Prepare for the SM onslaught

Why would I choose to make my vote less equal? Or, the growing challenge from the Supplementary Member system and how MMP can adapt and triumph in the referendum

The battle lines over the referendum on MMP are chrystal clear now that the Judith Tizard list fiasco has washed over the body politic.

The editorial wailing over Labour's so-called rorting of the list rankings system – aided and abetted by the usual hopelessly partisan noise from the blogs – all point to the inevitable elevation of Supplementary Member (SM) by those opposed to our current electoral system.

In this vein Dominion Post columnist Richard Long – National's Chief-of-Staff in earlier times – damned the list as a "blatantly undemocratic by-product of MMP." He concluded by saying we shouldn't tinker with MMP but adopt a better electoral system. Long then offers SM as the answer because it maintains an element of proportionality and would encourage, like MMP, more women and minority candidates (even though all international research simply debunks Long's assertion: in fact, the more disproportional an electoral system the fewer women and minorities we will see in our parliament).

Long naturally doesn't reflect on the obvious absurdity of his own argument. Supplementary Member still has a list, albeit a smaller one, so doesn't remotely address the Tizard problem, which would continue unabated under the rules of SM. What would fix it would be for Labour to simply mimic National's current rule, that all its candidates need to get board (read: party) approval before accepting any offer from the Chief Electoral Officer to replace a retiring, resigning or otherwise disgraced member.

Or, if MMP is retained, any number of equally simple solutions can be made. I like the idea that all candidates who fail to gain representation form a candidate's pool so that in the event of an MP leaving mid-term, parties can then weigh up in light of their changed circumstances who amongst that pool is now considered the best fit to come in. Non-problem solved.

The MMP list is also less an undemocratic by-product of MMP as a perfectly natural one that has shown positive benefits in our village democracy.

In a country with only a tiny pool of available political talent, the list has allowed some individuals to enter politics who otherwise would or could not. Indeed a significant proportion of the current National Cabinet's intellectual heft is provided by two of its list MPs, Tim Groser and Chris Finlayson. The Cabinet's chief fixer – Steven Joyce – is likewise a child of the list system.

Another argument against MMP is the tail-wags-the-dog phenomenon. Expect to see billboards elevating Winston Peters as the exemplar of this. Trouble is, if one looks at the actual operation of MMP since 1996 the problem has been less the extortions made by minor parties than one of the-tail-falling-off-the-dog. Members of the Alliance, NZ First, and now the Maori and Hide Party's probably find little solace in what MMP critics describe as their holding National and Labour-led governments to ransom.

The eventual framing by SM advocates will go something like this: SM is a half-way house between MMP and FPP. It is NOT. SM's properties do not make it MMP-lite. Instead SM is merely First-Past-the-Post with lipstick. Let me explain why.

In a perfectly proportional electoral system disproportionality would be zero. This would means that every vote is perfectly equal. In the five MMP elections held since '96 the disproportionality of MMP has averaged 2.98%. Contrast that with FPP electoral systems, where the disproportionality index exponentially rises to around 13.56% on average. Two of my colleagues, Professors Stephen Levine and Nigel Roberts, have analysed our election data to also reveal that had SM been in force since 1996 the disproportionality would have been 9.54%.

What this means, and what you certainly won't hear from proponents of SM, is that if we were to move to SM our votes would cease to be as near equal as they are now. People's votes in key marginal electorates would be worth far more than votes in clear Labour or National-held electorates.

Worse still, over time it's inevitable that SM would deliver us an effective three-party system, one comprising National, Labour and (currently) the electorate-driven Maori Party, with the latter party deciding each close election.

There are also several compelling reasons to maintain the status quo by voting to retain MMP at the referendum, not least to trigger an independent review by non-politicians to sort out the obvious anomalies.

Like the distortion of National proxy Hide's multiplier effect from being ceded Epsom to bring in four additional Act Party members with only 3.65% of the vote versus NZ First gaining no representation after receiving 4% of the vote at the 2008 election. Or like the problem of the list whereby MPs rejected by voters in electorates are nonetheless returned via the list, and like the so-called Tizard problem of between-elections change.

The most positive reasons to support MMP, other than keeping our votes as equal between us as they can be include: its indisputable contribution to making us a more representative democracy, with greater female and ethnic representation, thereby better mirroring New Zealand society; second, MMP's goodness-of-fit in anticipating our dramatically changing demographics.

Finally, what really worries me, as a supporter of retaining MMP, is if a second electoral system change was made within a generation how easy will it be – especially if we choose a significantly more disproportional system like SM – for future generations to change the system again and then, at what point, will we potentially have electoral system instability.

I suspect that the SM campaign can only run on smoke and mirrors. It can't promote SM in terms of the issues I have raised here – try promoting the concept that SM will see our votes less equal than now, or that it will facilitate a less representative democracy, or that it cannot match MMP in adapting to our changing demography, or that it might potentially create a maladaptive path dependency leading to greater electoral system instability.

MMP, for all of its annoyances, has served us very well, especially for those of us who endured being in the harness during the 'elective dictatorship' between 1984-92. The change to MMP was also entirely consistent with the history of the franchise in New Zealand in that we have always moved in the direction of more and greater democracy.

Any advocacy on behalf of SM that posits that it is a half-way house between FPP and MMP is pure snake-oil sophistry. Expect during the next eight months to be served up a lot of it. But then ask yourself this: Why would I willingly choose to make my vote less equal than it is today?