Thursday, December 23, 2010

MMP is better for New Zealand than every other electoral system. Here’s why.

warning: longer than usual post
The upcoming referendum on the electoral system next year will end up being a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) walkover, or a choice between two electoral systems: MMP and either First Past the Post (FPP), or Supplementary Member (SM). Either way MMP should remain and then be modified.

Incidentally, the ‘first past the post’ label is completely misleading because there is no fixed winning post. The system was not designed for national elections, and is unlikely to enhance democratic accountability when a significant proportion of the population wishes to vote for parties other than National and Labour. Under FPP, what you need to win a local seat is just a ‘plurality’, namely more votes than anyone else. So the more parties compete in each seat, the lower the winning ‘post’ gets, and the greater the likelihood that most of the the voting public will vote for a party other than the governing party. Consequently political scientists call this system ‘plurality rule’, a much more accurate label.

MMP is proportional in that proportionality extends to all elected members – both on the list and through constituents. The SM electoral system - a bastardised FPP system which was comprehensively rejected in the 1992 referendum - has all of the claimed disadvantages of MMP, such as the status of list MPs, plus the disadvantages of FPP, including parties getting most of the seats with a minority of the votes. SM allows for a relatively small number of list MPs which “top up” the electorate MPs.

The big difference between the SM and MMP lists is that, under MMP the list is used to offset the distortions to proportionality that are inherent in the FPP electorate system, as the party vote only determines the composition of the list seats. Under MMP the party vote determines the composition of parliament. SM, however, uses the list to reinforce those distortions, and this list gives token representation to minor parties. List MPs are way outnumbered by electorate MPs, with list MPs only providing the proportionality. This means that a smaller percentage of list MPs would lead to decreased proportionality than is currently the case, and single party government will be the norm, as it is under FPP.

The advantage of a mixed-member proportional system arises because voters can indicate a preference for a candidate without supporting that candidate's party. A good candidate in an unpopular party has a stronger chance of election.

As an electoral system, SM is closer to FPP than MMP. FPP will only survive as a functioning electoral system if a high majority of people in the electorate support the two main parties, and the voters for these parties have sufficient confidence in their party to form a single party government. In most cases since 1996, SM would have produced the same government outcome as FPP, based on current voting, although minor parties would have had fewer MPs. In 1996 SM, under a 90/30 electorate/list top-up split, as proposed by the 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System, would have generated the same government outcome due top NZ First’s capture of the Maori seats. But in 1999, in one of the lowest election turnouts, Labour’s share of the seats was over two percent higher than its share of the party vote and had NZ First and the Greens not crossed the threshold, that share would have been higher.

Supplementary Member is likely to lead to Māori being disproportionately represented in parliament. While it won’t affect how Maori electorate seats are elected, due to split voting it may influence allocation of supplementary seats. Overall proportionality would not exist as the “top-up seats” are likely to be as low as 30 percent of total parliamentary seats. Alternative Vote is likely to rely on second choice preferences, as is STV; FPP is majoritarian in the extreme, is disproportionate, and is likely to “waste” votes. Perhaps this was among the reasons why the Royal Commission on the Electoral System, in its 1996 report Towards a Better Democracy, recommended that MMP was ‘to be preferred to all other systems’. FPP would lead to winners being over represented and losers under represented. This is particularly the case in the Maori seats, where, for example, in 1990, Labour won all the electorates with 65.4% of the vote. More than one in five Maori electorate voters voted for Mana Motuhake, which won no seats. If voters behaved the same way, the party would not be under represented as its share of the nationwide vote, nor would it have won a supplementary seat under SM either, as its overall vote was only 0.6% ( which is also under the MMP 5% threshold).

Single Transferable Vote (STV), in single member districts, as we have in New Zealand, is better than FPP, but not as proportional as MMP. Under this system candidates are ranked and the candidate with the lowest number of votes drops out and votes are reallocated among the remaining candidates and so on until a candidate gets the majority of votes. It is unclear whether this would lead to single party or coalition governments, but it would require a national top up to guarantee full proportionality between the larger parties.This system was rejected by the Royal Commission in 1986.

MMP is the better bet provided the proportion of list seats does not go below 40% - i.e. 48 seats in a house of 120. Currently under MMP it is 70/50.When discussing the choices between electoral systems, the discussion should not be which of the electoral systems - FPP, STV, MMP, SM etc – is preferable. Rather it should be whether one supports single party government or multi-party government – or whether one considers that the party with the most votes should get the most seats. Most supporters of single party government will probably prefer FPP. But when they realise that single party governments are less likely to do what the people want and are less likely to keep their promises, FPP support starts to diminish among those that value democratic ideals. Furthermore, as FPP was never designed for national elections it cannot guarantee that the party with the most votes will get the most seats. Indeed, in 1978 and 1981, the winning party, National, got more than half of the seats with less than half the vote. In 1981, National governed with just 38.8% of the vote. Had these elections been held under a Supplementary Member system (SM), with that vote, this would have still been the case.

There has been some discussion over recent years regarding the 1990 election. That year National got 67 seats for just 48% of the vote, and Labour got just 29 seats, as New Labour got the other one. That was more disproportionate than Labour’s 1972 result. That year Labour also won 48% of the vote but got 63% of the seats and Social Credit got its lowest ever election result (6.7%). Just three minor parties have since got a higher share of the party vote, all whom had leaders with parliamentary experience. Similarly, in 1951, the UK Labour Party lost the election despite outpolling the Conservatives and winning a majority of the popular vote. In 1974, Labour won the election despite the Conservatives gaining most of the votes. So FPP fails to ensure that the party with the most votes gets the most seats. FPP is not a fair system when 21% of the electorate can vote for one party and be represented by fewer than 2% of the members of parliament, as did Social Credit in 1981.

In fact, of four electoral systems - FPP, STV, SM, and Preferential Voting (PV), not one guarantees that the party with the most votes gets the most seats because some seats are allocated to parties who have not won them based on their share of the vote. The non-proportional preferential voting system maintains the basics of the Westminster system intact, but allows second-place votes to count towards determining the winner if no party wins more than fifty percent of the vote. FFP is likely to foster majoritarian extremes. Only MMP guarantees that the party with the most votes gets the most seats, and without these extremes.

While MMP makes it easier for a greater number of parties to enter parliament, it is not without problems. In the 2008 election, NZ First got more votes than Act, United Future and the Progressives combined, yet NZ First was out of Parliament because it failed to have its threshold effectively lowered by securing a constituency seat to gain representation. The others remained in Parliament purely because they did. All four parties- along with the Māori Party, polled less than the 5% threshold. Had the MMP threshold been 4%, NZ First would have relied on the threshold for their parliamentary existence, as would have the Christian Coalition when it gained 4.3% in 1996.

Open lists; or either lowering or removal of the threshold – which would prevent the situation where Act got fewer party votes than NZ First, who got no seats - is preferable to introducing a new electoral system such as SM. Also, as the population increases, this will lead to a greater number of electorate seats – and a fewer number of list seats, if the number of South Island electorate seats continues to be pegged at 16. Currently there are 52 list seats ( down from 55 in 1996) and 70 electorates (up from 65 in 1996) – including the seven Māori electorates which currently provide a two seat overhang.

But the fact remains: To the average voter, MMP, STV, FPP, PV and SM are not electoral systems, they are merely letters without much meaning. Prime Minister John Key has said that any change to the electoral system requires a major advertising campaign. "We can't ask people to make constitutional changes without understanding what the options are."

Politics is often seen as two sections: the left and the right. Act will go with National and the Greens with Labour. Many other PR systems are like this. New Zealand is different as we have centre parties that can go either way - United Future and even the Maori Party. So the left/right splits are not so relevant, as we have seen with New Zealand First when they held the balance of power in 1996, and chose National to govern when most thought Labour would have been picked.

There are a lot of matters on our electoral system options that need to be understood. The task of making sure any possible changes are understood will fall on the Electoral Commission.

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Blogger TAUSIF said...

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January 6, 2011 at 3:46 AM  
Blogger Graeme Edgeler said...

Overall proportionality would not exist as the “top-up seats” are likely to be as low as 30 percent of total parliamentary seats.

Parliament has already decided that if we were to adopt SM, there will be 30/120 list seats, i.e. 25%.

It is unfortunate that they didn't tell anyone they were going to do this, and made the decision without public input, even though they consider that a recommendation on the same number under MMP should be made by an independent body after broad consulation, but Parliament sometimes does that.

January 27, 2011 at 11:32 PM  

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