The process of voting on our voting process
Last week, Justice Minister Andrew Little flagged the possibility of having an MMP referendum at the 2020 election to reconsider the recommendations of a 2012 Electoral Commission Report and let voters decide again whether we should “tweak” MMP.
The Electoral Commission Report began as a “constitution conversation,” and led to a series of recommendations hoping to “enhance public confidence in the fairness and operation of our MMP voting system and parliamentary democracy.” These included lowering the five percent threshold for political parties entering parliament to four percent, and removing the one electorate seat threshold, or coat-tailing rule, for the allocation of list seats. But this report was tabled by the previous government and mostly forgotten about, a move that can be imputed to have multifarious motivations.
It’s important, however, that when we talk about changing our electoral system we’re doing it for the right reasons.
Despite this, it seems the appetite for tweaks to MMP remain. In fact, after last year’s election it was pretty common to hear conversations on whether MMP is actually an effective electoral system, or if this is just what MMP is like. With the possibility of a referendum, it’s likely we’ll be having similar conversations in 2020.
It’s important, however, that when we talk about changing our electoral system we’re doing it for the right reasons. We’ve got to make sure that our constitutional arrangements around electing and determining who gets to govern is fair, and will remain so through any number of election cycles. Making “tweaks” to respond to the events of the past few elections, or even try to anticipate particular party outcomes for the next few elections, would be short-sighted, unfair, and probably damaging to our system of government long term. Responding to last week’s conversation, Associate Professor of Politics Grant Duncan commented, “the cynic in me is saying [the referendum’s] got something to do with making sure NZ First get back in next time in case they don’t make 5 percent.” This kind of concern around partisanship needs to be allayed by the transparency and rigour of the process by which we seek change.
The New Zealand public, and not MPs, should be deciding the process under which our politicians are elected.
Altering our electoral system through a referendum is an important opportunity to ensure we have the best possible system. In fact, this kind of constitutional change is what referenda are for. The New Zealand public, and not MPs, should be deciding the process under which our politicians are elected. Otherwise it risks becoming a partisan process that favours whoever is in power at the time. But let’s do this well, and not muddy the waters with a bunch of other referendum questions (as has been suggested) that will drown out the perhaps less interesting but very important questions. Let’s have the important conversation about the strengths and weaknesses of MMP, the options that are being presented, and how and if we should be making any of those “tweaks” to it.
The previous government all but dismissed the 2012 Electoral Commission Report. It’s great to see it being brought back to the surface now. A strong democracy depends on the strength of our electoral system. Let’s just make sure that we do it right.