You can Vote for Change ... but why?

By all means let's debate the pros and cons of MMP. But it ain't going anywhere in November.

Those wanting to keep MMP in place at the upcoming referendum have been active for a while now - I've had a few leaflets thrust into my hand at the Saturday farmer's market (where Dunedin's elite meet to greet, eat and buy organic meat!) and appear under my door at work. Now the "dump MMP" side of the debate have finally got off their chuffs and organised themselves in response, in the form of "Vote for Change".

Reaction to this move on the blogs has been somewhat mixed, largely depending on the underlying politics of the commentators. Our own Rob Salmond quickly pointed out that the visage of Peter Shirtcliffe looms large over the Vote for Change skyline, a la Woody Allen's mother in Oedipus Wrecks. (Actually, you get the feeling Vote for Change are somewhat sensitive about this issue too, given one of their FAQ's is rather defensively headed "What is Peter Shirtcliffe's role?".) Cameron Slater cheers the development, albeit while misrepresenting what actually will happen at the referendum. Danyl McLauchlan tries to do some lateral thinking ... thereby demonstrating why scientists should stay locked in their laboratories and not be allowed to play with things that really matter.

Meanwhile, in the real media, John Armstrong is pretty scathing about the Vote for Change campaign. In particular, he condemns it for failing to specify its preferred alternative to MMP, claiming that; "By not indicating a preference, Vote for Change can keep pointing out the flaws of MMP without supporters of MMP being able to retort." Personally, I suspect that while this consequence is a not-undesirable sideline benefit, the real problem Vote for Change faces is that if it comes out now in favour of either First Past the Post or Supplementary Member - the only real two alternatives to MMP as a practical matter - it will fail to launch from the ground at all.

A call for returning to the tried and true nostalgia of First Past the Post would rally a chunk of the grey-haired electorate who remember when we never had it so good, but the the manifest unfairness of this voting system risks alienating swags of voters who might otherwise listen to the Vote for Change message. However, the superficial "best of both worlds" charms of Supplementary Member - "Look! You get stability in government and representation of minority groups!" - will take a bit of selling to the public. And coming out with the message "dump MMP for another acronym you don't understand!" is not a great public relations strategy.

As may be clear by now, my 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. That's why I've argued previously that the whole referendum exercise is a waste of time, money and effort.

But seeing as we now have something of an opposition voice to the electoral status quo, let's have a look at what are its claims for why we need change (as outlined here).

  • A good electoral system should make it easy to vote bad MPs out and hold governments to account.

Yes. One of the important roles of an electoral system is to allow voters to reject individuals and parties they believe have performed poorly whilst in office - the ability to "vote the bums out" is a key means of holding our lawmakers accountable for their actions (or inaction). However, we might note two things about this point. First, it is not the only function of an electoral system - selecting who will replace a "bad MP" or government also matters. Second, this is only a criticism of MMP if it fails to impose adequate accountability on "bad MPs" and governments. Which leads to the next two criticisms on the Vote for Change list ...

  • MMP has led to parties holding power over MPs, rather than every day New Zealanders being able to easily keep politicians accountable.

This claim, as stated, is plain wrong. MMP hasn't led to parties having power over MPs; it was the already existing importance and power of parties in New Zealand's electoral politics that led the 1986 Royal Commission to recommend we adopt MMP. (You can see that report here.) The fact is that every MP bar one - guesses as to who the exception was in comments below, please! - who has been elected since World War 2 has been elected as the candidate of a political party (i.e. after receiving a party's nomination and subject to that party's ability to remove its nomination at a future election). So the idea that if there was no MMP, our elected representatives would be able to shrug free of the yoke of party discipline and act to truly represent their constituents without fear of "the party bosses" (see below) is a fallacy. New Zealanders vote for parties not candidates as individuals, and they expect parties to demonstrate a large degree of coherence and internal discipline - so long as this remains the case, it gives parties a great deal of control over MPs irrespective of the voting system used.

  • MMP allows List MPs who have been voted out by their local electorates to sneak back into Parliament on party lists.

True, although the pejorative term "sneak back" is where all the work is done here! That said, an initial question we might ask is "how big a problem is this really?" As demonstrated here:

[Since 1999] there have been 21 defeated incumbent electorate MPs who returned to parliament as list MPs, an average of 5.25 per election. Of those 21, 13 (62%) were gone by the start of the next parliamentary term.

Furthermore, what is the problem with an individual who enjoys the support and trust of his party continuing to represent those who voted for the party as a party, even if a plurality of the people of a particular geographic area have chosen to go with a different local representative? The argument that it allows parties to stuff their lists with time-servers and hacks that the public don't want a bar of - a point we return to below - ignores the obvious political downside to such actions. Witness Labour's "regeneration" over the last few years, and the milage Labour's opponents have tried to make of "the Judith Tizard factor" in recent by-election campaigns. So a party that did use its list as nothing more than a lifeboat for hopeless individuals who have failed as MPs representing particular electorates would quickly find those lifeboats disappearing as its share of the party vote evaporated.

  • It is unfair that small political parties that hold the balance of power choose who governs. Vote for Change want that choice in the hands of all New Zealanders.

The "unfairness" of this state of affairs is all relative, of course. If a party wins a majority of the vote, and thus a majority of seats in Parliament, then unarguably it has a democratic mandate to govern alone. But this outcome is very unlikely to occur consistently in New Zealand under any voting system - the last time it did happen was 1951. That then leaves two options. Either the electoral system gives a party that has won less than a majority of votes - or even less than a plurality of votes! - a majority of the seats in Parliament, or different parties have to negotiate with one-another in order to create a governing majority. Why is the former "fair" while the latter is "unfair"? Furthermore, the idea that it is just the small parties who choose who governs ignores the fact that that their role depends on the ability and preparedness of the "big" parties to negotiate a governing arrangement - which in turn depends on just how many votes these parties attracted at the election. So under MMP, the decision as to "who governs" does lie in the hands of "all New Zealanders".

  • We want an electoral system that provides certainty for voters, rather than forcing Kiwis to wait for post-election negotiations.

One is tempted to question whether this means Vote for Change will not be advocating for the Single Transferrable Vote, First Past the Post, or Preferential Vote systems at this referendum, but that would be churlish. The point rather is that MMP, due to its more proportional outcomes, is more likely to result in Parliaments in which no single party holds a majority and thus requires coalition arrangements to be formed. That is undeniably true. But again, we might question whether it really is the problem that is made out. Voters, along with their trusty friends in the media, have begun to demand that "small parties" indicate prior to the election who they intend doing deals with after the votes have been counted. Therefore, going to the ballot box, voters have a fair idea of likely post-election coalition arrangements (even if not the specifics of the deal). And while parties may always go back on these promises after the election, or spring a surprise a la National and the Maori Party, doing so carries a potential political cost. Think NZ First 1996-99, or what seems to be happening to the Maori Party now. So is the "uncertainty" of MMP not being resolved to some extent by the electorate's demand for information?

  • Vote for Change wants governments to be held to what they promised, not what parties manage to negotiate in coalition agreements.

It isn't clear to me why these two issues are posed in the alternative. The assumption seems to be that under MMP "big parties" campaign on one set of policies, but then rip these up in their entirety and adopt a whole new set of policies after coalition negotiations with "small parties". This seems demonstrably false to me - witness National's 100-days of action in early 2009 ... or indeed, the very holding of this referendum! Alternatively, the complaint may be that the big parties don't get everything they want in coalition negotiations, so cannot deliver on all their pre-election promises. To which we may say, so what? Why should a party supported by less than a majority of voters be able to claim the right to carry through any policy it wants, rather than be required to convince other parties that these policies are worth their support?

  • There are too many List MPs that serve political party bosses rather than being directly accountable to Kiwi constituents. Vote for Change wants politicians to be representing their constituents, not shadowy party bosses.

First up, the claim that list MPs "serve political party bosses", whether "shadowy" or otherwise, rather begs the question as to how list MPs are selected from party to party. Some parties allow for greater direct membership participation in the creation of the party list than do others. So the real problem here seems to be with the latitude given to parties when it comes to deciding how to choose their candidates, not the existence of list MPs per se. But that aside, how is a list MP in (say) the Labour party more in thrall to the "party bosses" than is a constituency MP? Both depend upon the party's ongoing endorsement as a candidate for their parliamentary future - "independent" candidates don't win elections - and this endorsement can be yanked where any MP gets offside with the "party bosses". Just ask Chris Carter ...

  • We want our MPs to think of their constituents, not their list rankings when making tough decisions.

Sure, of course this sounds nice. But what does it actually mean? If it means, "MPs should only do what the voters want and nothing else", then it seems to me that Vote for Change needs to join these guys. Because it isn't a realistic reflection of any current MPs role - they constantly are balancing what the voters claim to want, what they think actually is best for the voters (whether in their electorate or nationally), what is best for their own political career, and what is best for the party they represent. These pulls - which may tug all in one direction, or different ways altogether - operate no matter how an MP enters Parliament. And making all MPs "directly accountable" to voters won't make them disappear.

  • Even supporters of MMP acknowledge that the status quo is not perfect. Changing the electoral system needs a proper debate. This year the debate will be lost in the excitement of the World Cup. A Vote for Change is a vote for a proper debate on the electoral system and another referendum in 2014.

Let's ignore for the moment that Peter Shirtcliffe previously has slammed the Government for not moving fast enough on this referendum, and actually wanted this issue resolved in November (World Cup distraction or not...). Actually ... let's not ignore that. This is a pretty transparent and desperate attempt to keep the issue alive until 2014, in the hope the ground is more favourable for change at that point.

  • A vote to keep MMP lets the politicians “review” and change the system for their own benefit. Keep control of electoral reform – Vote for Change.

Well, sort of, but no. It is true that any changes to MMP would have to be legislated into effect by MPs (just as the details of any replacement electoral system also will have to be legislated into effect). But the question of what changes ought to be made to MMP only gets asked if there is a vote to retain MMP in November. So if you want to see MMP amended, you have to vote to keep it then. And that review is carried out not by MPs, but by the Electoral Commission ... which is required by legislation to publicly consult on the issue. So the real message is this: if you want to see amendments made to MMP, then vote to retain it in November and then take part in the public consultation that the Electoral Commission will run in the next parliamentary term.