Should the government dissolve the people, and appoint another one?

It's the day after the Electoral Commission's preliminary report on reforming MMP. Let's see what the nation's true power brokers and political junkies think of it.

Now that the Electoral Commission's proposed recommendations on MMP are on the table, the political jockeying over them can begin. Kate Chapman and Danya Levy have a round-up of the political parties' initial responses to the proposals (which I've supplemented with further sources where I could find them). In a nut shell, these appear to be:

  • Labour: Yay!
  • Greens: Yay!
  • ACT: Boo!
  • NZ First: Boo!
  • Maori Party: Mostly yay (but won't someone please think of the Maoris?)!
  • United Future: Some yay and some boo (because it's the common sense thing to say)!
  • National (and Mana): Who knows?

However, whilst it will be the MPs from these parties that get the final say on what changes - if any - are made to the MMP system as a result of the Commission's proposals, they aren't where we need to be looking right now. (Actually, before Parliament gets to have any say, Justice Minister Judith Collins will have to give it an opportunity to consider the matter by introducing legislation ... but let's not get too hung up here on trivial matters such as the separation of powers.)

Rather, it is in the blogosphere that the Commission's proposals will live or die. Because everyone knows that real power over the realm of public ideas lies in the hands of a random assortment of malcontents with access to a computer and the internet. 

So here's a (no doubt hopelessly incomplete - I specifically note I couldn't locate any blog commentary from anyone without a penis) sampling of immediate responses to the Commission's suggestions from the on-line commetariat.

I've already posted my insufferably smug and self-congratulatory take on the topic here. It looks like Robert Winter is also pretty happy with the Commission's work. But so far these marginal and easily discounted voices seem to be it by way of general statements of support for the Commission's proposals.

For over on Kiwiblog, David Farrar is "a bit disappointed the Commission has been so timid" in its overall recommendations - essentially because it didn't say what he thought it should say about a number of issues. I do note, however, that he gets thoroughly Edgelered at Public Address regarding the consistency of his calls for broad legislative intervention in the political marketplace with his generally laissez faire attitude to such matters in the economic realm.

(Incidentally, we've yet to see Graeme's views regarding the Commission's proposals on the representation threshold, aside from a general statement that "I don’t agree with everything the Commission has proposed" ... so I guess we'll just have to wait a bit longer to find out what it is we are required to think about this issue.)

In contrast to DPF's expression of mild disappointment, real venom towards the Commission's report has eminated from "The Left". Bryce Edwards sees the Commission as having "blown its once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to significantly enhance democracy." His reasoning is that:

The Electoral Commission's advocacy of a threshold - albeit a slightly lowered one - is anti-democratic. A 4% threshold goes against the principles of proportionality and of democracy itself. It says that votes shouldn't be counted if they are for parties outside of the mainstream. If you vote for a party that has 3% support, your vote is deemed not worthy of counting.

Over at No Right Turn, Idiot Savant is no less scathing about the Commission's recommendation to reduce the party vote threshold to 4% (whilst also abolishing the electorate seat exception):

At best, this is likely to work out to be roughly as representative as we are at the moment. But in some cases (e.g. 2002) it gives us a much less representative Parliament than we have at present. Given an opportunity to improve our electoral system and give us a more representative democracy, the Electoral Commission blew it.

Whew! I'll bet the Commission members were squirming in their beds last night as the full magnitude of their betrayal of the very concept of democracy burst upon them! Why is it that they hate our freedoms so much?

Invective aside, let's review what the Commission actually did. It essentially adopted a two-stage approach in coming up with its proposal for lowering the party vote threshold to 4%. (I'm going to put to one side it's proposal to abandon the 1 seat threshold, on the assumption that Bryce and I/S would accept this move provided the party vote threshold also was lowered significantly.)

First, it worked out what it considered to be an "acceptable" range of representation thresholds for New Zealand. And it said (to simplify and paraphrase) that the party vote threshold should be reduced from the present 5%, but go no lower than 3%. It came up with this lower end figure by considering (it said) the potential splintering effect that a lower threshold could have on Government formation and the effectiveness of political parties in the legislature, as well as claiming that a voting system with a threshold of less than 3% would be so different to the current one as to effectively constitute a new electoral process.

(This second point is important, and I'll come back to it - the Commission interpreted its role in conducting this review as being to tweak the version of MMP that the public had voted to retain at the 2011 referendum, not to recommend changes that would result in a qualitatively different method of voting.)   

Now, it could be argued that the Commission was wrong to even consider what an appropriate representation threshold ought to be ... that democracy must by its very nature mean there should be "no threshold" at all when it comes to representation in Parliament. But that's a nonsense claim - designating a representation threshold is unavoidable when designing an electoral system. As I noted in this post:

Any form of representation of the voters is going to fail to fully include all groups (much less individuals) vying for a share of parliamentary representation. That's because "representation" is inherently a compromise (some would say compromised) concept. So, for example, even adopting a "no threshold" rule for MMP wouldn't really result in a no threshold system - it just sets the level at which a particular group of voters get represented at about 1/120th of the party vote (actually, whatever the Sainte Lague formula dictates, but that's too hard for my head [ed note: Graeme Edgeler subsequently pointed out in comments this would be about 0.42% of the unwasted party vote]). But why 1/120th of the party vote ... why not 1/150th (by increasing Parliament to 150 MPs)? Or why not 1/2000th (in a 2000 seat Parliament)? What is it about 1/120th of the party vote that just happens to be the right level at which a group of voters ought to be entitled to a representative in Parliament? 

So if we are going to elect representatives to Parliament, there always will be some wasted votes in the system - as well as some prospective representatives who will not get into Parliament even though they have received some votes from the populace. The question is, what level should this be set at (taking into account principled issues such as representation of diverse points of view, as well as practical matters like how many MPs can we afford to pay for)?

Of course, it can be argued that the process of reasoning which led the Commission to identify 3% as the lowest acceptable threshold figure was flawed. The danger of fragmentation may have been over-emphasised, while claims that single-MP parties can't operate effectively were unsubstantiated. Those may well be fair criticisms, but I'm not going to go into them as ultimately I think that they are irrelevant to the issue.

Because, having identified what it considered to be the acceptable range of thresholds, the Commission then had to decide where in this range the threshold ought to fall. It plumped for 4% because:

It reflects the Royal Commission’s original recommendation. It would compensate for abolition of the one electorate seat threshold. It is in line with comparable democracies such as Norway and Sweden. And it is in line with public opinion and the weight of submissions received by the Commission.

In other words, the Commission felt that 4% is the Goldilocks number - not too high, not too low and supported by just the right number of people. Of course, I/S has called foul on this last point: he claims that of those submissions in favour of lowering the threshold, more supported a figure of 3% or less than supported 4%. While this is true, it conveniently ignores the fact that a large majority of the overall submissions supported a figure of 4% or more ... we must recognise that some 45% of submitters thought the threshold ought to be kept at its current 5% or actually increased.

And this really is the critical truth that the Commission had to face. Because let's say the Electoral Commission really, really wanted to significantly reduce the representation threshold in the name of "democracy". Hell, let's even imagine that it had consisted of Bryce Edwards, Idiot Savant and myself (who submitted to the review that the threshold should be set at 2.5%) ... three individuals who favour placing a much lower hurdle in the path of parties seeking to enter the parliamentary realm. 

Then, through the process of public submissions, we are confronted with the reality of what the New Zealand public thinks its electoral system ought to look like. We see that most of those submitting to us think that there should be a representation threshold set at a figure far higher than we personally favour. And we receive a submission from the New Zealand Election Study, reporting on its findings from successive post-election surveys of voters that:

We anticipate that some submissions to this Review will advocate a move to ʻextreme PRʼ by the complete removal or more radical reduction of the threshold. But such a change could be inconsistent with the popular mandate of approval for MMP in the 2011 referendum.

NZES data also suggests it would run against the grain of public preferences.

And that:

We infer that most New Zealanders would prefer to retain a threshold and that, if anything, it should be tightened rather than loosened. 

Here's the dilemma that we would then face. Our view of what "democracy" requires by way of a representation threshold conflicts with the actually held views of the people in whose name democracy operates.

So do we then, in the name of "democracy", recommend that Parliament impose upon the electorate a voting system significantly different in its potential effects from the one the voters have just voted to retain (by, it should be noted, a by no means overwhelming 58-42 margin) and containing a feature that a significant majority of the electorate appears not to want? Because, of course, we know what "democracy" really requires better than the people in whose name it actually operates? 

Or do we seek to combine the good arguments that we think exist in favour of a lower party vote representation threshold with the public's apparent aversion for proliferating political parties and the perceived risks of fragmented government by proposing a compromise figure that is a bit lower than the status quo, but nevertheless higher than we personally would prefer?

Which of these is the proper role for a Commission that is reviewing the operation of a voting system in the name of the people who actually will use it to elect their lawmakers?