We have a referendum coming up which is essentially a citizens’ review of the MMP (mixed member proportional) election system used in New Zealand since the mid-1990s. We are promised that if we choose to retain MMP then the Electoral Commission will do some fine-tuning to the MMP rules.
Given that polls so far suggest MMP will stay, much of the rather infrequent discussion on the topic this year has been on what we don’t like about MMP – viewed by both anti- and pro-MMP camps.
For the record, I too am one who believes that MMP is better than the alternatives, but could do with some tweaking to make it fairer.
In this article I want to address one common criticism of MMP which I think is an unfair criticism. The guts of MMP is that about one-half of successful candidates are voted in through winning geographic electorates in a winner-takes-all manner, and the remainder of seats in parliament are filled from the top of each party’s list to make up true proportional representation of parliament overall, for each party getting over the 4% party-vote threshold.
Most candidates stand within an electorate and are also placed on the party list (though a few choose solely one or the other). If they are high enough on the list, they take a seat in parliament whether or not they win their electorate seat.
What rankles many people is that if a candidate loses the electorate vote (and especially if they had held the seat so have now been dumped or voted out) they can, if ranked highly by the party organisation, remain in parliament.
Detractors call this, “sneaking in by the back door”, and demand a rule change that says that if a candidate loses the electorate vote they cannot then get in on the list. Otherwise, they say, how can you vote someone out who has not served you well?
This request sounds reasonable at first, and it appeals to a common Kiwi attitude (which also comes out in law and order issues and when people demand someone be blamed for things that go wrong) of needing to punish a politician seen as unpopular, unfashionable ineffective or simply in the wrong party.
I have two problems with this punishment-motivated attitude, which makes me believe that making such a rule for MMP would have far more downsides (and serious ones at that) than benefits.
First, such a rule would make it very much harder for aspiring and promising young politicians to enter the game. In fact, the only two ways they could enter parliament would be either:
(1) be placed in a very safe seat for that party – meaning they would have to wait until such seats are vacated by old-time stalwarts; or
(2) avoid standing for any electorate seat, which they would likely lose due to their inexperience, and instead work their way up the party list from the outside to an electable position, a process which could take many years.
One of the roles of electorate voting (in which only one candidate can succeed) is that it gives a starting point for new talent, providing them experience and an opportunity to show their party their vote-winning talents. Banning losers from being successful on the list would stifle that talent.
My second big problem with this (potential) change of rule is that sometimes very good politicians in marginal seats, who still have a worthy contribution to make even in opposition, are victims of swings against a government. Their seat loss may have very little to do with their own ability but more to do with a change in fashion or national mood.
Certainly, there are some parliamentarians who deserve to lose their seat due to poor performance. They are best dealt with through a lowish list ranking so would lose their seat anyway in a party swing. But I believe there would be many more pollies who do not deserve to lose their place in parliament when their party goes out of favour.
To make it a rule that candidates who don’t win an electorate seat cannot get in on the list would provide us with a parliament made up of never-retiring politicians on both sides who managed to get safe seats, along with a random assortment of others who chanced their arms in marginal seats or were accepted purely on list positions, having not even campaigned.