Election system the real contest
Like Christmas, this year’s election still seems a reassuringly long way off.
However, the recently leaked news of an anti-MMP campaign aimed at influencing this year’s election referendum was a startling reminder of just how close we are to the season of electioneering.
Anyone, of course, is free to mount a campaign against (or supportive of) MMP. Yet the news that the prime movers in the antiMMP campaign are (reportedly) activists closely allied to the National and Act parties suggests this particular effort is not exactly a spontaneous grassroots campaign.
The referendum on the voting system will be held in tandem with this year’s general election, and will ask voters whether they want to retain MMP.
In addition, voters will be invited to choose their preferred alternative from a list comprised of First-Past-the-Post, Preferential Vote, Single Transferable Vote and the Supplementary Member systems.
Even voters who want to retain MMP will still need to remember to choose between the alternatives – if only because (should the anti-MMP vote prevail) voters in 2014 will be making a binding choice between MMP and 2011’s top-ranked alternative.
Finally, if MMP survives all these obstacles it will be subjected to a review by the Electoral Commission – which will seek public feedback and report back to the Jus- tice Minister on what changes to MMP are deemed to be necessary and/or desirable.
New Zealand has had five MMP elections.
If the hallmark of a fair system is whether it reflects voter choices, then MMP has succeeded on one important measure at least.
After the 2008 election, 93 per cent of New Zealand voters saw their party vote or electorate vote represented in Parliament – while the comparable figure for the last FPP election in 1993 was only 54 per cent.
For such reasons, the anti-MMP campaign mentioned above has reportedly given up on FPP, and will focus on promoting the SM ( or supplementary member) system instead. That’s a clever choice, if change is to be sought at all.
Under an SM system, there are essentially two parallel elections – one held in electorates under FPP, and a list vote, where seats are assigned proportionately, according to votes.
Unlike MMP, SM carries out no overall proportional adjustment. It would thus enable the anti-MMP campaigners to harness the hostility to MMP, and to the role of the party list.
This year, Labour’s only real hope of gaining power would require it to weld together an opportunistic coalition of minor parties (perhaps including Winston Peters) that is hardly likely to depict MMP in an attractive light.
For its part, the anti-MMP cause will be trying to downplay the overseas evidence that the SM system cements in the power of the party bosses, who control the party list even more so than under MMP.
It is also hard to see how voters in November will be able to vote blind for the SM system without knowing just what the ratio here between electorate seats and party list seats under SM is proposed to be.
Still, in a year when the polls suggest the election itself is something of a foregone conclusion, the voting system battle is shaping up as a far closer and unpredictable contest.
Gordon Campbell is an experienced political journalist and columnist who has written for The Listener and Scoop.