Referendum Madness

Is it praiseworthy or plain dumb for a government to honour a stupid election promise?

John Key seems committed to sticking with National’s pre-election promise to hold a referendum on MMP at the 2011 election, even though he also appears to believe that New Zealanders are pretty happy with the status quo. As laudable as it is to see a politician keeping his word to the electorate, making the initial promise was silly and holding any such a referendum is misguided and unnecessary.

(Jane Clifton neatly captured John Key's situation on Monday's "The Panel" on National Radio – she likened him to a dog that, after frantically chasing a car, actually catches hold of its bumper and then has to work out what the hell to do next.)

Let's get the easy (dare I say "cheap") shot out of the way. There's an obvious disjunct between National's willingness to spend some tens-of-millions of dollars of tax-payer dollars on holding a referendum that even its leader doesn't really think is needed, whilst simultaneously trumpteting the "hundreds of thousands" of dollars saved by revamping ministerial housing allowances. So much for a recession-era tightening of the public purse strings!

But the National government's real problem is that it isn't just a matter of holding a simple vote on keeping or junking MMP. There is no way, for reasons David Farrer covers, that you can hold a single stage referendum that both asks if the public are content with MMP and (if a majority indicate they are not) also endorses a replacement electoral system. At least, there is no way you can do so and produce an outcome that can claim any form of legitimacy for the future. And if the referendum cannot confer such legitimacy, the exercise is worse than useless – it will be positively harmful.

Therefore, if we are going to have a referendum, it is going to have to be a two-step process, just as we had in 1992 and 1993. The first stage will gauge whether the public wish to stay with MMP; and if not, what alternative voting system they would prefer. The second stage (if needed) would be a straight run-off between MMP and the top-ranking alternative system.

What is more, this second stage of the process really has to be held at general election time, in order to ensure maximum participation. Which means to get it all over with at the next election, we'd need to hold the first stage before 2011 – including the large-scale public education campaign necessary to ensure people know what it is that they are voting on. This is a ridiculously tight time-frame, and I'll go on record here as saying it just can't happen.

Consequently, the first stage of the referendum most likely will be held alongside the 2011 general election, with any second stage held at the 2014 general election. This timeframe could work, but at the potential cost of tying New Zealand up for the next 5 years in arguments over how we should be voting.

Which brings me to the next reason why this referendum is misguided. It
will address the fundamental constitutional issue of what voting system New Zealanders want to use, even as the government is separately deciding the related issue of what our laws should be on election funding, and while National is committed though its agreement with the Maori Party to establish by 2010 a group to review constitutional issues, "including Maori representation".

The fact these deeply interlinked matters are being dealt with in three different ways, each apparently independently of the others, strikes me as plain dumb. Why aren't they all – or, at the very least, the question of MMP's future and the issue of Maori representation – being considered together? Can you meaningfully address one without the other? Isn't the more rational approach to look at all of this as a package, and work out what (if any) changes to the electoral system (and wider constitutional arrangements) are thought necessary or desirable before seeking the public's endorsement of those changes?

I do accept that, at the time of voting in the referendum on MMP, many people believed that there would be an opportunity for the public to pass judgment on any change. My dim, dark memory of those times (which is somewhat clouded by the fact I was then an undergraduate at Otago, with all that that brings) is that I shared this belief. But it simply was wrong – no such follow-up referendum was ever explicitly promised to voters.

National's promise of a referendum thus seems to stem from a mix of a desire to scratch all pre-election itches on the electorate's part (whether real or imagined), and to provide a sop to those hold-outs who hearken back to the glory days of First-Past-the-Post government, which "gave more power to the major party to implement sensible policies". The fact that this latter group contains a fair few wealthy members of the business community may or may not be relevant to its decision.

But whatever the motivation behind it, it was a silly and unnecessary commitment. There simply isn't the sort of deep seated public anger and disillusion with politics that drove the 1992 and 1993 referendum votes. Yes, MMP as it currently operates has some flaws – the "one electorate MP" exception to the representation threshold, the fact candidates can stand both in seats and for the party list, for example. But these are flaws that can be identified by a simple review that receives public submissions; a true "kicking of [MMP's] tyres", to use John Key's phrase. Going beyond this to seek the public's verdict on MMP as an entire system is neither necessary nor worthwhile.