A Threat to Representative Democracy?
Keith Rankin, 7 March 1999
It is a mistake to hold the referendum on whether or not to change the number of Members of Parliament from 120 to 99 on the day of the 1999 general election.
This referendum is one that is sure to get a large "yes" vote, while telling us virtually nothing about how New Zealanders think New Zealand should be governed. It will not even tell us how many MPs we really want. Under the old electoral system we would have had 103 MPs in 1999, not 99. Many people say that 99 is too many. I expect that most of those who say they want fewer MPs are really saying "we are hurting, economically, so we want our MPs to hurt too". For most New Zealander's, an MP's salary is a fortune.
It will be a mistake to take the referendum result too literally. It will also be a mistake to ignore the underlying disquiet and cynicism about politics and politicians.
A referendum gives us useful information about the state of public opinion only if it is held on its own. The percentage of people who do not vote is just as important an indicator of public opinion as the percentage who vote yes. Having this poll on election day ensures that the turn-out will be artificially high; almost certainly, many people who vote "yes" would not vote in a stand-alone referendum.
Politicians have become a convenient scapegoat for a lot of perceived ills in New Zealand society. But in reality we like them more than we say we do. As in the past, most sitting MPs will be re-elected this year, and in many cases we will split our votes in order to re-elect them.
The referendum a few years ago about firefighters was phrased so as to ensure that the "yes" vote would overwhelmingly defeat the "no" vote. The real question of interest was what the turn-out would be. As a result of the low number of votes cast, the whole exercise came to be seen as rather meaningless, and nothing much came of it. We should have given this referendum the same opportunity to enjoy the same fate; after all, the process that brought us the one referendum is the same as the process that brought us the other.
More important than the question of turn-out is the need for public debate. On election day 1990 we had a referendum on having a 4-year parliamentary term. Yes we really did! The reason we have forgotten is that there was no public debate.
In 1999, the election itself is of critical importance. It is the first true MMP election; 1996 was really a transition election. The future of proportional representation - a bigger question than the number of MPs - is at stake. With the referendum being held at the same time, the election itself may be devalued. Or, more likely, there will be no satisfactory debate about the issues raised by the referendum.
The correct date for the referendum on the size of parliament should have been around May 2000. A substantial debate could then have taken place after the distractions of the 1999 election, the government formation process, and the America's Cup.
This apparently simple question about the number of MPs raises a number of very important issues about democracy itself, so it is important that the electorate is educated through the process of public debate. The precedents are the high levels of constructive debate surrounding the 1992 referendum on electoral reform and the 1997 referendum on compulsory retirement savings.
I am concerned that there are a number of different agendas at work in relation to this referendum. First, Margaret Robertson herself, who initiated the petition that has led to the referendum, is reportedly married to Colin Robertson, spokesman for the One Nation Foundation (Sunday Star-Times, 7 March). The One Nation Foundation is a conservative pressure group committed to a New Zealand based on singular rather than pluralist values. Further, the Foundation is a pressure group for American style direct democracy, which means government as much as possible by referendum. This is a flawed style of democracy that tends to weight policy in favour of socially conservative political activists. New Zealand has an alternative British tradition of representative democracy; a tradition to which parliament is central.
New Zealanders are ill-equipped to deal with a debate on the virtues of government by referendum versus government by parliament. We do not learn enough about these constitutional issues at secondary school.
Far too many New Zealanders think that MPs are just an ill-behaved group of public servants on the make. In reality, it is MPs to whom we have entrusted our votes, because they have the time and resources to make the decisions that we are logistically unable to make. It makes no democratic sense for us to be underrepresented or to under-resource our representatives.
The right-wing Act party presented the petition to Parliament on behalf of Mrs Robertson. What is Act's agenda? Ostensibly, Act is in favour of proportional representation; it cannot survive without it. Yet Act, with 8 MPs, will lose at least one MP if the parliament is cut by 171/2 percent as the referendum proposes. Furthermore, former Finance Minister Ruth Richardson, now an Act member, wants Act to act towards getting rid of proportional representation; an act of political suicide for Act. The corporate sector that Act represents does not like proportional representation very much; it prefers powerful single-party governments, and is unconcerned if the governing party has only 30% or 40% popular support. I do not trust Act to act in the defence of representative democracy. If Act has to decide between democracy and suicide, I believe they will commit hara-kiri in the interest of their patrons.
My biggest concern is National's agenda. Per se, National MPs do not want a smaller Parliament. They had enough of a struggle in 1996 when some MPs had to face the loss of safe electorates. National does not want any change that will reduce its MPs, but may be quite happy to accept a change that reduces the numbers of other parties' MPs.
What many National members want is to replace proportional representation with the Supplementary Member (SM) electoral system. (Prime Minister Jenny Shipley and some others are not unhappy with MMP. But they are political pragmatists who will be equally happy with SM. Other less entrenched National MPs strongly favour SM over MMP.) The Robertson referendum dovetails nicely with a pro-SM agenda. Hence, by calling the referendum on election day and ensuring that the referendum will succeed without the underlying issues being addressed through public debate, it may be possible to present SM as a practical means of culling parliament without reducing the number of electorates or the number of National MPs.
It would be a simple matter for National (and Labour) to argue that electorates are too big to extend further. They will talk about the South Island representation, and the allegedly intimate relationship between voters and their constituency MP. In practice, of course, list MPs have local electorate offices and many of us relate better to local list MPs than to the local electorate MP who, more often than not, we didn't vote for. In Germany, with its mature MMP system, the people do not make any distinction between list MPs and electorate MPs.
The SM electoral system - a bastardised FPP system which was comprehensively rejected in the 1992 referendum - has all of the claimed disadvantages of MMP, plus the disadvantages of FPP. It allows for a relatively small number of list 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. SM, however, uses the list to reinforce those distortions.
Under MMP, it is the parties with the fewest electorate MPs which get proportionately more list MPs. (In 1996, it was only because of split-voting in favour of popular Labour MPs like Mike Moore and Steve Maharey that National was able to get any list MPs.) Under SM, the party which gets the most electorate seats also gets the most list seats.
The SM list gives at best token representation to third parties. And it gives virtually 100% security to the front bench MPs in the major parties. The list is a sinecure under SM, but not under MMP.
What will be the signs that SM is being ushered in through the back door? The first and most critical sign will be a proposal to implement the Robertson referendum result by reducing only the number of list MPs. Once that decision is made, the next step will be to point out that 32 is not enough list MPs to ensure proportionality. So instead of using list MPs as a top-up, many National and Labour MPs could be expected to argue that only the list seats should be allocated proportionally. Voila, SM! Further, if the present formula for determining the future number of electorate seats is retained, the number of list MPs will be reduced after each quinquennial census, with a full return to FPP the eventual outcome. (In 1999, there will be two more electorate seats and two fewer list seats than there were in 1996.)
If the 1996 election had been held under SM with 65 electorate MPs and 34 list MPs, we would have had 43 National, 36 Labour, 11 NZ First, 5 Alliance, 3 Act and 1 United MP. (The actual result was 44 National, 37 Labour, 17 NZ First, 13 Alliance, 8 Act and 1 United.) In 1999, according to recent polls, under SM we would get 47 National, 47 Labour, 2 Act, 2 Alliance, 1 other.
A switch to SM with 99 MPs will give National more MPs than in a 120-seat proportional parliament. Is that what those who will vote for a 99 seat parliament really want?
The best way to interpret the referendum will be to treat it as a poll on MPs' behaviour. MPs should by now understand that they should be seen to be working in a constructive consensus-seeking manner, and not in the adversarial style which we've seen too much of during the life of this parliament. Beyond that, if the decision is made to reduce the size of parliament, or to have a second binding referendum, then it's imperative that the present ratio of electorate and list seats be maintained.
If we must reduce the size of our parliament to 99 MPs, then we could move to a system of about 45 fixed general electorates plus a flexible number of Maori electorates. Under MMP the electorate vote doesn't count in determining the government. Therefore electorate boundaries should reflect provincial or city boundaries, and not population quotas. (Auckland, for example, could be divided according to its constituent city boundaries.) Provincial electorates should contain fewer people than metropolitan electorates. List MPs would more than adequately represent metropolitan voters. Thanks to the overriding importance of the party vote, every vote would continue to be equally important in determining the final shape of parliament. The electorate system would come to be seen mainly as a way of safeguarding the provinces' interests.
We must take great care not to misread the result of the referendum on the size of Parliament. In particular, we need to ensure that it is not used as an excuse to foist the rejected Supplementary Member electoral system on the New Zealand public. While MMP probably works best with 120 MPs, it can work with 99 MPs so long as there are never more than 55 electorates.
PS. In my original version of this article (eg the version published by The Newsroom) I claimed that if the 1996 election had been held under SM, then National would have got 46 seats, and Labour 33. The correct figures are 43 and 36 respectively.
© 1999 Keith Rankin
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