David Farrar is very angry that a political party is unilaterally trying to game electoral law for its own benefit. It's good to see him being so critical of National's behaviour with respect to the reform of MMP.

Labour's Ian Lees-Galloway has had his Electoral (Adjustment of Thresholds Amendment Bill) drawn from the ballot. The Bill is designed to implement the Electoral Commission's recommendations on adjusting the threshold at which parties gain representation in Parliament (but not any of the other recommendations the Commission made). 

I supported those recommendations at the time (and still do). They aren't exactly what I would have in place if I were King For A Day ... but I'm not, and nor is anyone else. And the Commission, it seems to me, did a very good job at synthesising both the weight of public opinion and strength of arguments presented to it in its review role in order to create recommendations that would make for a better system of MMP (as the people of NZ see it).

However, it became pretty clear that these recommendations were dead on arrival with the Minister of Justice, because they said things that the Minister (and her National Party) didn't like. So Labour, in the form of Ian Lees-Galloway's proposal, has sought to put the recommendations (or, rather, some of them) back on the parliamentary agenda by way of this Bill.

In doing so, they have attracted the ire of David Farrar, who opines:

... these sort of significant changes [to the electoral system] should only occur if there is consensus between the more significant political parties. The Electoral Act should not be some sort of grand prize which winning parties use to screw over losing parties, to try and stay in power longer – which is what Labour did last time. National has deliberately refrained from making significant changes to electoral law, if Labour doesn’t agree with them. The idea is to maintain that consensus, but it looks like Labour are ditching the need for consensus ...

First of all, we might note that this "only change electoral law if there is a consensus" claim is one that isn't obeyed on a consistent basis. Graeme Edgeler debunks that as a factual claim here. (Cough, cough ... prisoner voting ... cough, cough. And here's David's ringing denunciation of the process used to pass that shitty idea into law on a straight National-Act party line vote.)

But I suspect David's point is one of principle (albeit a principle that need only be selectively applied): the best or most legitimate way to address issues of electoral law is through cross-party consensus, after discussion of the issues and negotiating compromises. That is why the process Simon Power followed in setting up the Electoral Legislation Committee in the 2008-11 Parliament to work through the reforms to electoral finance law and the referendum on MMP was so praiseworthy.

However, Simon Power is now at Westpac, earning more money for less work. And his approach to electoral reform issues no longer seems to be the standard modus operandi. Instead, we have Judith Collins as Minister of Justice, whose treatment of the reforms recommended by the Electoral Commission review her predecessor blessed is quite different (as detailed here). 

So in May of this year, we found ourselves in this position. Following a quite involved process of public consultation and deliberation, the Electoral Commission had made a set of recommendations on how to reform MMP so that public concerns with its performance could be addressed, thereby allowing the electoral system to better achieve the ends that the people of New Zealand want it to. But because those recommendations weren't particularly to the liking of the current Minister and her Party, they were given cursory attention (at best) before being abandoned. And now Labour is trying to resurrect (some of) those recommendations, in the hope that a majority of Parliament will agree with them and pass the measures into law. And David Farrar cries foul, saying that Labour is trying to "ditch the need for consensus" when it comes to electoral law.

Here's the problem I have with that last allegation.

A refusal to change the law is just as much a decision as is one to change the law. So by saying "we won't take the action needed to implement the Electoral Commission's recommendations (because we don't agree with them)", National is doing the exact same thing that Labour is by introducing a Bill to implement them. It is seeking to use its narrow majority support in the House (which gives it governmental power) to dictate what the electoral rules will be, irrespective of whether other parties may want to see those rules amended (and, it should be noted, in the face of the considerable number of public submissions indicating that the New Zealand public want to see these changes made to their electoral system).

What is more, National's refusal to allow the changes to MMP that the Electoral Commission recommended looks to be driven by partisan political calculations as to how those changes would affect its own chances at election time. Given the fact that all its most likely support partners (and current cohabiters in government) rely on the "electorate lifeboat" rule to get into Parliament, refusing a recommendation that this be abolished works to advantage National at the next election. Which looks exactly like treating the Electoral Act as "some sort of grand prize which winning parties use to screw over losing parties, to try and stay in power longer" that David (with some justice) criticises Labour for in relation to the Electoral Finance Act.  Again, it doesn't matter that the treatment involves a refusal to act rather than a positive decision to act - where the status quo has a perceived partisan benefit, the effect is the same. 

So complaining that Labour is seeking to "abandon consensus" and make changes to the Electoral Act without "the more significant political parties" agreeing is true. But Labour is only doing this because National has first "abandoned consensus" by refusing to change the Electoral Act, even though some of "the more significant political parties" want this to take place. So either both parties are equally guilty, or we need to accept that while Simon Power's model for changing electoral law provides an ideal-type response, in the absence of any such mechanism for debating change parties should be free to pursue their own favoured electoral rules. And then we might ask, whose fault is it that there wasn't a Simon Power-type response to the Electoral Commission's recommendations in the first place?

Having said all that, let me close with a point of agreement with David. As he notes:

...this bill does not implement the recommendations of the Electoral Commission in full. It cherry picks the recommendations they agree with, but doesn’t implement the recommendation to get rid of overhang seats or setting a ratio of electorate to list seats.

By not getting rid of over-hangs, Labour’s bill would have seen the size of Parliament in the last three elections as 127 MPs, 128 MPs and 126 MPs.

I agree this is silly - we shouldn't be abolishing the electorate lifeboat rule without getting rid of overhangs. So if and when this Bill makes it through its first reading and goes to select committee - as I think it should ... the various individuals and groups who spent time and effort involving themselves in the Electoral Commission's review deserve that much at least - I'll be strongly recommending that it be amended.

Comments (14)

by Dave Guerin on November 15, 2013
Dave Guerin

Following through the relativistic approach you are taking, which I agree with, the Electoral Commission's proposal is just another perspective, albeit one that you seem to favour. This is all just politics.

I'd be quite happy to nail down some electoral issues and have them entrenched by some supermajority, but that would require constitutional change to remove Parliament's ability to change things by majority vote. In the absence of that, I imagine parties will do whatever they feel like doing when they have a majority, being restrained only by the outrage those actions may engender.

by Andrew Geddis on November 15, 2013
Andrew Geddis

Following through the relativistic approach you are taking, which I agree with, the Electoral Commission's proposal is just another perspective, albeit one that you seem to favour. This is all just politics.

I'd accept that the Electoral Commission's proposal rests upon certain "political" assumptions/judgments which individual people may or may not agree with - it certainly isn't holy writ or beyond any form of criticism. I would say this about it, but:

(1) The proposal came into being after the most extensive consultation exercise we've had on electoral matters since 1993, and is broadly reflective of "public opinion" as expressed to the Commission and other sources (like the NZ Election Study). So insofar as we can talk of "what the people want" in any sort of meaningful way, I'd suggest that the Commission's proposals - certainly with regard to abolishing the "electoral lifeboat" rule - reflect this. 

(2) Political parties ought not to be able to reject "what the people want" from their electoral system without very, very, very good reasons. The electoral process isn't there to help parties and politicians, or to achieve the ends they think are best. Rather, as with the adoption of MMP in the first place, the people ought to be able to get the electoral process they want irrespective of the partisan interests of the parties in Parliament.

I'd be quite happy to nail down some electoral issues and have them entrenched by some supermajority, but that would require constitutional change to remove Parliament's ability to change things by majority vote.

We already do that (as any student who sat my Public Law exam this year could tell you - through gritted teeth, most probably). It's just the stuff we protect is a bit outmoded ... there's no real reason any more to have a supermajority requirement to alter the membership of the Representation Commission, or change the way electoral district boundaries are determined. 

Interesting question, but - what ought to be on the list instead (or as well as)?

by Dave Guerin on November 15, 2013
Dave Guerin

The supermajority is still only held together by convention, as Parliament could repeal the section you linked to by a simple majority. I'm talking about something a little more substantive.

Anyhow, you make a fair point that the Electoral Commission was informed by a wide range of opinion from interested parties. The recommendations accordingly have considerable weight, but they're not determinative.

by Graeme Edgeler on November 15, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

Interesting question, but - what ought to be on the list instead (or as well as)?

I'd start by adding the things that could be changed to really stuff the MMP system up:

  • MMP itself (what if the party vote was changed to directly correlate with list seats like supplementary member?)
  • the thresholds (imagine if it was 15%);
  • the mechanics of turning votes into seats (imagine if we added a Turkish-style top-up to the party with the most votes);
  • The number of members of Parliament (what if the number of seats was reduced so there were only 10 list MPs?);

Also, the disqualifications from voting (what if we disqualified people who chose to recieve a government benefit?) I'm sure there are a few others, but these strike me as pretty obvious ones.

by Andrew Geddis on November 15, 2013
Andrew Geddis

@Dave,

The supermajority is still only held together by convention, as Parliament could repeal the section you linked to by a simple majority. I'm talking about something a little more substantive.

Sure - but I wouldn't underestimate the strength of that convention. Imagine a set of governing parties that tried to amend/abolish s.268(1), then extend the term of Parliament to 4 years on a mere majority vote!

But point taken - double entrenchment would make clear in law what we intend in practice.

@Graeme,

So ... does this mean you agree with DPF, and that Labour shouldn't be trying to do what it is doing? Or, would you allow for a change of thresholds, then entrench the new ones?

by Graeme Edgeler on November 15, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

So ... does this mean you agree with DPF, and that Labour shouldn't be trying to do what it is doing? Or, would you allow for a change of thresholds, then entrench the new ones?

I would put new thresholds to a referendum.

by Tim Watkin on November 18, 2013
Tim Watkin

Heh, poor old DPF's been done by both you and Graeme exposing him having it both ways on prisoner voting/MMP reform. You might say he's been Gedgelered. Boom! Maybe I can get my trademark on that one, eh? Ie 'in which someone is exposed/destroyed by both Geddis and Edgeler'. 

Gedgelered.

by Andrew Geddis on November 18, 2013
Andrew Geddis

I note that on Twitter, DPF sought to square the circle by claiming that the prohibition on prisoners voting was not a "significant change" to the electoral process, as it didn't threaten to change a future election outcome.

Of course, this means that when the next Labour and the Greens pass the "no ex-National Party MPs [ed: a significant promotion for an ex-National Party staffer!] who presently blog on matters political may enrol to vote Amendment Act 2015" on a straight party line vote, DPF will have no complaints about their right to do so. I mean, how many such people are there in NZ?

by Graeme Edgeler on November 18, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

Gedgelered.

If you must, I reckon spell with three D's. Could just be G Edgelered at present. Geddgelered is more portmaneau-y.

by Tim Watkin on November 18, 2013
Tim Watkin

Even better Graeme. And yes I must.

 

by Steven Peters on November 19, 2013
Steven Peters

You support the Lees Galloway Amendment because "you  supported the EC recommendations at the time (and still do), even though " They aren't exactly what I would have in place if I were King For A Day ... but I'm not, and nor is anyone else.  You argue that the "Commission, did a very good job at synthesising both the weight of public opinion and strength of arguments presented to it in its review role in order to create recommendations that would make for a better system of MMP (as the people of NZ see it)".

However, naked self interest drives Labour to get the EC proposals introduced, as they enfeeble its current and potential political adversaries ie other parties (except its Green partner), as well as neutralize a possible split in its own party becoming a competing party. Labour did exceptionally well out of the proposals, have nothing to lose, whereas most other parties do, and by extension, most New Zealanders.  Five parties in parliament did not accept the EC recommendations, and these are the  'kings for the day'.  the suggestion that the EC made good recommendations is highly tenuous given they were 'dead on arrival' - to use your metaphor.

The commission opted for a mediocre drop in the party vote threshold, meaning no real change, yet wanted to sink the only lifeboat small parties had available, and these are the parties that provide coalition partners to one of the two main parties.  Had they made some room for small parties in the good ship 'Party vote' with a  significant reduction in the party vote threshold, Labour and the Greens would not be clamouring for the EC changes.  If the big four players all saw the  EC proposals as unpalatable, party politicking may have taken a back seat, and MMP may have been able to evolve and improve for all.  But this didnt happen, and may not now for a long time.

 

by Andrew Geddis on November 19, 2013
Andrew Geddis

However, naked self interest drives Labour to get the EC proposals introduced...

Right. Just as naked self interest drove National to shelve the Commission's report. So as both sides are equally guilty of pursuing "naked self interest", I don't really think that the charge bears any weight either way (unless, of course, you are wanting to criticise one side or the other for their "unprincipled" actions (as DPF did)).

The commission opted for a mediocre drop in the party vote threshold, meaning no real change, yet wanted to sink the only lifeboat small parties had available, and these are the parties that provide coalition partners to one of the two main parties.

That's an interpretation of the Commission's report. My view of it is that the Commission:

(1) Accepted that the "electorate lifeboat" rule is not only widely disliked by the public, but has significant distorting effects on voting patterns and party representation - so it should go.

(2) Accepted that if the "electorate lifeboat" rule goes, the party vote threshold should be lowered to allow smaller parties easier access to Parliament.

(3) But noted that the public generally is not comfortable with the idea of a highly fractured Parliament (with a significant majority of submitters not wanting the threshold lowered below 4%).

(4) So it did not think it would be justified in calling for a threshold of less than 4% now (but also should be required in law to review this after every election, to see if it should be amended in the future).

To me, that is a perfectly reasonable and defensible chain of reasoning. I'd invite readers to follow the link provided in my post to look at the Commission's report for themselves and make up their own minds

by Rich on November 19, 2013
Rich

Actually, the proposed change might be in National's short term interest, given their current and possible future dependence on micro-party MPs (Dunne and Banks) who hold their single seats without reducing the number of National list MPs (or making significant inroads into National's party vote).

If there was no coat-tailing, they could still gift Banks and Dunne seats on the understanding they make no significant campaign for the party vote (in the case of the latter, it's hard to imagine he could do much with his current "party" of 33 active members).

by stuart munro on November 19, 2013
stuart munro

Whatever else, under the current system, one-man minor parties have become rotten boroughs.

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