Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Pardon me, but this is all arse-about-face

After 21 years and eight general elections, New Zealanders are finally starting to ask some hard questions about MMP.

The current political lacuna demonstrates all that’s worst about the electoral system we adopted in 1993 and put into effect in 1996. The problem is not that everything has come to a standstill while National, Labour and New Zealand First complete the negotiations which will determine who governs us. Other countries routinely experience long periods in political limbo without appearing to suffer great harm.

Neither should we be either surprised or even troubled by the fact that Winston Peters, having declared that everything would be sorted by tomorrow, has now reneged on that assurance. This is par for the course from Peters, who promotes himself as the only honest man in New Zealand politics but has never hesitated to shift his ground or even execute a U-turn when it was expedient to do so.

Peters is, however, central to the reasons why we should be having second thoughts about a political system that enables a man whose party got barely 7 per cent of the votes to determine who the next government will be. Under any circumstances this would be a travesty, but it’s made worse by Peters’ grotesque posturing.

Bizarrely, he behaves as if New Zealanders gave him a mandate on election day. We did no such thing, of course.  The power Peters is exercising at this moment (and so obviously relishing) has nothing to do with the popular will. It was placed in his hands through a quirk of a system that makes a mockery of democracy. A more humble party leader might acknowledge this by pulling his head in, but this is Peters we’re talking about.

In any half-rational political system, it would be the parties which between them won more than 81 percent of the vote, not Peters with his measly share, that determined the course of negotiations. A minor player such as New Zealand First, if it had genuine respect for democracy, would accept that its negotiating strength should be proportionate with its level of popular support. But again, this is Peters we’re talking about. And sadly he’s encouraged in his delusions by both the media, which can’t resist stroking his ego (for example, by calling him the kingmaker), and by the major parties, whose attempts to appease Peters come perilously close to grovelling.

Pardon the expression, but this is all arse-about-face. It’s demeaning to democracy. We’ve heard a lot over the years about the tail-wagging-the-dog scenario under MMP. Well, here it is writ large, and unfolding before our very eyes.

It’s a situation rich in irony. We voted for the introduction of MMP primarily to punish our politicians and bring them to heal. We were fed up with their broken promises. We wanted to make them more accountable.

Only now are New Zealanders realising that we achieved the exact reverse. Voters have no control whatsoever over whatever’s going on right now behind closed doors at Parliament. In effect, we have placed still more power in the hands of the political elites. This is the antithesis of what the promoters of MMP promised (and perhaps naively believed themselves).

It has also dawned on us that there’s a bit a constitutional vacuum around MMP, which means that the politicians are free to play by whatever rules suit them. For example, there’s no obligation on minor parties to negotiate first with whichever party won the biggest share of the vote.

And note the almost paranoiac emphasis on secrecy and confidentiality that surrounds the negotiations, even to the point of parliamentary security officials initially trying to prevent reporters seeing who was on the negotiating teams. So much for transparency. The last thing the politicians want is for the people who elected them to know what decisions are being made on their behalf. They couldn’t be more brazen about the fact that the public is locked out of the game. We’re not even impotent spectators. It’s particularly ironic that Peters, who has presented himself throughout his political career as a man of the people, a party leader who refuses to play by the rules of the self-serving political establishment, should be at the very centre of all this.

Nothing I say here should be interpreted as a call for a return to the first-past-the-post system. But it’s time to face up to the fact that we replaced one imperfect system with another that was equally flawed, and at the very least we should be having a national conversation about whether there may be a better way.


Mark Hubbard said...

24 years since the electoral system referendum: perhaps we should have another (and then make them every 25 years).

Barry said...

Thanks Karl.

Scott said...

Thanks Karl, you make a lot of great points. I would just add that one of the things that I find unsatisfactory about MMP is that in this parliament to come we have over 40 MPs who were not elected by the electorate but are there by virtue of being on the party list. There is a fundamental rightness about voters in an electorate sending to Parliament the man or woman that they want to represent them. It means that we have an actual House of Representatives.

When I think of parties like the Greens they have had over the years many people in Parliament who would never be elected by an actual electorate. Sue Bradford comes to mind, a deeply polarising figure who while in Parliament foisted upon the people of New Zealand the deeply unpopular anti-smacking legislation that is still with us today.

I think any system needs to actually send to Parliament people who pass muster, who have received the confidence of the majority of the people in an electorate.

As it is we have Winston Peters and his deputy leader Ron Mark who are deciding who the government of New Zealand is, while neither of these men gained the confidence of the majority of their electorates. This cannot be a good state of affairs.

Barry said...

I agree with Scott.

Stephen Todd said...

Karl, there is indeed a better way. It's called STV, whereby all 120 MPs are directly elected by the people.

To ensure optimum benefit, MPs should be elected from large multi-member electorates (between 12 and 15 seats each*), with each electorate divided into 7 or 8 precincts, to allow several “local heroes”/prominent MPs, to head each of the party lists in each electorate. There would be no above-the-line party boxes, a unique ‘1’ placed beside the name of a candidate would be sufficient to constitute a valid vote, and the count would be by the NZ STV vote-counting method (used for certain local elections).

In addition, the names of the candidates below the candidate heading each list should ideally be rotated as follows--

1. Each political party supplies a list of candidates in the order that they choose. This is the first ballot paper.

2. Take the name of the candidate last on this list and place that candidate's name second (below the "head" candidate's name) , and move every other candidate down one place. This is the second ballot paper.

3. Repeat this process until every candidate has been placed in the second position. There will be as many variations as there are candidates (after the "head" candidate).

Independent candidates would be listed together in their own, separate, column, on the RHS of the ballot paper, and their names listed in alphabetical order.

* The South Island would have two electorates, being 1 x 13 and 1 x 14 = 27. By the time STV was introduced, say, as from the 2029 election, the North Island would have seven electorates, being 5 x 13 and 2 x 14 = 93. (There would be no separate Māori roll.)

The quota for election for each successful candidate would be 7.14% of the votes cast in the 13-seat electorates, and 6.67% of the votes cast for each of the successful candidates in the 14-seat electorates.

Most electorates would return 4-8 Labour and National candidates each, along with one or two minor-party candidates. One or two independent candidates could be elected nationwide.

The good thing about such a system would be that every MP would be directly accountable to the voters in his or her multi-member electorate. With the quota for election being low, but not too low, not only would it be easy to elect candidates, but it would be easy to throw them out next time, if they fail to measure up.

The "powers-that-be" would never allow such a scheme to be put in place, of course, but it would certainly be far better than MMP, if it were to be – at least for the voters. And shouldn't an electoral system give the voters what *they* want, rather than what suits the politicians?