A far cry from the Referendum debate

“Fair” has become an empty word in MMP debate.

After the Referendum campaign hit full throttle, we felt as if we were watching a version of a beauty pageant, where the voting systems were primped and preened to look better than they are; their oddities and quirks sprayed over with fake tan.

This was a far cry from what the Referendum debate should have been.

Like everyone else joining in this debate, we have an opinion about which system is suitable for New Zealand.

But our bigger concern is not that people should vote the way we would like, but understand the type of Parliament produced by the voting systems.

The systems are not just mechanically different.

They produce different outcomes based on different understandings of good political representation.

To chuck stones at First Past the Post (FPP) or Preferential Voting (PV) for not being proportional is like blaming your local burger shop for not serving sushi; you are asking for the impossible.

Point missed

Likewise, blaming Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) and other similar systems for producing coalition governments miss the point.

New Zealand’s voting systems debate should focus on how we understand Parliament and representation, rather than just sloganeering.

One of the biggest divides between the different voting systems is whether they are proportional or work on the basis of majority.

Proportional systems, like MMP, are meant to ensure that Parties get the same proportion of seats in Parliament as the proportion of votes they received across the country.

Systems based on the majority principle, like FPP, operate on the premise that the Party with a majority of the seats in Parliament should be able to govern.

Neither is inherently bad or unfair. They are designed to produce different outcomes, and both have their strengths and weaknesses.

Advocates of proportional systems say that they are fairer because of an assumption that the composition of MPs elected to Parliament should mirror the representation of interest groups in society.

MPs are seen as delegates who govern according to the wishes of the identity group whom they represent.

But this is not the only way to think about representation.

Trustee Model

The other type of representation is the ‘Trustee’ model, which assumes that MPs use their discernment to make decisions on behalf of the whole community, including those who did not vote for them.

Under this model, the local electorate MPs are directly accountable to voters through their electorate vote, and the representation of local electorates matters more than the proportional representation of each party.

Each voting system contains elements of both models of representation to varying degrees, but no system can provide for everything.

They are all trying to strike a balance.

The advantages of each system generate disadvantages that ought to be acknowledged. For example, an advantage of Proportional systems is that they can produce coalition governments, which can reduce one party’s ability to ram through laws on a whim.

Directly disproportional

The disadvantage is that voters can find it hard to know exactly what policy programme they are voting for, and it cannot be predicted precisely which parties will form a government.

Another advantage of proportional systems is that they are supposed to allow for different groups in the society to have a voice in parliament, in proportion to how much support voters give them.

But a Proportional Parliament does not necessarily mean that all parties or interest groups have a proportional influence on the laws that are made.

It is possible for a minor party such as ACT (with 3.7% of the vote) to be in Government, while Labour (with 33.9%) of the vote is in opposition.

ACT gets to help set the government’s agenda, while Labour does not.

To borrow from Animal Farm, some politicians are more equal than others.

Systems based on the Majority principle on the other hand are prized for their ability to produce a clear and stable government.

MPs are directly accountable to electorates who can vote them out if they are not performing. But these systems also have their limitations.

They can mean a big proportion of the population (sometimes more than 50%) end up with a government they did not want.

This is because election results are determined by which candidates win their electorate seats. Even though a party can win a significant share of the popular vote, it will not have any seats in Parliament unless it wins a majority of the vote in specific electorates.

Struggling minority

Minority voices can struggle to be heard, and while the majority systems give voters a clear government and opposition, there would be little need for compromise and negotiation in making laws.

Does all this mean we might as well give up? Are there are no good systems on offer at the referendum?

Not at all.

The point is that we need to look at the merits and drawbacks of all the systems and determine what we prefer.

Deciding how to vote in the referendum should not just be an issue of slogans and system mechanics.

It should be about asking how we want Parliament to work and what sort of representation we think is the best for New Zealand.

The debate should move to this level.

Editor’s Note: The above article, authorised by Alex Penk, Maxim Institute, 49 Cape Horn Road, Hillsborough, Auckland, was released days before the Election held on November 26, 2011. Although dated, it still raised several points of interest for debate.

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