Stop wasting our time

The National Government isn't going to bother even thinking about the Electoral Commission's recommendations to reform MMP. I wish that they'd told us this was the plan before we spent our time and effort engaging with the issue.

So it looks like the Electoral Commission's review of MMP, complete with recommended changes to fix those parts that haven't been working that well, is dead. As I intimated in this post, I'm not overly surprised by this fact. However, it does piss me off quite a bit.

Explaining why that is the case requires a bit of a trip down memory lane. This may be somewhat lengthy and winding, but I hope the destination justifies the ride.

You may remember we had a referendum vote at the 2011 election on whether to keep MMP or change to another voting system. The only reason why that referendum took place was that National had promised to have one back when first elected in 2008, and wanting to appear all honest and trustworthy upon coming into office, it thought it should carry through with its commitment.

Of course, the referendum itself was a complete waste of time (and several millions of dollars) - as I pointed out at the time it was announced:

[W]hatever the motivation behind [National's promise], 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 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.

I reiterated that claim in a later post where I argued;

[M]y own view is that MMP has been good for New Zealand, and that there is no good reason to change from it now. (Whether in the abstract MMP is a better voting system than, say, STV is a different question ... my point is rather that MMP is the system we have and it is not failing badly enough to justify the cost and uncertainties of moving from it.) Furthermore, irrespective of my personal evaluative views, my empirical prediction always has been that barring a major political upheaval such as the complete collapse of the current National-led governing arrangement, a majority of voters will choose to stay with the status quo of MMP.

So it was no surprise whatsoever to me that the referendum delivered a stronger endorsement for MMP than the original 1993 referendum did: 58-42, as opposed to 54-46. We spent a lot of time, money and effort simply confirming what anyone with a half-decent grasp of the dynamics of electoral change could have told you was the case.

Interestingly, it appears John Key himself is a somewhat late convert to this point of view. As recounted by Jon Johansson in the comment thread of this post;

When the PM launched our post-election book 'Kicking the Tyres' a couple of weeks ago he lamented holding the MMP referendum (which he blames, increduously, on Don Brash) and said he wished it had, instead, been on the length of the electoral cycle. That was the second time in a month I'd heard this from the PM.

Snarkiness aside, the point is that National decided off its own bat back in 2008 that it was really, really important that the public revisit the issue of what electoral system we use to elect our MPs. And having made this decision, National moved to introduce the legislation necessary to allow the referendum to be held. The then Minister of Justice, Simon Power, did an exemplary job of designing that legislation, while the National Party's MPs were also to be commended for compromising with those who believed spending caps on referendum advertising was a necessary part of a fair voting process. So in terms of how the referendum was structured and conducted, you'll hear no complaints from me.

However, having run this referendum and seen the voters decide they wanted to keep MMP, the process adopted by the National Government did not end. Built into the legislation providing for the referendum was a requirement that if the voters chose to retain MMP, the Electoral Commission had to review how various aspects of that voting system were performing and make recommendations on any changes it felt necessary. As a part of that review, the Commission was statutorily required to engage in a process of public consultation.

And so we had two rounds of the Commission hearing from the general public (which, of course, includes supporters of all sorts of political parties and ideologies, as well as normal people). The first one attracted some 4,600 submissions from 5,800 people on the various issues the Commission had to consider. Following its hearing from these submitters, the Commission produced an initial proposals paper, complete with suggested recommendations. After another round of public consultation, in which another 1000 submissions were made, it formalised these recommendations in its final report.

Before we remind ourselves of what the Commission said, let's just pause and consider the status of its report and recommendations. They are by no means legally binding on the Government (much less on Parliament). The Commission's views are just that - its views. However, those views belong to three independent, impartial individuals who have been tasked to consider the problems with MMP, receive the public's views on the matter and say what should be done about them. Some of the views it heard may have been no more than knee-jerk responses to things that happened during the 2008 election campaign. But a reasonable number of them were highly reasoned and backed up with substantial evidence. So in terms of assessing both what is the public mood regarding MMP's various rules, as well as what is the range of expert opinion on those rules, the Commission is in a far better position than any other body in New Zealand.

What, then, did the Commission say needed to change with respect to how MMP operates? Well, not all that much. Its general approach was "if things ain't clearly broken, they shouldn't be fixed". And after examining issues like how political parties select their candidates, whether list candidates should be allowed to run in electorate seats, and whether list MPs should be allowed to contest by-elections, it concluded there weren't really problems with MMP at all.

However, there was one area in which it did recommend some fairly major change. With regards the "thresholds" that parties must cross in order to gain representation in Parliament, the Commission said that the "electorate lifeboat" rule that permits parties with an MP elected from a constituency to gain additional list seats ought to be dumped. And to compensate, the Commission also recommended lowering the party vote threshold from 5% to 4%.

Now, you may or may not think this was the right call by the Commission. My own preferred approach was to see the electorate lifeboat rule dropped, with the party vote threshold lowered to 2.5%. However, here's the thing. As I noted when defending the Commission's decision here, the large majority of submissions wanted to see a party vote threshold set at 4% or higher. So for the Commission to come out and say that MMP ought to be changed to include a significantly lower party vote threshold (say, my preferred 2.5%) would raise real legitimacy problems - exactly why should the Commission's view (or my view, for that matter) as to what a "proper" electoral system must look like trump the expressed views of the several thousand New Zealanders who gave their opinion on this matter?

Anyway, that's what the Commission presented to the Government. A report with fairly conservative recommendations for improving MMP, based upon the best evidence the Commission could get on the issue and reflective of the majority sentiments of the thousands of people who took the time and effort to tell it what they wanted to see in their electoral system. And what did the Government then do with it?

Well, as far as can be seen, the Minister of Justice wrote a letter to the other political parties in Parliament asking them what they thought of the report and its recommendations. And when some of those parties said they didn't like it, she (and the rest of the Government she sits in) decided to ignore it completely.

As I said at the outset, this pisses me off for a number of reasons.

First of all, there's the sheer bad faith involved in opening up the issue of electoral reform and inviting the ordinary public to participate directly in what they are told is a process of improving their electoral system so that it reflects the rules they think it ought to have, only to turn around and say that because the political parties who fight elections under those rules aren't happy with the outcome of that process, nothing will change. And then we have parliamentary select committees that wonder why voting rates in New Zealand might be dropping.

(Furthermore, I know that the original decision to have the Electoral Commission review MMP was driven by Simon Power, and the current Minister Judith Collins has not always looked kindly on his actions whilst he occupied her office. But I'd have thought a Government that is proposing to tie its successors to a policy for a period of thirty five years might at least be able to maintain some consistency in approach from one term to the next.)

Second, the claim that consensus amongst political parties is a necessary pre-requisite to changing the rules of MMP is a transparent ex post facto excuse to avoid having to do what the Commission recommends. The point is so obvious it hardly needs making, but I'll do so in bolded italics anyway.

If the National Government had simply wanted to see if other parties thought MMP needed changing in any particular way, it could just have asked them ... or, at most, set up a parliamentary committee to look at the matter rather than engage the Commission.

But that would have been a complete waste of time, because quite clearly the parties in Parliament are not going to all agree on whether and how to change the rules of MMP (especially with regard to the rules that get parties into Parliament in the first place). Which is why the Commission was tasked with this job - because it could produce a recommendation that was free from the overt biases and partisan calculations that the parties inevitably will bring to bear. So to now say "the Commission's recommendations were only ever going to be followed if all the parties agreed with them" is to, in effect, say "the Commission's recommendations were never going to be followed." In which case, we're back to my first gripe - why did the National Government set out to waste my time (and the time of all the others who engaged in the review process) in this way?

Third, there's the giant elephant in the room. If adopted, the threshold rules that the Commission proposed will make it much harder for National and its allies to win re-election in 2014. You may very well think that without the chance of some coat-tailing list MPs following them into the House, John Banks' and Peter Dunne's chances in their respective electorates would take a hit. And even if they do return as effectively independent electorate MPs, any additional party votes they attract would almost certainly be wasted. So when Judith Collins says there was no "consensus" as to the Commission's recommendations, what she really means that her Government and its allies decided they didn't like what those recommendations meant for their immediate future prospects.

Now, I accept that the partisan impact of the rule changes cuts both ways. I'm sure part of the reason that Labour and the Greens are so supportive of the Commission's recommendations is that they think they will have just this effect on National and its allies. So I wouldn't have been completely averse to seeing the Government introduce legislation to adopt the Commission's recommendations for the 2017 election, thereby allowing another electoral cycle to pass before their impact took effect.

But to reject outright the changes proposed by the Electoral Commission smacks of the rankest partisan gerrymandering to me - just as did Labour's decision to introduce the Electoral Finance Bill without cross-party negotiations on its content. The media, and one newspaper in particular, had a lot to say about that particular episode in New Zealand's electoral law history.

Let's see what they have to say about this one.