Running down the clock on electoral reform

Last year, over 6000 of us took the time and effort to engage in debating the future of our MMP system. Would it be too much trouble for the Government to let us know whether there was any point to us doing so?

Following the majority decision to keep MMP at the 2011 referendum, the Electoral Commission last year reviewed the MMP voting system in a process that involved a couple of rounds of public consultation. You may remember that process from such Pundit posts as this, this, this, this, this, this and this. The point being that at the time the review was taking place, it was something that attracted a fair bit of attention and comment. And so over 6000 individual or group submissions were made to the Commission, giving a fairly broad spectrum of views on how MMP is working and what (if anything) could be done to improve it.

Then, in late October 2012, the Commission presented the Minister of Justice with its final report, complete with a number of recommendations for changing the MMP system. Most particularly, the Commission recommended doing away with the "electorate lifeboat" provision that allows a party to share in the party list allocation when one of its candidates wins an electorate, while at the same time dropping the party vote threshold for representation from 5% to 4%. Provided this change was made, the Commission also recommended doing away with future parliamentary "overhangs", by fixing the number of MPs at 120.

Then ... nothing. Or, at least, nothing that the public who had taken the time and effort to give their opinion on the electoral system could see. The report disappeared into the tender clutches of Justice Minister Judith Collins and the parliamentary parties who will have to turn the Commission's recommendations into actual law, to do with as they pleased.

Now, however, this six-month silence is starting to be broken. Jon Johannson has an opinion piece in the Dom-Post wondering "why the Government has not responded, given the non-controversial and orthodox recommendations of the Electoral Commission." I suspect his piece sparked this Radio NZ item on Checkpoint, in which the Green Party MP Holly Walker expressed her fear that the Government is running out of time to put the Commission's recommendations into law for the 2014 election.

And I think she could well be right. In explaining why, I'm going to make a few assumptions that I think are justified given the constitutional significance of the issue at hand.

First, any legislation changing MMP will be passed according to the normal legislative timetable (i.e. the Standing Orders requiring legislation to be tabled before the House for 3 sitting days before first reading, and again following the select committee's report back to the House, will be adhered to).

Second, any legislation changing MMP will get a full, six-month period of select committee review (i.e the Justice and Electoral Committee will have usual amount of time to solicit, receive and consider public submissions before reporting back to the House).

Third, any legislation changing how MMP works at the 2014 election will be fully enacted by the end of 2013 (i.e. the convention that changes to electoral law do not take place in the year of a general election will be followed).

Given these constraints, the time for getting a law through the House is beginning to get tight. Already the earliest any Bill could receive its first reading is May 9 ... the Thursday of the House's next sitting week. A six month select committee process then means the Bill would be reported back by November 9, meaning a second reading vote could only take place on November 14. That then leaves just under a month for the House to get through the committee and third reading stages before it rises for the year.

That's still doable. But note that if a Bill has not been introduced into the House by late May, then it isn't. At least, not without going against one of the three assumptions listed above - which in itself would raise real process concerns.

So, the question then is, how likely is it that we'll see a Bill put before the House in the next month? Judging by the Radio NZ report already mentioned, you'd have to be at least a bit doubtful.

According to this report, the Ministry of Justice only consulted with the other political parties on their views of the Commission's recommendations in March of this year. Exactly why it took some four-to-five months for the Government to go to the other parties in Parliament with the Electoral Commission's clear and quite straightforward report is a bit of a mystery. But it means that, again according to Radio NZ, the Ministry is still only "in the early stages" of assessing the other parties' responses. 

In other words, the National Government hasn't even formally decided whether or not there is the intra-party "consensus" it claims is necessary to proceed with enacting the Commission's recommendations. (Although, in reality we all know the answer to that point - there isn't any consensus because ACT publicly repudiated the recommendations, United Future effectively did the same, while the National Party's own submission to the Commission pointed out that it would have been difficult for it to take power after any of the past MMP elections under the proposed changes.) So it isn't so much a question of what do the various parties think about the Commission's recommendations, but rather what is the Government going to do given that the parties think different things?

I'd suggest that we're thus left facing three possible futures. In the first one, the Government manages to cobble together a Bill containing the Commission's recommendations and gets it into the House in time for passage by the years end. Whether the Bill then becomes law will depend, at least in part, on what the general public say about it to the Justice and Electoral Committee - and in particular, whether the recommendations still appear to enjoy the majority support that they did in the Commission's review process.

In the second future, the Government decides not to enact the Commission's recommended changes for the 2014 election, but instead puts forward a Bill to do so for 2017. This would itself go against one of the Commission's recommendations - it said the changes it proposed should be adopted straight away - but could be defended on the basis that it avoids any potential concerns about parliamentary parties "screwing the scrum". That is to say, changing the rules for an election four years and another term of government from now takes some of the heat out of the debate over who gains what sort of partisan advantage from the changes. Furthermore, it would take the time pressure off the issue, in that legislation wouldn't have to pass before the end of 2013.

The third future, however, is the worst of all. In it, the Government lets the clock run out on being able to make changes for 2014, while announcing that the lack of consensus amongst the political parties in Parliament means that it intends taking no further action on the Commission's recommendations.

I really hope this isn't a future that the Government plans to visit on us. But if it is, I already have planned a post of Old Testament fury that will make Samuel L. Jackson's quotation from Ezekiel look like a lullaby to a sleepy child. So, let's see what the future holds.