The status quo is not a neutral position

David Farrar is very angry that a political party is unilaterally trying to game electoral law for its own benefit. It's good to see him being so critical of National's behaviour with respect to the reform of MMP.

Labour's Ian Lees-Galloway has had his Electoral (Adjustment of Thresholds Amendment Bill) drawn from the ballot. The Bill is designed to implement the Electoral Commission's recommendations on adjusting the threshold at which parties gain representation in Parliament (but not any of the other recommendations the Commission made). 

I supported those recommendations at the time (and still do). They aren't exactly what I would have in place if I were King For A Day ... but I'm not, and nor is anyone else. And the Commission, it seems to me, did a very good job at synthesising both the weight of public opinion and strength of arguments presented to it in its review role in order to create recommendations that would make for a better system of MMP (as the people of NZ see it).

However, it became pretty clear that these recommendations were dead on arrival with the Minister of Justice, because they said things that the Minister (and her National Party) didn't like. So Labour, in the form of Ian Lees-Galloway's proposal, has sought to put the recommendations (or, rather, some of them) back on the parliamentary agenda by way of this Bill.

In doing so, they have attracted the ire of David Farrar, who opines:

... these sort of significant changes [to the electoral system] should only occur if there is consensus between the more significant political parties. The Electoral Act should not be some sort of grand prize which winning parties use to screw over losing parties, to try and stay in power longer – which is what Labour did last time. National has deliberately refrained from making significant changes to electoral law, if Labour doesn’t agree with them. The idea is to maintain that consensus, but it looks like Labour are ditching the need for consensus ...

First of all, we might note that this "only change electoral law if there is a consensus" claim is one that isn't obeyed on a consistent basis. Graeme Edgeler debunks that as a factual claim here. (Cough, cough ... prisoner voting ... cough, cough. And here's David's ringing denunciation of the process used to pass that shitty idea into law on a straight National-Act party line vote.)

But I suspect David's point is one of principle (albeit a principle that need only be selectively applied): the best or most legitimate way to address issues of electoral law is through cross-party consensus, after discussion of the issues and negotiating compromises. That is why the process Simon Power followed in setting up the Electoral Legislation Committee in the 2008-11 Parliament to work through the reforms to electoral finance law and the referendum on MMP was so praiseworthy.

However, Simon Power is now at Westpac, earning more money for less work. And his approach to electoral reform issues no longer seems to be the standard modus operandi. Instead, we have Judith Collins as Minister of Justice, whose treatment of the reforms recommended by the Electoral Commission review her predecessor blessed is quite different (as detailed here). 

So in May of this year, we found ourselves in this position. Following a quite involved process of public consultation and deliberation, the Electoral Commission had made a set of recommendations on how to reform MMP so that public concerns with its performance could be addressed, thereby allowing the electoral system to better achieve the ends that the people of New Zealand want it to. But because those recommendations weren't particularly to the liking of the current Minister and her Party, they were given cursory attention (at best) before being abandoned. And now Labour is trying to resurrect (some of) those recommendations, in the hope that a majority of Parliament will agree with them and pass the measures into law. And David Farrar cries foul, saying that Labour is trying to "ditch the need for consensus" when it comes to electoral law.

Here's the problem I have with that last allegation.

A refusal to change the law is just as much a decision as is one to change the law. So by saying "we won't take the action needed to implement the Electoral Commission's recommendations (because we don't agree with them)", National is doing the exact same thing that Labour is by introducing a Bill to implement them. It is seeking to use its narrow majority support in the House (which gives it governmental power) to dictate what the electoral rules will be, irrespective of whether other parties may want to see those rules amended (and, it should be noted, in the face of the considerable number of public submissions indicating that the New Zealand public want to see these changes made to their electoral system).

What is more, National's refusal to allow the changes to MMP that the Electoral Commission recommended looks to be driven by partisan political calculations as to how those changes would affect its own chances at election time. Given the fact that all its most likely support partners (and current cohabiters in government) rely on the "electorate lifeboat" rule to get into Parliament, refusing a recommendation that this be abolished works to advantage National at the next election. Which looks exactly like treating the Electoral Act as "some sort of grand prize which winning parties use to screw over losing parties, to try and stay in power longer" that David (with some justice) criticises Labour for in relation to the Electoral Finance Act.  Again, it doesn't matter that the treatment involves a refusal to act rather than a positive decision to act - where the status quo has a perceived partisan benefit, the effect is the same. 

So complaining that Labour is seeking to "abandon consensus" and make changes to the Electoral Act without "the more significant political parties" agreeing is true. But Labour is only doing this because National has first "abandoned consensus" by refusing to change the Electoral Act, even though some of "the more significant political parties" want this to take place. So either both parties are equally guilty, or we need to accept that while Simon Power's model for changing electoral law provides an ideal-type response, in the absence of any such mechanism for debating change parties should be free to pursue their own favoured electoral rules. And then we might ask, whose fault is it that there wasn't a Simon Power-type response to the Electoral Commission's recommendations in the first place?

Having said all that, let me close with a point of agreement with David. As he notes:

...this bill does not implement the recommendations of the Electoral Commission in full. It cherry picks the recommendations they agree with, but doesn’t implement the recommendation to get rid of overhang seats or setting a ratio of electorate to list seats.

By not getting rid of over-hangs, Labour’s bill would have seen the size of Parliament in the last three elections as 127 MPs, 128 MPs and 126 MPs.

I agree this is silly - we shouldn't be abolishing the electorate lifeboat rule without getting rid of overhangs. So if and when this Bill makes it through its first reading and goes to select committee - as I think it should ... the various individuals and groups who spent time and effort involving themselves in the Electoral Commission's review deserve that much at least - I'll be strongly recommending that it be amended.