PM's referendum comments unwise and manipulative

John Key's decision to speak out against MMP smells of partisan greed and hubris. It also raises questions for women, Asian and Pasifika voters and about what his tactics have been all along

I was staggered to hear on television Prime Minister John Key say that although he was "not entirely unhappy" with MMP, he intended to vote for change. The PM said while he likes proportionality, he "slightly prefers the characteristics of Supplementary Member (SM)". Those two latter statements are mutually exclusive of course, because SM is not classed as a proportional representation electoral system. The Prime Minister cannot have it both ways. 

Key, up until these public comments, had possessed the previously good instinct to stay out of the referendum debate. He is, after all, the incumbent Prime Minister and he only has to look at Jim Bolger’s clumsiness back in the early 1990s – which hurt both Bolger’s standing and the status quo cause when he opined about keeping First-Past-the-Post – to reflect upon the good sense of choosing to speak out now, this close to the election.

Key has also now opened himself up to scrutiny about his reasoning and his motivations. Which characteristics of SM does he prefer? Is it the characteristic which sees SM reduce the equality (and thus fairness) of every New Zealanders vote? Is that what he likes? Is it SM’s inability viz-a-viz MMP to promote the effective representation of women? Is that what he prefers? Is it SM’s inability when compared to MMP to provide effective representation for minorities? Does he like this characteristic of SM best?

Given that every political scientist I know accepts as a matter of solid fact that when compared to MMP the alternative Supplementary Member system cannot be described as a proportional representation system, let alone "a happy middle ground between MMP and FPP", it is now clear that our incumbent Prime Minister prefers a system whose characteristics will significantly make our votes less equal. We have a Prime Minister who wishes to vote to turn back progress for women participating in parliamentary politics, and a Prime Minister who in defiance of our dramatically changing demographics prefers not to facilitate Asian New Zealanders, Pacifika New Zealanders, or other ethnic Kiwis participating in their own democracy.

Supplementary Member cannot achieve any of these in the way that MMP has already proved it can, which is one reason why it was rejected by the Royal Commission in favour of MMP back in 1986. 

We now have a Prime Minister, amidst the tumult of global economic uncertainty and accentuated political instability, asking New Zealanders to make a second hugely significant change to its electoral system within a generation. It won’t be Key accepting responsibility in the decades to come if we then clamour for a third or fourth change to our electoral system, which is easily predicted if we turn our backs on MMP and return to a system that isn’t proportional. Our demographics would almost certainly guarantee it, but wherever Key will be then it won’t be his responsibility, will it? 

Those who supported Key’s centrist and ‘balanced’ approach to politics might now pause to reflect about his motivations for publicly promoting the choice of one electoral system over another. For make no mistake, National would be massively advantaged by SM. Has it always been Key’s intention to intervene in such an overtly partisan fashion?

Certainly, back in February 2009, when Peter Shirtcliffe (who established the Vote for Change campaign) met Key’s Chief-of-Staff Wayne Eagleson, there was a shared understanding that ‘The PM is keen on the SM option.’ Alas, Prime Ministerial gravitas and standing has given way to partisan greed, which is not a good look in our moderate, so-called non-political Prime Minister.

If I was a woman I’d be very unhappy that my Prime Minister, one who has seemed to make MMP work rather effortlessly, has decided to favour an electoral system that will make it harder for me or my daughters or grand-daughters to pursue a political career. If I was an Asian or Pacifika Kiwi I’d be concerned that the Prime Minister wants to limit my and my children’s ambitions in the expansion of his own.

I am also, apart from being a political scientist, an ordinary citizen and I am appalled my Prime Minister supports a system that will make my vote less equal than it is now under MMP.

Prime Minister Key, whose ‘trust’ from voters is showing signs of morphing from a core strength to an emerging weakness – with Fairfax polling revealing that Key is regarded as being more slippery with the truth than any of his political opponents – should be concerned that his enthusiasm to manipulate the referendum result might have a cascade effect on his own levels of trust, on his popularity and on levels of National Party support, especially so soon after his decision to tell Epsom voters to do ‘not what I do but what I say’ in relation to voting for Goldsmith or Banks.

The same sort of hubris that can trigger a full court press from Steven Joyce to protect Key’s supposedly mundane and non-controversial ‘private’ discussion with John Key at their tea party express last Friday is also on display here.

With less than two weeks to go Key has suddenly decided to use his current popularity to advance the cause of SM, or ‘FPP with lipstick’ as any who understand the essential ‘characteristics’ of SM label it.

Key’s political risk is significant here. I cannot think of another issue that can so quickly reduce him to looking like merely another grubby self-interested politician than seeking to manipulate voters over the referendum. It’s not a good look – it’s as non-prime ministerial as it is party partisan – and if others view him and his poorly thought-through actions similarly, and stripped of his brand strength, what then really is there left?