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.
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
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
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.
MMP and Public Spending
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
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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