrogance tipping the swinging voters in our direction.”

Journalist Graeme Hunt was also an opponent of MMP. He claimed it would be the “electoral disaster of the century”. He also argued that the Royal Commission had been “stacked” with a Royal Commission in favour of MMP by Geoffrey Palmer (an MMP supporter) who by then was Minister of Justice and responsible for deciding who would be on the Royal Commission. Hunt also argued that MMP would elect “political greenhorns to positions of power” and would allow the “tail to wag the dog” as minor parties would get too much power. Many opponents also claimed that MMP would cause unstable governments. National Cabinet Minister Bill Birch said MMP would be "a catastrophic disaster for democracy". Former National Party Minister of Finance, Ruth Richardson, said MMP "would bring economic ruin". In effect they were trying to convince the public that we could trust them, and that our faith should be put in them, and not some new political system that would limit their powers.

The first MMP election in 1996 produced a more diverse representation as expected. A record number of women were elected, along with an increase in the number of Maori and Pacific Island MPs. A lot of water has passed under the political bridge, as there have now been a number of MMP elections. The economy has not gone to ruin as predicted. Neither has it been a catastrophe for democracy and governments have been extremely stable after an initial settling in period. Perhaps one could argue that from time to time the tail has wagged the dog, however, the alternative to that is the undesirability of absolute power in the hands of just one political party.

There are also calls to change MMP to another voting system. The main options being Approval Voting (AV), Preferential Vote (PR), Single Transferable Vote (STV), and the Borda Count (BC)

AV is a simple and easy to understand system, as well as simple to implement with little change needed to ballot papers. It was first formulated in 1971 by Robert J. Weber who in 1977 also wrote a book called "Comparison of Voting Systems". AV became popular in the 1980's when a group of academics started to promote it for use in the American elections. It was never adopted there, but is used by the United Nations to elect the Secretary General. According to proponents, a major virtue of AV compared to conventional voting systems is its greater 'honesty' in the sense that it encourages sincere voting and is less vulnerable to strategic manipulation. Also, AV does not violate monotonicity. Having non-monotonicity means that getting more votes may actually stop a person from being elected. Rather a strange consequence, but evidently mathematically probable. So therefore, if it is good enough for the United Nations, is it good enough for New Zealand? Here's what outspoken AV proponent Professor Steven Brams has to say.
While AV is a strikingly simple election reform for finding consensus choices
in single-winner elections, in elections with more than one winner - such as
for a council or a legislature - AV would not be desirable if the goal is to
mirror a diversity of views, especially of minorities; for this purpose, other
voting systems should be considered.
Given these comments above it is hard to choose AV as an option.

Some, like Peter Shirtcliffe, prefer Preferential Voting (PV). This is certainly a better option than FPP, because it will stop the most unpopular candidate from winning (as can happen under FPP). However, PV allows popular candidates to be eliminated too early making it an unappealing aspect of this system. PV is also susceptible to insincere voting as well as bullet voting. This is a tactic where even though a voter can select more than one candidate, they only tick their first preference. If enough people do this, the system effectively reverts to FPP, which is undesirable. However, rules can be imposed to penalise this tactic, although this could possibly result in high numbers of spoiled ballots.

One system that has an almost cult following is STV. It has grown in popularity and was even considered by the 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System. Thomas Wright Hill first came up with the concept of the transferable vote in 1821, but it was never used. Then in 1855 Carl Andrae promoted using it for Denmark elections. Most people credit Englishman Thomas Hare with the concept however, as he became well known in Australia where it has been used. In Australia STV is known as the Hare-Clark proportional method. STV is used in Ireland, the Australian and South African Senate, Malta, Tasmania and even in a number of local body elections in New Zealand. The down side to STV is that very few people understand how it works. STV was rejected by the Plant Committee, which reported to the British Labour Party, because of non-monotonicity. STV is also susceptible to insincere voting. However, STV certainly achieves more diverse representation by allowing more minorities to be elected.

Another option is the Border Count (BC). This election system was developed by Frenchman Jean-Charles de Borda, in 1770. A little known fact is that the BC is successfully used on two Pacific Islands being the Republic of Nauru, the Republic of Kiribati and also Slovenia. The idea of BC is to take all voter preferences into account. This is a desirable feature, because a candidate is unable to lose by 'doing better' as can happen under other systems. Samuel Merrill conducted a study of seven voting systems, which showed the BC was the most likely procedure to select both a Condorcet winner (round robin against all candidates) and the candidate with the highest social utility. However, the BC can be susceptible to insincere voting and small changes to choices can make an immense difference. BC determines the winner of an election by giving each candidate a certain number of points corresponding to the position in which he or she is ranked by each voter. Once all votes have been counted the candidate with the most points is the winner. Some feel this is more favourable than a simple majority because it often elects a candidate more broadly acceptable to voters. It is considered more consensus orientated.

While there is no “perfect” system I can't help but feel the current MMP system is reasonably fair and reasonably understood by New Zealanders. There is some controversy over the fact that NZ First received more votes than the ACT Party for example, but failed to meet the five percent threshold and therefore did not receive any seats in Parliament, whereas ACT (with less votes than NZ First) got a number of MPs elected because Rodney Hide won the seat of Epsom. Perhaps this needs to be addressed by lowering the threshold to less than five percent or simply doing away with the ruling that allows a party to get seats in Parliament based on the percentage of votes received, if it can get just one Member of Parliament elected.

In my opinion, MMP has certainly been a step forward in our democracy and any consideration to changing the current system should be taken carefully and slowly for such an important constitutional type issue. MMP may not have given us as much control as some would have liked, but that is unlikely to happen until New Zealanders get to experience what 190 million people in Switzerland, Italy, Liechtenstein and twenty three States in the USA now embrace, the referendum system. This experience has proved how successful binding referendums can be at empowering nations, deciding national issues of importance and giving voters more control over issues that directly affect their lives. The Swiss have used direct democracy for over one hundred and thirty years through the Veto, Recall (which would allow us to remove unwanted List MPs) and Citizens Initiated referendum. All of which are binding on the government.

So, now the debate starts all over again, but does New Zealand really want to go back to the days when Labour got more votes than National, but National remained the government even with a minority vote? Or have a return to the old two party club and the fastest law makers in the west, as Geoffrey Palmer referred to New Zealand? Disembowelling our electoral system by returning to FPP would be a step backward. Let us improve on what we have and step forward into a better democracy. Only time will tell what we decide, but at least we all get to participate in the debate.

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2 comments:

jdrury said...

Steve,
I have been a supporter of the cause since you started. I believe in Binding Referendums, as much as you, but unless a party is formed very quickly now with a format that will satisfy the majority of voters, you may as well give up. MMP will not survive, and preferential voting must take over. We have to get rid of this position of very minor parties holding too much power.
All the best to you in the future,
John Drury, Orewa.

Steve Baron said...

Ok John, perhaps small parties do have a little too much power from time to time, but how do you see another system as fixing your perceived problem? PV has many flaws as I have already pointed out.