The Way the Voting is Organised Matters Too.

In 2004 I had the privilege of a Fulbright Visiting Professorial Fellowship to the US to further my studies on globalisation. Because an early stage of international integration is regional integration, I was interested in America. It is not only an economic story but a political one, so I spent some of my time looking at the development of the US constitution.

Initially, after the War of Independence, America was a confederation of states. But commercial disputes with the threat of interstate warfare led to a federation embodied in the American Constitution of 1787, the oldest active one in the world.

It was not intended to be ‘democratic’ as we understand the term. Women were not given the vote and slaves were treated even worse; the Bill of Rights was tacked on as an afterthought. Rather, the constitution involved the US states giving up only some of their powers. Hence the composition of the US Senate, based on states so that the smaller ones hold more political weight than their population. Hence the curious composition of the electoral college, biased towards the smaller states, so that George Bush junior and Donald Trump were elected with a minority of the votes (as was Robert Muldoon in 1978 and 1981).

I concluded, over a decade ago, that the US Constitution was, in many ways, obsolete. (Even so, there are features of it I much admire.) I am coming to a similar conclusion in regards to the British (unwritten) constitution. (I have always had doubts about the EU which is even more a confederation of states than the US.)

Britain is currently going through its worst crisis since the Second World War. It cannot even reach a decision whether to stay in the EU or to leave, and on what terms if it does. The immediate reason is that the two largest parties (with 89 percent of the seats in parliament, elected on 82 percent of the vote) are both deeply divided internally. So the two-party system is badly aligned with the great division which confronts Britain.

A general election will not resolve the misalignment. Voting for a Conservative or Labour candidate – even one whose views on the EU question are the same as yours – will not resolve the problem because the winning candidate will join a deeply divided party and British politics will be back to where it was before the election.

A referendum on Britain in the EU seems an obvious resolution (although it may be tricky to frame the questions in a meaningful way). But Britain does not have the same attitudes to referenda that New Zealand does. A century ago we were voting on the liquor question. In the last 70 years there have been another ten parliament-triggered referenda and four nonbinding citizens’ initiated ones. (We may have another three associated with the 2020 election – on recreational marijuana use, euthanasia and modifications to MMP.) Instructively, the ten plus the next three (and indeed the liquor polls) involve questions where parliament was, or is, unable to make up its mind

Perhaps the most important referenda were the two which introduced MMP, which changed dramatically the composition and working of parliament. After Muldoon, Rogernomics and Ruthanasia, New Zealanders were thoroughly fed up with the way the old voting system generated an elected dictatorship. (It was called ‘First-Past-the-Post’, but ‘Front-Runner’ might be more accurate for there is no post; when the music stops the one in front wins.)

(Last year was the 25th anniversary of the successful MMP referendum but there was hardly any mention of it. Have we already become blasé?)

Neither America nor Britain elects their parliaments by proportional representation. In many ways it is Front-Runner which is bogging up the British debate on Brexit. If they had MMP, say, then MPs could abandon their party allegiances and form new parties – say Tories-for-Remain leaving the Conservatives-for-Brexit rump, and similarly for Labour MPs. No wonder party leadership is so opposed to proportional representation.

I was greatly puzzled why Theresa May started her premiership so committed to Brexit. You did not have to be a genius to foresee the troubles she would get into. One explanation is that her prime concern (and that of David Cameron before her) has been to maintain the unity of the Conservative Party, deeply divided by the EU (both failed). I guess she is now so committed to Brexit she cannot contemplate the Remain alternatives even though the polls suggest that the country has flipped from supporting Leave to supporting Remain.

Presumably Brexit Britain and Trumpian American will conform to the Churchillian dictum that they will do the right thing after they tried everything else. The prediction does not say when, nor the terrible cost of the half-baked interim solutions on the way. That includes using a nuclear option – Trump closing government, May threatening No-Deal – when leaders cannot get their way.

We are lucky to have MMP. The American and British constitutions evolved from a simpler, less diverse world which ignored women, blacks and other ethnic minorities, the propertyless and so on. In that sense they were never democratic.

But we should not be complacent about MMP. We still carry over a lot of FPP/FR attitudes. Recall the National Party’s anger that despite having the most seats (but less than half the total) they did not become the government – shades of 1978 and 1981. Observe the difficulty political commentators have in understanding the nature of coalition government where compromises that once happened within secret government caucuses are now more publicly displayed.

And I do not like the tactical fiddling that has gone on with the one-electorate-seat threshold. We have had MPs, and even governments, which have been there because of this anomaly. (I am relaxed about lowering the threshold which determines whether a party gets list seats from 5 to 4 percent as recommended by the Electoral Commission in 2012.) We may get a chance to vote to improve MMP in 2020 because a parliamentary change requires a super-majority and, unsurprisingly, the party which is the chief beneficiary of the anomaly is unwilling to compromise.

However, most of all, we need a change to the mind-set of the antagonism between parties. It is a carryover from pre-MMP days. The reason National is not in government is because it ruled out forming a coalition with its traditional adversary, Labour. Which is stupid because every day each of us cooperates with others of very different political views. (Labour would probably have ruled it out too, once they found they had a viable coalition with NZF and the Greens.)

That is why I welcome Simon Bridges’ promise to work constructively on policies to combat and mitigate climate change. I would welcome a lot more collaboration in Parliament. Unfortunately, trapped in the past, it falls upon Her Majesty’s Opposition to act adversarially. We run the country like the conflict in a court case, rather than cooperatively. I await a leadership which is more like statespeople than squabbling lawyers.

Comments (12)

by Moz on December 27, 2018

I kind of like the idea of more co-operation, but it's worth remembering that an awful lot of legislation passes cooperatively already.

And living in Australia, I can't help but think we have some truly horrible examples of co-operation, from "coal is good for humanity" to "refouling refugees shows our strength". And ongoing multiparty agreement  that aborigines aren't really Australian, or maybe human... even The Greens agree with that one (the difference between Torrens Title and Native Title is stark, and if a kiwi government even hinted that they might be thinking about it I expect the Land Wars would restart.. which would be appropriate, it's an attitude straight out of the 18th century).

by Moz on December 27, 2018

Why support 4% rather than the more democratic one seat requirement? The threshold explicitly exists to *prevent* democratic outcomes, which makes your argument very much "we should have more democracy, but not too much more".

by Ross on December 28, 2018

The reason National is not in government is because it ruled out forming a coalition with its traditional adversary, Labour. Which is stupid because every day each of us cooperates with others of very different political views. (Labour would probably have ruled it out too, once they found they had a viable coalition with NZF and the Greens.)

Good to see you doing satire now, Brian. Seeing as National and Labour have quite different philosophies and policies. I would be amazed if National ever jumped into bed with Labour, or vice-versa. Of course sometimes parties can and do cooperate with the governing party when the both agree. But that is rare.

by Brian Easton on December 29, 2018
Brian Easton

I have worried about the issue of how low the thtreshold shoulf be Moz. I think the justification is that today parliamentary government is about parties and coalitions of parties. So the four percent threshold means there have to be at least four in the group. I might say though, as Burkean I regret the loss of the independent MP, although I recognise we seem quite unable to elect MPs with the character of Edmund Burke.

by Chuck Bird on December 30, 2018
Chuck Bird

Brian, why should there not be a binding referendum also on the racist Maori seats as recommended by the Royal Commission around the time of the first referrendum on MMP?

by Brian Easton on January 03, 2019
Brian Easton

Dear Chuck,

You cant be right since the Royal Commission on the Electoral System reported in 1986 and the electoral referenda were in 1992 and 1993.

I think what you are referring to the claim that the Royal Commission recommended the abolition of Maori seats. In fact it was more subtle.
     Recommendation 3 said that ‘[t]he MMP system should be adopted as the best means of providing effective Maori representation.‘
     But Recommendation 7 said that ‘Parliament and Government should enter into consultation and discussion with a wide range of representatives of the Maori people about the definition and protection of the rights of the Maori people and the recognition of their constitutional position under the Treaty of Waitangi’.
     (Recommendations 4, 5, 6 apllied whan MMP was not operating.)

Maori had told the Royal Commission they thought that the Maori seats were fundamental to them, and subsequently they said that they would prefer FPP/FR with Maori seats over MMP without them. Hence the compromise. One has no idea what the Royal Commission would have thought of it.

I am deeply conflicted by the Maori seats. I loathe tactical voting (I did it myself in 1996) which privileges some voters ahead of others, Undoubtedly there has been tactical voting with the Maori seats. Were there not, I would be relaxed about them. (The abolition of the one-seat threshold will apply to Maori seats too and reduce their opportunities for tactical voting.)

Many will argue that the seats are a result of ‘the rights of the Maori people and the recognition of their constitutional position under the Treaty of Waitangi’. Even more fundamentally, they reflect the acceptance of the rights of minorities so central to democracies.

What makes me even more uncomfortable is that the Maori seats were instituted in 1867 as a means of preventing Maori voting in general seats. Only 4 were instituted whereas in population terms Maori were entitled to about 15. So the existence of the Maori seats is a legacy  of a past guilt. One cannot help feeling that were the referendum choice to be MMP with or without Maori seats, it would be a continuation of anti-Maori opportunism.

I am comforted by the mechanism that the number of Maori seats is determined by the proportion of those of Maori descent who chose to register for them. It is not impossible that one day the number will diminish. That will be a Maori choice.

by Charlie on January 04, 2019

There seems to be a bit of a contradiction here:

One minute you're criticising the USA because it has a federal system and not a simple universal franchise and the next you're ignoring the fact that Britain did make a decision to leave the EU: There was a referendum and Brexit won by a simple majority. (The problem they now face is the rearguard action by the Remainers who want to steal the result of the referendum through underhanded means.)




by Charlie on January 04, 2019

There is no perfect electoral system. In MMP we avoid creating de facto dictators like Muldoon for sure, but the downsides of our system include:

We are forever hampered by messy coalition governments that can't get things done

We have to suffer list MPs who nobody voted for and who gain power through back room deals at party headquarters.

The 5% threshold results in the inclusion of some particularly bewildered and incompetent people into government.

We seem to be stuck with the embarrassment of the Maori seats (which the Royal Commission recomended be scrapped, and for good reason)


by barry on January 05, 2019

It is easy to offer to engage constructively when you have no other way to influence the outcome.  I would be more impressed if Bridges had offered to engage when he was a minister.

by Brian Easton on January 06, 2019
Brian Easton

I don’t understand your position Charlie. Assuming you are not contradicting yourself you seem to be saying that 1975 British referendum in which voters supported remaining in the European Community by 67.2 percent to 32.7 percent (43.5 percent vs 21.4 percent of registered voters) should lock the UK into the EU permanently.
On the other hand I allow voters to change their mind, especially on the basis of evidence.
So I had no problems with a further referendum in 2016 to test whether citizens had changed their minds. The outcome was 51.9 percent of voters supported Leave and 48.1 percent supported Remain. (37.5 percent vs 34.7 percent of registered voters.)
The difficulty I have with the 2016 referendum is the question it posed was sloppy. In particular, as is evident to everyone today, there were different forms of Leave. Some options are unacceptable to some who voted Leave while their Leave preferences are unacceptable to others who also voted Leave. Meanwhile it seems that some Leavers have switched to Remain on the basis that the details of Leave are not what they wanted at all..
Now in your case, Charlie, committed as you are to the 1975 referendum with no possibility of change, the answer is clear enough. But in my case, where citizens are allowed to change their mind, a third referendum would be appropriate providing the question was precise and meaningful. So neither of us a contradicting ourselves, are we?
Barry, I accept your point, but Bridges' strategy probably goes a little deeper. First, until there was threat to his position from the National Right, he was shifting party policy towards the centre. Second, he no doubt looked at the muddle the Australian right has got into, and is (or was) keen to insulate New Zealand National from a similar one.

by Roger Brooking on January 10, 2019
Roger Brooking

Chuck wrote: "why should there not be a binding referendum also on the racist Maori seats as recommended by the Royal Commission around the time of the first referrendum on MMP."

If Kiwis really wanted to honour the Treaty of Waitangi, we could reintroduce an Upper House with 100 members.

We used to have an Upper House. It was abolished in 1951. 50% of the 100 seats could be allocated to Maori and 50% to the rest. All legislation introduced in the lower house (currently called parliament) would require the consent of the Upper House to become law. Then Maori would have an equal say in the running of this country.

by Geoff Wane on January 19, 2019
Geoff Wane

If we are going to have binding referenda (as appears to be likely next year). what about the coincept of a minimum margin required for mandatory outcomes?

The Brexit referendum had a Leave majority of only 3.8%. I would suggest that the subsequent divisions, chaos and inability to resolve a solution relate as much to this small margin as they do to an implacable EU.

If you are going to put major issues to the public to decide, shouldn't a referendum majority of at least 10% be required?

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