Friday, 2 January 2009

Proportional representation? More please!

In their manifesto, the Nats promised to 'hold a binding referendum on MMP no later than 2011'. I don't know where the impetus for this came from, but I'm guessing it's from residual first-past-the-post hardliners who'd like to see a return to the 'good old days'. I'd quite happily see electoral reform too, but in the other direction - much more proportionality.

During the referenda in the nineties, there was hand-wringing from FPP supporters who said that a move to proportional representation would affect the stability of government. They felt an undemocratic, minority government was a reasonable price to pay for stable government - defined as single-party government which could ram through legislation as quick as it liked, without regard to the public or its own election promises.

Even if you accept that it's OK to trade off democracy for stability in this way, the stability argument is a crock. Muldoon's government fell apart when Waring crossed the floor to vote with the Opposition. The fourth Labour government which followed combusted in a screaming pile of shite, with three leaders in six years. The pre-MMP National government which followed had its own internal ructions between the PM and Minister of Finance. Stability, my arse. And while MMP did get off to a rocky start, with much 'waka-jumping', it a) was not necessarily worse than the earlier system, and b) seems to be improving as the style of politics changes in response to the need for parties to cooperate more.

So if I could wave my magic wand and reform the electoral system, I'd do two things to enhance proportionality. First, I'd lower the 5% threshold which parties must cross to be elected, unless they win a candidate seat. I dislike NZ First and ACT alike; but it seems patently unfair that the not quite 1 in 20 who voted for Winston and co have no representation, but the much smaller number who voted ACT have three MPs (who in fact hold ministerial portfolios).

Second, I'd get rid of electorate seats. As far as I can tell, they serve very little purpose under the current system except generating the annoying overhang, which produces unfair situations like the NZ First/ACT one. I think the reason we have MMP, and therefore electorate seats, was that when we changed our electoral system in the 90s, a jump to complete proportionality was too scary and radical - no one could be entirely sure how it would pan out.

Now here we are, more than a decade later, and the way we express our political selves has changed - including as a result of the net. For example, if I had some burning issue of particular interest to me - a women's reproductive health issue, for the sake of argument - I wouldn't take it to my local MP. The very notion of discussing such things with Trevor Mallard is appalling (if strangely amusing). Rather, I'd simply email an MP I thought would be sympathetic - probably one from a party which more closely represents my beliefs.

Electorate MPs ultimately aren't there to pursue local issues either. Some do; others don't. Very few would pursue an issue that conflicted with the policy of their own party, particularly if they were in a senior position; ie a Cabinet minister. That would not be career-enhancing.

I can only think of two reasons for retaining the electorate seat aspect of the system we have now: it may produce some geographical spread of MPs across the country, and the overhang has delivered a stronger Maori voice in Parliament. The geographical benefit can be overstated, though. A political candidate can stand outside the electorate s/he lives in, and even if s/he lives in the electorate s/he represents, there's no guarantee his/her party will take these regional concerns seriously. And the stronger Maori voice in Parliament might also be achieved by adjusting whatever formula might be used as the basis of a more proportional system.

What do you lovely readers think?


Dave said...

if every seat was a list seat, who would your MP be if you want to discuss relevant matters? Who would represent you, as a voter if all MPs were list MPs? In my electorate we have three MPs - one constituent, two list. The list MPs serve their parties, the constituent MP is more likely to to listen to the voters.
What would you lower the threshold to? Sugfgest you rethink that one...

Anna said...

All MPs serve their parties. They have two responsibilities - one to the party, and the other to their region - but the party allegiance always comes first in practice. If you're a National voter and take a concern that reflects your political beliefs to your Labour electorate MP, you're not likely to get much advocacy from them. Likewise, if I'd gone to Trevor Mallard and told him I didn't like the seabed and foreshore legislation or some other flagship Labour policy, do you really think he would have taken up my cause within government?

Even discussing issues with your local MP isn't really an option, depending on who that person is. In the electorate I lived in previously, you couldn't get an appointment with the electorate MP - he was too busy, so you could only see his staff. And people would take issues that could only be solved at a local (non-Parliamentary) level to him anyway - like their grievances with the power company. I can't name many instances of MPs in government that have actually lobbied their own parties on regional issues. Opposition MPs are more likely to do it; but only so far as it suits the broader purposes of their parties. It's quite clear to me that current electorate representation is pretty weak.

Also, there's no reason why parties shouldn't of their own volition (or under pressure from voters) be more attentive to regional issues. Likewise, the capacity of local body government to deal with regional issues could be strenthened. Parliament isn't the be all and end all.

What do you think lowering the threshold should be rethought? I believe 2% is the threshold in most other proportional representation systems (although I could be wrong about that). I think the electoral commission which recommenced proportional representation in the 80s recommended 4%.

Anna said...

Oops - recommended, not recommenced!

Andrew said...

Dave, the present situation is patently unfair. I supported the introduction of proportional representation because of the very simple premise of "one person, one vote". I still believe in this very strongly. So in my world if a party had enough votes for one MP then one MP they should get. That clearly reflects people's democratic wishes. It's not as if we haven't had plenty of single politician parties represented owing to this bizarre ruling around electorate MPs. I can't for the life of me work out why if a party wins an electorate seat that the threshold then no longer applies. Any thoughts? You suggest Anna rethinks the lowering of the threshold, when in fact because of this bizarre anomaly the threshold doesn't really apply anyway. Personally I hate New Zealand First and everything they stand or don't stand for but if I was one of the 88 000 who voted for them 0n 8 November I'd be pretty pissed off.

You ask who would your M.P. be if they were all from the list. The answer is no-one. What is an electorate MP. but an advocate at a local level. Therefore, if we as a society still want them, they should be elected separately purely as independents with no bearing on the makeup of parliament. I just don't know how you can say that constituent MPs are more likely to listen to the voters. They are there as representatives of their parties just as list MPs are. There is no difference. We have a party-based system which masquerades at electorate level as some sort of impartial group of well-meaning men and women. This is crap and always has been. Otherwise what is the point of having them represent parties in the first place? Would it be acceptable to the parties that selected them if they started canvassing their electorates on every issue and as a result potentially voting against their parties on said issues? Wouldn't the whips have something to say about that? So where's the electorate democracy there? The veneer of non-partisanship would disappear pretty rapidly. The only times this could work is with so-called "conscience votes". However my opinion is with any party worth its salt there should be standard policy positions on those sorts of issues anyway. I believe this is the way the Greens do it. I've never understood why it's okay to have a position on taxes but not on abortion for instance. I certainly wouldn't want or expect to be in a party in which some other members were anti-abortion.

So there you have it. Get rid of electorate MPs. Make it openly what it actually is anyway; a party-run system. Elect separate non-partisan members if it is deemed - perhaps by way of a referendum - that we do actually like the idea of having someone there to talk to in an advocacy capacity: someone who at the moment might be best seen in the character of a Kevin Milne or a John Campbell. And finally of course, lower the threshold to properly recognise people's choices.

Anna said...

Interesting points Andrew - what of MPs who are elected both off the list and as electorate candidates? They are serving two very different masters (in theory at least) - the party on one hand, and the local people who elected them on the other. That's simply not going to work.

Maybe the time has come to think outside the square about how regional issues are actually represented.

Azlemed said...

I have been lucky that when I have issues with winz etc my electorate mps office has dealt with the issues and sorted them out for me. Some electorate mps are very effective at working for the electorate.

I think the 5% threshold needs rethought. it was copied from the german system which had 5% in palce after the war to minimise extremist parties. 2 or 3 % would be better.

I do not like the way a party can win an electorate and then bring in other mp's with them. it seems to be a misrepresentation when act can bring in more mps yet nz first who won more party votes doesnt have a seat in parliament.

Another question would having a lower threshold remove joke parties like Bill and Ben for example... would these people run if there was a real possiblity that they may end up elected?

Azlemed said...

As for one electorate having 3 mps... that is over kill. and gives that electorate an unfair advantage over others esp rural ones . rural people often have no choice and if you are left wing you arent going to go to a national MP with your issues.

I am lucky that I have very easy access to a like minded mp, but if I lived in the rangitikei I would have to go to Simon Powers... he most probabley would not be as helpful if I had issues.

Dave said...

First, I'd lower the 5% threshold which parties must cross to be elected, unless they win a candidate seat.

So you lower it to 2% unless they win a seat. But if every seat is a list seat how can they "win a (candidate) seat?". That's why you need to rethink it. Another thing, if you had a National MP as a list MP and the electorate in another town had three list MPs that would not be fair representation.

So, yep, rethink it.

Anna said...

Dave, even without electorate MPs, you need a threshold. A party that wins only a small number of votes can't have 0.2 of an MP. The threshold has to coincide with the number of MPs you want.

Having more MPs in some towns in others is only an advantage if MPs actually represent their areas, which they don't.

Dave said...

Hey I'm not denying you need a threshold - my preference is 0.8 percent - what it takes to get one electorate MP in, currently - I'm just stating that you cant have 100% list MPs and have a lower threshold "unless a candidate is elected" if no candidates are ever elected as they are chosen by their parties. I'd prefer that I choose my candidates, not have the parties rank my preferences, thanks. Apparently you dont, and your position is less democratic.

Anna said...

My reference to a lower threshold "unless a candidate is elected" was to clarify which threshold I'm referring to - it wasn't intended to suggest we could have two incompatible electoral systems at once.

No electoral system I'm aware of is perfect - each has strengths which can be traded off against weaknesses.

Getting to choose the particular candidate in your area is not that much of a democratic advantage, since our Parliamentary system is such that parties, rather than particular individuals, wield influence. Most kiwis vote for electorate candidates according to their party preference - hence the fact that their have been so few independents in recent NZ political history. And, of course, most candidates stand on their parties' platforms, not their individual opinions.

If there are list-only candidates, there is more pressure on individual MPs to adhere to party policy - ie the policies they were actually elected to fulfill. You wouldn't then get situations like Philip Taito Field hanging around like a bad smell, when the people who voted for him quite clearly did so because he was a Labour candidate, not because of his individual qualities (or lack thereof).

Hugh said...

Just a minor quibble - Roger Douglas is not a Minister.

Anna said...

Heather Roy is an associate outside Cabinet, and I had an idea Rodney Hide is too?

Carol said...

Yhe main thing I'd like to see changed is the way a candidate from a minor party can get elected to parliament and bring 2, 3 or 4 other MPs with them. It defeats the whole proportionality thing.

I'd like to keep the mixed electorate plus party vote. Some MPs do represent their electorates well, and not just residents who supported the MP's party.

More importantly, it is an extra mechanism through which people can express a view on how good an individual MP has been eg Tizard losing in central Auckland. She can still become an MP via the list, but there's been a clear signal that she isn't that appreciated by a number of people.
Without this potential to vote for and against individuals, we are all left at the mercy of who a party decides to put on their list, and in the order the party chooses.

It maybe doesn't always work as a vote on the capability of an individual, but is an important mechanism for voters to retain IMO.

Hugh said...

Sorry Anna, I read what you wrote to imply that all ACT's MPs have ministerial portfolios, but on a quick re-read that probably wasn't the case.

I think ACT actually have four MPs - John Boscawen being one.

Deborah said...

Hmmmm... interesting post and discussion. My 2c worth - I'm not keen on losing electorate MPs, becuase I think there's a great deal to be said for the "politics of presence". (Enter 'politics of presence' in google, then click the top link - it will take you to questia books where you can read some of Anne Phillips' book - "The Politics of Presence".)

The idea is that it's not just enough to say that people's interests are represented in parliaments - those people actually need to be represented, present in the parliam via their own elected representative. So you need to have Maori MPs and women MPs, and MPs from Southland and MPs from Auckland and so on.

The worry is that if we resort to a totally list-based system, then we lose representativeness.

I'm happy enough with the balance between list and electorate MPS under our version of MMP - I think it's an acceptable compromise. BUt I agree about shifting the threshold down, and I would take it donw to .8% of the vote i.e. enough to get one MP elected.

Anna said...

Hugh, you're right - I'd forgotten the 4th Act MP, or perhaps just repressed my knowledge of him.

Good point Deborah. I have to admit that I'm not overly wed to my own position of getting rid of electorate MPs (although I think it and all other aspects of the current system should be evaluated and publicly discussed). I'm very wedded to changing the threshold, however.

My key frustration with electorate MPs is not what they're supposed to deliver, but the fact that they don't really deliver it - and yet we are supposed to think that our electorate MPs do give us some direct democratic link to Parliament. This to me seems like a very limited mechanism for meaningful democracy.

The prerogative to promote women, candidates of diverse ethnic groups and so on remains as much as ever the prerogative of the parties - our electorate votes have very little bearing on it, since we only have the options of voting for those individuals put up by their parties. An 'independent' candidate would be far more likely to be elected at the top of a list of a small party under a regime with a lowered threshold, than as an electorate candidate.

We are still pretty committed to a two-party system in NZ, meaning that electorate candidates are either a) simply party representatives, making the candidate vote a party vote in a different guise; or b) almost certain to be unsuccessful. There's simply not any scope in this system for a great deal of direct or meaningful democratic participation.

I feel we need to rethink everything from the ground up with a new idea of democratic participation which takes into account the way NZ has changed, socially, technologically and socioeconomically. Revisiting MMP is clearly an important part of that, but there's so much more to be done - looking at our expectations of our political parties (their processes, how they're funded, how they spend, who they promote); looking at local government; looking at opportunities for direct participation and how technology can facilitate these, and so on.

I want to see some new and interesting ideas injected into the debate!

Dave said...

to do that you`ll have to ask and debate
1. what is effective representation?
2. what is the best means of providing for effective representation?
2. what makes an electoral system democratic?
3. should the factors in our electoral system that appear to be undemocratic and lack representativeness be removed?

One think that would assist in some small way is to agree that the Maori seats are both representative and democratic.

Hugh said...

Wouldn't it simply be possible in an all-list scenario for parties to allot their MPs areas of geographic responsibility? You could simply go to the MP whose electoral office was closest to where you live.

Sure, there'd be nothing compelling parties to maintain electorate offices - but there's nothing actually compelling an electorate MP to do so now, except for the hope that being a good electorate MP will get them more votes, and that's doubtful. Even under FPP, surveys repeatedly showed that people based their electorate votes on party, not individual MPs' achievements.

Without electorates existing, MPs would likely still see themselves as representatives of particular geographic areas, especially when those areas have distinct interests. Damien O'Connor, for instance, will continue to be a strong advocate for the West Coast, possibly even against his party's policy at times, should he return to Parliament via the List.

I also feel such a system would produce more MPs who see themselves as representatives of non-geographic 'electorates'. Before the current Parliament Pansy Wong often acted as a representative for Asian people throughout New Zealand, as Tim Barnett did for gay people, or Stephen Franks for lawyers. A lot of people identify much more strongly with such groups than they do with their electorate.

Anna said...

Agreed Dave - I think all those things should be considered. And I think Maori representation is important - too important to be left to the vagaries of an overhang - but should be a structural feature of our democracy, whatever form it might take.

Hugh, you've articulated the thing bothering me which I couldn't properly describe myself. Political 'communities' aren't based as much on geographical location as they might have been in the past. In some cases region matters - eg Auckland infrastructure matters most to Aucklands, and dairy farming regulation affects the Waikato - but the communities we are part of are increasingly diverse. As a political person, I'm a woman, public servant, mother, etc, more than I think of myself as a Wellingtonian. People move about more than in past times, and we have access to far more communication technologies, but the democratic system hasn't changed to reflect this.

And the fact that Tim Barnett, Pansy Wong and so on did represent particular groups of constituents wasn't a structural feature of the democratic system. When this happens, it's either a happy accident (someone promoted for their competence and loyalty in their party happens to have a particular interest or characteristic which voters tune in to), or because the party have chosen to promote a person from a particular sector. Either way, there is no guarantee that any particular societal group will be well-represented within a given term of Parliament.

Hugh said...

And the fact that Tim Barnett, Pansy Wong and so on did represent particular groups of constituents wasn't a structural feature of the democratic system.

So you'd like to see a system where such features are part of the structure of the system? I suppose one could extend the maori electorate system to cover the country as a whole, but is it really fair that a gay asian lawyer should have to choose whether to vote as a gay, an asian or a lawyer?

Anna said...

No, I'm not suggesting anything so rigid or prescriptive as that at all. But parties could consider these factors when they compile their lists, and voters could put pressure on them to do so.

Hugh said...

But parties could consider these factors when they compile their lists, and voters could put pressure on them to do so.

What makes you think they don't consider these factors? I wouldn't claim that Pansy Wong or Tim Barnett were picked purely because of their minority status, but it can't have hurt, and similarly I doubt the presence of either of them has hurt their party's electoral success with asian people and gay men, respectively.

Ari said...

Hey Anna-

I very much favour a move to an Open List Proportional system, which starts with your second suggestion to remove electorate seats.

From there, however, you'd also have write-in primaries for the party lists that anyone can participate in. Stops party lists from just being backroom deals and actually forces parties to front list MPs that are popular and likely to increase their party vote if they win. It also increases the likelyhood for more community-based candidates that represent the interests of various community groups. (And no doubt, lobbyists. ><) No doubt MPs who are strong spokespeople for regional issues will still exist, but they'll probably cover wider regions and do so much more strongly than electorate MPs currently do- think along the lines of Jim Anderton with agricultural issues.

Anna said...

Hi Ari

I'm intrigued by the primaries thing. On one hand, opening up deliberations on leadership to the public seems like a very positive move. It might increase people's interest in the democratic process too. On the other, I have some reservations:

- given the administrative hassle and cost of doing primaries for each party, does it tend to lead you back to a 2 party system?
- what do you do about people trying to negatively influence decisions of parties they don't like?
- if you set candidates against one another publically, what does that do to party unity and morale?

Would very much like to hear your opinions on these things!

peteremcc said...

Actually, ACT has 5 MPs.

NZ First got ~4.2%, ACT got ~3.7% so not that different.

The problem is that you have to consider the counter-factual.

ACT put a lot of effort into securing Epsom, because we knew that was how we would get back into parliament. If we had put that effort into party vote, we may have got more than the 4.2% that NZ First got, but not been elected.

Similarly, if NZ First had put more effort into winning an electorate, they may have returned to parliament, but probably would have ended up with less than the 3.7% that ACT got.

Julie said...

Thanks Peter for the points about Act's strategy. My impression (as someone not involved in Act at all, but living not a million miles from the Epsom electorate for the last two elections) was that the big push for Hide to win it initially was the result of years of hard work, and that in this election Act probably didn't need to do as much to retain the seat?

If Winston had poured effort into a seat (say Tauranga) he would have needed to be significantly more organised about it, over the whole three year period. He shifted his office to Auckland, was out of the country a great deal of the time as Foreign Affairs Minister, and generally didn't seem that engaged in winning it back.

What impact that strategy might have had on their party vote? Hard to know in hindsight, but NZ First ran a woeful campaign for the party vote too - could it have been any worse if they had been focusing on a seat as well? Don't know!