In the traditional FPP (First-past-the-Post) system, the candidate receiving the most votes is elected. And even though most electorate candidates are chosen by the party heirarchy, at least the voters in the electorate can chose between them. Poorly performing MPs can be voted right out of parliament, and they face the vote every three years.
Unlike NZ, Britain retains the traditional system. A recent referendum overwhelmingly rejected a form of proportional representation called the Alternative Vote, which is similar to the STV (Single Transferable Vote) system used in Australia. Both systems require voters to rank candidates in order of preference, and if no candidate scores more than 50% of the vote, a formula is applied counting up all the preferential votes. The result can be the election of candidate who was the first choice of very few voters, but the most popular second choice. In other words, nobody gets what they wanted.
NZ’s MMP system at least does not have that drawback. Each voter votes twice – one vote for the member for his or her electorate, and one party vote. The elected members representing each constituency are still chosen by FPP according to the electorate votes, so the one with the most votes wins. “Proportional” representation is supposedly achieved by having list MPs. A party that wins no electorate seats must achieve at least 5% of the overall party vote before it has any MPs in parliament. The total number of MPs for each party in parliament (electoral plus list MPs) is proportional to the party’s share of the overall “party vote”. So MMP has another advantage – it is not vulnerable to gerrymandering.
But it does have other drawbacks.
Any party with 5% or more of the overall party vote will have 5% or more of the MPs in parliament. Thus, small parties that may possibly never gain an electoral seat in parliament can be represented there by one or more list MPs. Gee, that sounds fair. Bingo – proportional representation!
Except that it is not really proportional. The result of MMP is a much higher likelihood of coalition government, in which no major party gains a clear majority and so must go into coalition with one or more other parties in order to form a government. Because they wish to maintain public perception of their points of difference, the major mainstream parties do not form coalitions with each other. Inevitably, the coalitions are formed with one main party and one or more minor ones. And that is why the representation of the minor party is in fact disproportionate. A minor party in coalition with a major one has a proportional share of the total seats, but much more that a proportional voice in parliament – it has real power. Because the price it demands for of going into coalition is the promise of the major partner to promote and vote for an agreed set of its policies or private member’s bills. It is, remember, a minor party. If only 5% of voters have given it their party vote, there is no assurance that the 95% of those who did not do so actually accept its policies. Yet with this arrangement, some of them will become law. The tail ends up wagging the dog – a recipe for bad law and bad government.
It has another major drawback. List MPs are never directly elected by the voters – the public has no opportunity to chose who is in an who is out. Each party creates its own list of potential list MPs, in order of party preference. When all the party votes are counted and the numbers allocated to each successful party, the seats are allocated strictly in party list order. And naturally the parties tend to stack the top order of the list with MPs they want to retain, even if the public rejects them. The top of the order is usually occupied by senior electorate MPs, to keep their positions safe regardless of what the voters might prefer. In effect, MPs at the top of the list can almost never be voted out. That can hardly be called democracy. MMP should be scrapped – it is neither truly proportional nor truly democratic.
The NZ Herald thinks otherwise. After the British result, and in anticipation of the forthcoming NZ referendum on the future of MMP, the Herald has published an editorial (see Appendix) calling for the survival of MMP. The Herald firmly believes it is a Good Thing, giving the voters of NZ the government they want. The Herald article even says that “tails have not wagged dogs”. I disagree, firmly.
Were it not for MMP, NZ First, the Greens, the Maori Party and ACT either would never have been represented in parliament or would have had only a couple of seats. Under the cosy coalition arrangements with MMP, this is the reality:
- In coalition with Labour, NZ First’s Winston Peters scored the plum role of Minister of Foreign Affairs. Hardly the choice of the NZ voter!
- In coalition with Labour, the Green’s Sue Bradford rammed through the most hated legislation in NZ history, the unnecessary and totally ineffective anti-smacking bill that has had zero effect on child abuse.
- In coalition with National and against the wishes of almost everybody, the Maori Party has overturned the Foreshore and Seabed act
God knows what will happen if ACT under Brash forms a coalition with National after the forthcoming elections.
Appendix – the Herald Editorial: