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Sovereignty: from the Treaty of Waitangi to the United Nations
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MMP's first decade
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Some Thoughts on MMP

by Peter Brooks, a former general manager of Parliamentary Service and former secretary to Cabinet in New Zealand, and an advocate then and now in retirement for citizenship education and participation.

Problems with MMP
Government Instability
Political party control of MMP
Status of the list MP
Constitutional Impact
MMP and Public Spending
What Has to be Done

Problems with MMP
No electoral system is perfect and MMP is no exception. The main concerns are still about the stability of MMP government and the risk that party elites will work the system to their advantage. Some critics warned New Zealanders that MMP would undermine our constitution. That was a gross exaggeration – but it has caused some tensions.

Government instability
MMP has not resulted in weak or unstable governments, but it has to be borne in mind that it has operated in a largely benign economic climate. The real test will be when the economic environment turns hostile – and, like the weather, that is bound to happen sooner or later. There is a risk that the inter-party agreements, on which minority coalition government are based, could break down when the going gets tough. The next three years may be the first real test of the ability of the system to ride out rough weather.

A central criticism of multi-party government is that it allows very small parties to have an influence out of proportion to their electoral support. Whether or not that has already happened is very much a matter of opinion. That concern might be, at least partly, addressed by requiring the 5% threshold to apply to all party list representation. Under the existing legislation if a party secures a constituency seat it is entitled to representation commensurate with its party vote even if that is less than 5%. It does seem somewhat anomalous that Wellington’s Ohariu/Belmont voters and those in Auckland’s Epsom electorate should be the instruments for the election not only of their own electorate representatives but also three list members!

However, if the one electorate seat qualification were deleted there would be more wasted votes and proportionality would suffer, although probably to only a very minor degree. If that is considered crucial the 5% threshold could be reduced to 4% and the wastage of votes is likely to be more than offset.

Political Party Control of MMP
The MMP system weakens the independence of the individual member, particularly those that are elected on the list. Their “home base” is not an electorate which elected them, but the political party which included them high enough on the list to get elected. The promised reintroduction of party-hopping legislation, which would prevent list members retaining their seats if they left their parties, suggests that list MPs are bondsmen who have largely lost the right to act according to their own consciences.

It is significant that the Greens, who are ardent supporters of MMP, are bitterly opposed to this limitation on the rights of individual members.

Under Section 71 of the Electoral Act political parties must follow democratic procedures in drawing up their party lists. The assumption has always been that the party will be keen to draw up an attractive list of talented people representative of the New Zealand population. Indeed that was seen as a major benefit of MMP. A political party could avoid being victim of local constituency parties intent on choosing their loyal, but not necessarily very talented, favoured son for the safe vacant seat. Instead they could draw up a list, balancing gender, ethnicity and special talents, which would provide a compelling argument to vote for the party. It has not quite worked out like that.

All but two of the first 41 places on the 2005 Labour Party list were occupied by MPs elected in the 2002 elections. Nine MPs who lost constituency seats were thrown a lifeline and elected on the list. Only three new list members were successful.

Because National had only 27 MPs in the last parliament it was able to present new and talented candidates high on their list. Many of those got elected because National substantially increased its party vote. Labour’s share of the vote barely changed.

If top positions on the party list are to be set-aside for incumbents, governing parties will find it impossible to both hold on to power and renew their human resources. Politics is a demanding and exhausting way to earn a living and burn-out comes more quickly than in most other professions.

If the party’s democratic processes are not robust enough to achieve renewal, consideration could be given to replacing closed lists by open lists under which the electorate decides which list members get elected. There are problems with such a system too - the voting process would be more complicated and there could be a tendency to fill lists with “celebrities”.

Hopefully over time the parties will see that they must prune and encourage new growth – only then will they continue to enjoy the fruits of power.

Status of the List MP
When MMP was introduced some people hoped that the two categories of MPs, electorate and list, would result in some useful specialisation. Electorate MPs would have more time for electorate work in their larger constituencies, and list MPs would be able to make a greater contribution to select committee and policy work.

Being the new boys and girls on the parliamentary block, list MPs have been keen to avoid being categorised as a lower form of elected member with no roots in the community. They have often been given electorates to “nurse” for their parties. A few turf wars have resulted. Equally constituency MPs have not wanted to be categorised as an extension of the social services by concentrating on constituency work and being left off important policy committees and shadow minister responsibilities.

It is conceivable that over time the constituency member will be seen as an anachronism, a remnant of the FPP system, and all members will be on the list, with constituency responsibilities allocated by the party. Many people would regret that move but as long as the system allows, indeed encourages through funding offices and staff, list MPs to act as constituency members the seeds of change are being sown.

Constitutional Impact
Extravagant claims by opponents of MMP about how it would wreck established constitutional arrangements, formal and informal, have largely been found to be groundless. The system of Cabinet government subject to parliamentary approval continues largely unchanged but with some loosening of the collective responsibility rules to give some free space to the minor parties within the government. The negotiations after the 2005 elections provided, however, for ministers (Winston Peters and Peter Dunne) to hold senior portfolios but not be in Cabinet. In Winston Peters' case the portfolio is the very senior one of Minister of Foreign Affairs. This most unusual arrangement would seem to weaken Cabinet as a collective deliberative body and strengthen the “presidential” role of Helen Clark. However, it should be borne in mind that a similar readjustment of the powers of cabinet and the PM has been underway in Tony Blair’s First Past the Post Britain.

MMP and Public Spending
The right wing lobby group The Business Roundtable opposed MMP partly because it would result in further pressure on public expenditure as the major parties sought “to buy” support from prospective partners. There were some indications of this in the negotiations in 2005 with some new expenditure pledged to both NZ First and United Future (Tauranga is to have a toll-free harbour bridge!). The Greens also obtained some policy objectives as a reward for agreeing not to vote against the government on issues of confidence and supply.

While the Business Roundtable has identified a potential problem it remains potential rather than real. The fact is that FPP governments have a long history of public spending to gain and retain power. In comparison the MMP governments have been financially restrained.

What Has to be Done
MMP has not changed people’s attitude to government and Parliament. There does not appear to be any greater feeling of ownership in the political system and the percentage voting at the last two MMP elections has been below the turnout for most FPP elections. Polls undertaken by UMR Insight in 2000 and 2001 indicated that there was a “less than ideal level of consensus” on the electoral system.

But MMP looks like being here to stay, at least until there is a major political crisis, in which event politicians and the public may seek to blame not only the government but the system under which it was formed. (deja vu 1992/93).

The MMP electoral machine is as yet hardly run-in. It would be premature to swap it for another model, but it may be time for a little fine-tuning, which the 2001 parliamentary review of MMP failed to provide. Above all concerned citizens should continue to take a lively interest in its performance and keep a dialogue going.

The provisions of the Electoral Act. after all, form the basis of our parliamentary democracy.

Updated January 2006

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