Reflections on MMP


Malcolm Mackerras has written in Thursday’s Crikey, critiquing New Zealand’s Mixed Member Proportional electoral system (subscription required):

Having studied the referendum results of September 1992 and November 1993, and having studied opinion poll data, it is clear to me that a solid majority of New Zealanders believes that the system of single-member electorates is a fair and reasonable way by which to elect 70 members of their parliament. That being so it would be fair to allow political parties to get the full benefit of their winnings of such seats.

However, MMP does not do that. The Maori Party, United Future and Act are allowed to get the full benefit but, under this contrivance, Labour and National are not. For every extra constituency seat Labour and National wins they are robbed of a party list seat.

He also says:

The ballot paper handed to each elector reads “You have 2 votes”. However, ordinary New Zealanders are smart enough to know what that means. If you are on the Maori roll you really do have two votes. Again if you are on the roll for Epsom, Ohariu or Wigram you really do have two votes. For everyone else, however, it is a two-ticks-one-vote system. Your one real vote is your party vote.

Mackerras’ argument is that the concept of the electoral threshold means that, in those electorates where a minor party is competitive, the race for an electorate becomes a significant contest, while any other electorate becomes pretty much meaningless. Mackerras is also a supporter of PR-STV or Hare-Clark, so he isn’t simply an opponent of PR systems.

There are two main problems with New Zealand’s electoral system. The first is the fact that certain seats still retain significance, but rather than the marginal seat problem in single-member electorates, where most electorates are safe, electorates take on greater importance in New Zealand where they make the difference between a party making it into Parliament or not. At the 2005 election, ACT leader and Epsom candidate Rodney Hide made the argument to the conservative electorate that, by voting for him, the electorate would still see his National opponent elected as a List MP while bringing in Hide and other ACT MPs. This tactical voting for conservative voters in this one electorate isn’t available in most other electorates.

The concept of allocating seats to a party on 2% while not allocating seats to a party which won 3% also retains the issue of favouring parties with geographically concentrated representation. MMP also encourages independent MPs (such as those who have left a major party) to establish a party which they dominate rather than remain as an independent. This has resulted in high personal votes for one MP resulting in a group of other MPs, totally unknown to the public, on no other basis but their loyalty to their party leader, as was seen with United Future New Zealand in 2002.

The other major issue with New Zealand’s system is the distinction between list MPs and electorate MPs, and the problem inherent in all party-list electoral systems. While MPs in the Irish and Tasmanian versions of PR-STV, and in most single-member electorate systems, may get elected on the back of their party endorsement, local members generally are required to have a minimum level of community support, competence and effectiveness to win. In contrast, the New Zealand system, as well as bodies such as the New South Wales Legislative Council, sees people with no respect for the electorate’s opinion of them.

The single-member electorates also mean that, for Maori electorates, representation remains restricted to the First-Past-the-Post era, with the Maori Party on track to win all seven seats, despite remaining below 50% support in the Maori community.

So what’s the alternative? An Irish-style PR system, perhaps including one STV electorate covering Maori voters, would see a much better distribution of local members of Parliament and would remove the anomaly of MPs elected with no popular basis. MPs like Peter Dunne would remain a highly popular independent in one electorate, rather than becoming the leader of a large party bloc despite being the only name known to any New Zealanders. However, it appears that there is little appetite in New Zealand for further improvements, with most pro-PR campaigners fighting to defend MMP from those, particularly in the National Party and the business community, pushing for a return to first-past-the-post.

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  1. Why doesn’t the Labour and National parties start “Labour Two” and “National Two” parties.

    For example, the Labour party could tell their voters to vote “Labour” for the electorates and “Labour Two” for the list seats.

    That way, the Labor party would get all of its List Votes plus its constituencies as overflow.

    MMP is silly.

  2. I remember reading somewhere that Italian parties had used those techniques in a similar electoral system.

    I think the main reason why they don’t do it is it would be seen as hugely unethical and clearly and obviously violating the spirit of MMP.

    Also, a lot of electorate candidates also run on the list, so often when an electorate MP loses their seat they are returned as a list MP. You couldn’t do that. But I think the main reason is that there would be an enormous backlash.

  3. Criticising MMP is fun, and there are certainly flaws – just as their are with any electoral system. However, for all its flaws I still think it succeeds better than most in achieving “representative” democracy. That can be seen in the low (almost nil) discrepancy between the number of votes a party receives and their numbers in parliament.

  4. Sure, it is much better than single-member electorates (either with FFP or preference voting). But like Mackerras, I much prefer Hare-Clark.

    I believe it should be an essential component of an electoral system to abolish tactical voting. In other words, the best result for the candidates you support are achieved by voting as you wish to do so. Hare-Clark and single-member preference voting effectively eliminates it. In contrast, both the UK/Canada FPP system and the NZ MMP system results in quite a lot of tactical voting. What it means is that it gives an unfair advantage to those who are aware of the most effective way to cast a vote, as well as resulting in distorted election results.

    In New Zealand, it can go both ways. A party may miss out on getting into Parliament because voters fear their vote will be wasted if they fall below 5%, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, whereas the party might have more than 5% support. The other way is what we saw in Epsom in 2005.

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