Posted: August 13, 2012 in civil rights, democracy
Tags: , ,

The electoral commission has come back with its recommendations based on our feedback, and they’re tricky. I’ll go over them in a second, but first, I’d like to encourage everyone to read them in full,  and to make your own submission, if you have comments. If you don’t submit where you agree and disagree with the commission, further reviews will ignore your sorts of views in the future.

While on the surface of it, these recommendations might seem like mild pushes in the right direction in most areas, (other than the recommendation to allow the continued and harmful inflation of electorate seats well past three fifths of parliament) when taken in combination a few of them are deeply problematic. Rather than re-writing why, I’m going to paste my submission verbatim:

In principle I support the abolishment of the electorate threshold, but combined with the relatively high recommendation of a 4% list threshold, this is a recipe for the destruction of small parties in our political system and cannot be supported in this combination. Either both thresholds need to be abolished or neither.

I am also highly disappointed at the very high recommendation of a 4% threshold. The only functional change in this case is that established small parties will be able to more easily maintain party vote support once they start polling in the neighbourhood of five percent. This does nothing for the transition of electorate-anchored micro parties into genuine small or medium parties, who would have the chance to transition to a larger political force from a roughly .83% “win a list seat outright” threshold, or its abolition. I would also like to clarify that my support for a 1/120th of the vote threshold is not a “confusion about abolishing the threshold”, but rather an expression that the roughly .4% de-facto threshold of our formula for allocating list seats is too low, but that a 1% threshold would present a too high barrier for micro parties to transition to a party-vote strategy, as it would require parallel campaigning for both the party and electorate vote. There are genuine advantages to a small threshold between 2.5% and .4% that should not be discounted, although either option is by far preferable to the yawning gulf created between 1-person electorate parties and 4% threshold list parties that are likely to receive six or perhaps seven MPs if they just pass the threshold.

Between the electorate threshold abolition and the mere lowering of the party threshold to 4%, there is no demonstrated way for a party to transition from a single electorate MP to a multi-member party. The only party to successfully contest multiple electorates has been the Maori Party, which is a very unique case that arguably has more to do with the politics of Maori electorates than a general case for multiple electorate seat parties. Any changes we adopt must allow micro parties a feasible opportunity to expand beyond one MP.

I support the commission’s recommendations that dual candidacy and list MPs being allowed to contest by-elections continue. There are unintended consequences to those changes that could easily reduce the quality and diversity of representation in New Zealand.

I am disappointed but not altogether worried that parties are recommended to maintain control around the composition of their lists without even a mandate to hold a vote on the issue in some manner. There should be greater public participation and transparency around list selection, but still in such a way that allows political movements to have some degree of autonomy. Mandating a vote of party members is held and the results publicised, but not legislating any way that vote effects the list, would be the best way to do this. At the very least, parties should have to disclose all candidates that were nominated for their list in any fashion, and outline a formal nomination system to the public, even if it is restricted to members or the party’s inner circle. Some of these aims could be achieved without legislation, but very likely they would be restricted to a particular area of the political spectrum, which is not fair to voters of different opinions, who also deserve more say and transparency about their list candidates.

I support as a good but problematic first step the commission’s recommendation that overhang seats be abolished for parties that do not cross the party vote threshold, but I would prefer overhang seats were abolished altogether. This rule seems like an opportunity for a large party to deliberately tank their party vote and instead aggressively campaign for electorates, artificially inflating their allies’ levels of party vote support. Allowing a hole like that in our electoral system is even worse than allowing a small party to campaign only for electorate seats- at least a small party is unlikely to have the support to win more than a handful.

I think allowing a full 76 electorate seats is a risky decision that enhances the negative effects of both electorates and disproportionality. New Zealanders like to think they like electorate seats because we are enamoured of the idea of “our local MP”, but by far the least popular MPs are always in safe electorates, outside of which they are at best tolerated, but often infamous, including several small party leaders. Ideally the number of electorate seats should be capped at a third until such time as electorates are abolished in favour of some flavour of open list system, or if for some reason New Zealanders never tire of electorates, the number of MPs should grow as electorates are added to keep electorate MPs as approximately one third of the house.

In summary, I think the commission’s recommendation are moderate and well-intended, but that they do not represent any significant gains over the status-quo, and introduce new problems rather than solving existing ones. I would have been happy with moderate recommendations if they were geared to lead to a more robust electoral system that encourages participation, transparency, and political growth. (both of small parties when they represent the people well, and of good policy) While I understood that ultimately my modest but radical (as in “wanting to change the nature of our system” radical, not extremist) expectations of voting were unlikely to represent the will of the majority of submitters, I did expect more intellectual rigour from the commission’s recommendations, rather than simply taking the least objectionable path every time. The only brave stands were on dual candidacy and list MPs contending by-elections, where the commission just flat-out pointed out the ideas were dumb, although in their usual diplomatic way.
It’s a little astounding that the VERY modest support for raising the party vote threshold (usually from people who don’t understand it and just wanted to price all small parties out of existence) held back the commission from lowering it significantly. A threshold of 4% is little better than one of 5%, it’s merely stupid rather than ridiculous. 3% is the bare minimum at which small list parties start to become viable, and medium-sized list parties become safe. Any third party in New Zealand needs to become very large to avoid the possibility of decline under a 4 or 5% threshold, and as the Alliance proved, that still doesn’t prevent internal strife from ending the movement.


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