Posted asWith the 2011 MMP referendum described by John Key as chance to 'kick the tyres on MMP', it is important to think about how this is best done and have an open public debate on the topic.
Campaign for MMP spokesperson, Sandra Grey, told a public meeting in Auckland that "Any review of our electoral system must be systematic, careful, and considered, to ensure the results of the process are legitimate."
Voters need to trust the process and the people involved." Perhaps it is better to think of the referendum process as being more akin to the a Warrant of Fitness', rather than kicking of the tyres.
This means ensuring the process is independent and based on a fundamental checklist, not a simple popularity contest.
Sandra's full speech is provided below.
Independent and trustworthy: A WOF for NZ democracy
Speech, Auckland for MMP, July 1st 2010
Dr Sandra Grey, Victoria University of Wellington
While MMP is what we are here to discuss, I want to start with the more crucial question which brings us together - democracy.
New Zealand democracy has been the subject of discussion in a number of forums in recent months. Bloggers and columnists in all manner of publications have had their say - for example in the community magazine Elocal Amy Brook argued that the recent actions of government, including the decision to ignore the 'anti-smacking' referendum, proved that 'our elected members no longer represent us'. There have been the ongoing protests over local government democracy. First the issue of the Auckland Supercity - where a range of protests opposed to the new Supercity have been mounted by citizens, including direct action protests which caused traffic chaos. Second the debates around Environment Canterbury. Last month an angry crowd greeted the Prime Minister to protest over the Government's replacement of an elected body with appointed commissioners.
And as you will all be aware, there are more debates about democracy to come. When citizens go to the polls in 2011 they will not only be voting in a government, they will be participating in a referendum on the electoral system.
The referendum on MMP was announced in 2008 when the new National government revealed its 'Blueprint for Change'. In announcing the referendum Prime Minister John Key said 'Finally, we'll open our ears to New Zealander's views on their voting system. New Zealanders have had to wait long enough for a chance to kick the tyres on MMP. So, National will give them that chance by holding a binding referendum on MMP by no later than 2011.'
The referendum currently being put together goes further than allowing voters to 'kick the tyres' on MMP. As my colleague Jon Johansson said last week, the proposed Electoral Referendum Bill 'is more akin to putting the car up for sale' (Johansson, Submissions to the Electoral Referendum Bill 2010). Johansson is not alone in his criticisms of the government's decision to hold a referendum on MMP (For example, see Geddes).
So how did we end up with MMP heading towards the used car lot?
A referendum on the electoral system was never promised when New Zealand moved from our old system; first-past-the-post in 1993 (FPP). What was promised was a review of the new system, Mixed Member Proportional representation. But a small and vocal lobby group seems to have been able to convince the government to pick up the issue.
The decision to hold the MMP referendum is due in part to ongoing lobbying by the group who defended FPP in 1993, a group headed by former Telecom Chairman Peter Shirtcliffe. The first attempt to remove MMP was in 2001 when Auckland merchant bank spokesperson Stuart Marshall set up a group called Citizens' Majority Trust to collect signatures to force a Citizen's Initiated Referendum on the electoral system. However, they failed to collect enough signatures to trigger a referendum. In 2005 the same group lobbied National Party leader Don Brash to hold a referendum on MMP if elected. At the same time they offered a million dollars for the National Party election campaign. Don Brash didn't win the 2005 election, but as you know in 2008 the incoming National government promised to hold a referendum on MMP.
Why would this lobby group, mainly those in big business, want to get rid of MMP?
You only need to look at the record of our old electoral system - a single member plurality system - to understand why some in business want this style of electoral system. The benefit of plurality electoral systems is that they deliver single party majority governments and are in effect duopolies. The Government can force through parliament its desired objectives with relative ease as there are very few checks on the power of cabinet. First Past the Post governments were, according to Geoffrey Palmer in effect 'elected dictatorships' .
While FPP has few backers at the moment, some of the other systems on offer in the 2011 referendum will similarly lead to strong cabinet. Under Peter Shirtcliffe's preferred system, Supplementary Member which delivers a winner's bonus to the largest political parties, New Zealand is likely to see 'elected dictatorships'.
Why is a strong cabinet problematic? A strong cabinet weakens the power of the parliament to challenge the policies of the government. This is likely to benefit the policies sought by big business, a point not lost on anti-MMP lobbyists (Anderson, 2010, Going for growth: Dump MMP now' National Business Review). In contrast, coalition government has been blamed for slowing down legislative reforms which benefit big business. So it is easy to see why some in big business have thrown their weight behind an anti-MMP lobby and the holding of a referendum next year.
While those who support proportional representation may quibble about whether it is necessary to hold a referendum on MMP, New Zealand voters are going polls over our electoral system next year, so let's do it right. Any review of our electoral system must be systematic, careful, and considered, to ensure the results of the process are legitimate. Voters need to trust the process and the people involved.
Think of the TV advertisements for VTNZ and Warrant of Fitness. Even though we may grumble about having to get warrants for our cars, by and large drivers see the procedures of VTNZ as legitimate. Why? The TV adverts stress that the checks are being carried out by an independent body. Independent because VTNZ only do vehicle testing and don't make money out of repairing cars.
So legitimacy in the first place is based on the fact the people carrying out the evaluation of your car are independent and do not benefit from the evaluation. The same is true of any review of our electoral system - the process must be as independent as possible. We are the owners of the constitution not the politicians, getting the right car is our job.
This is perhaps the only point of agreement between me and Peter Shirtcliffe. Earlier this year when speaking to an ACT Party meeting Shirtcliffe criticised the procedures set out in the Electoral Referendum Bill claiming that 'The Panelbeater has been asked to design an intersection' (Shirtcliffe, 22 March 2010). While Shirtcliffe's concern is about the involvement of politicians in the review of our electoral system, my concern is about the level playing field for lobby groups in the lead up to the 2011 referendum. Given that politics is swayed by access to resources, in particular money, it is crucial to ensure the voices of ordinary New Zealanders are not drowned out by those with the deepest pockets.
Letting voters make a choice on their preferred electoral system in a referendum in 2011 is one way of ensuring independence, as the choice of electoral systems for New Zealand is not being made by political parties. As was stated during the lead up to 1992 electoral system referendum - "The decision's with you!"
The decision should be with voters - but it cannot be made lightly. The decision of voters in 2011 must be well informed. So how do we ensure voters have the information necessary for this important vote?
First, we should not underplay the importance of lobby groups, such as the Campaign for MMP and Auckland for MMP, which come out of the community. Lobby groups will provide evaluations of how they think the different electoral systems will affect the composition of parliament and government; and how in turn this will affect voters.
While acknowledging that lobbying is important - what must be avoided is a situation in which lobbyists use flashy advertising campaigns to win over voters, turning New Zealand's decision on its electoral system into an Idol-style popularity contest. A debate centred on flashy advertising campaigns will favour those with the most money. One way of preventing such influence is to put a cap on advertising spending for promoters in the 2011 referendum - a move favoured by hundreds of people who have made submissions to the select committee considering the Electoral Referendum Bill.
But this Bill, which sets out the process for the 2011 referendum, does not include a spending cap for promoters. Why? Arguments include:
â€¢ That spending caps are difficult to administer
â€¢ That the rules around third party spending in elections are up for grabs
â€¢ And, that spending caps inhibit free speech.
Spending caps even if difficult to administer are crucial as they will ensure the referendum process is focussed on good arguments and grass-roots debate, rather than glitzy advertising. Spending caps, after all, do not impose limits on freedom of speech they impose limits on the freedom to purchase unlimited amounts of advertising.
As well as spending caps limiting advertising, it is essential there be good information provided so that voters can make a choice between the five different electoral systems on the referendum ballot paper. An independent body should be responsible for putting out good quality information on the various electoral systems. This will allow voters to consider which electoral system best meets their democratic needs. It will also provide information against which voters can evaluate the claims of the different lobbies - including those from our group, Campaign for MMP.
An independent panel approach to public information was used in 1992 and 1993 when New Zealanders voted to get rid of FPP and move to MMP. 'The independent panel was charged with choosing an advertising and public relations strategy to explain and promote awareness of the voting system options the public was asked to choose from; and each option was presented impartially' (Report of the Electoral Referendum Panel, 1992, p. 4-5). While the current Electoral Referendum Bill states there is a need for a public information campaign, it does not say this must be done by an independent panel - we think it should.
There also needs to be adequate funding for the public information campaign. This was recognised by John Key who said in 2009 that any referendum would require a major advertising campaign. Key said 'We can't ask people to make constitutional changes without understanding what the options are' (Fran O'Sullivan, 2009, 'Political gamesmanship and the coming referendum on MMP, New Zealand Herald, 5 September 2009). John Key is right; voters need to understand the options in front of them in 2011. And voters need to have a way of evaluating the options on the ballot paper.
This brings us back to the VTNZ process and what ensures the legitimacy of WOF processes. VTNZ have a tried and detailed checklist they follow when looking at the road worthiness of cars. The procedure is not a haphazard popularity show like Idol where snap decisions are made based on glitz, glamour, and good looks - decisions are made based on a checklist of fundamental safety concerns.
So how do we ensure that fundamental concerns about democracy are used to evaluate choices in 2011?
Internationally voting systems are evaluated on a range of democratic measures. For example, citizens might want a voting system which ensures governments and individual politicians are accountable to the electorate; they may want an electoral systems that encourages competitive political parties; for some citizens the most important thing is that the election results promote opposition in parliament and an oversight of policy-making processes (International Institute of Democracy Assistance sets out a list of 10 criteria for evaluating electoral systems (2008: 9-14):
This type of criteria was used in New Zealand's most thorough review of electoral systems - the Royal Commission on the Electoral System in 1986. As the Ministry of Justice has stated, the report of the Royal Commission is as valid today as it was in 1986 and provides a good base line for evaluating electoral systems. The Royal Commission set out ten criteria by which to judge a voting system.
On the ten democratic criteria put forward in the Royal Commission report, MMP outweighs SM, STV, and FPP. This is why MMP was the system recommended by the Royal Commission, and why many voters choose it as the preferred electoral system in 1993.
Two of the criteria set out by the Royal Commission speak directly to some of the concerns raised about New Zealand democracy in recent months and on which I opened this talk - that is the concerns around the ability of voters to hold our elected representatives to account. These two criteria are those which ask whether the electoral system delivers 'Effective representation of constituents' and an 'Effective Parliament'. And it is these two criteria on which I will now focus.
What is at the heart of these two criteria? In the first, the Royal Commission noted: 'An important function of individual MPs is to act on behalf of constituents who need help in their dealings with the Government or its agencies. The voting system should therefore encourage close links and accountability between individual MPs and their constituents'. The criteria of 'Effective Parliament' can be posed as a question: 'Will Parliament fulfil its proper role as a place where government's policies can be discussed, criticised and modified?' (David Hay, 2004).
So how does MMP stand on these important democratic criteria?
The Royal Commission on the Electoral System Report states that MMP, FPP, SM, and STV all provide effective representation of constituents. This seems at odds with some of the recent claims about MMP and the role of list MPs in particular. It is common to hear bloggers, columnists, commentators, and lobby groups arguing that list MPs are unaccountable and don't represent anyone. So how did the Royal Commission on the Electoral System evaluate MMP as providing effective representation of voters?
At a very fundamental level MMP ensures that we can vote for an individual who we think will represent our locality, and vote for a party which we think best represents our political viewpoints. We vote for the party list when we exercise our Party vote. Having list MPs provides voters who did not get the electorate MP of their choice an alternative source of representation. For some voters there is very little 'link' to the constituency MP. This was certainly true for me when I first voted in 1987 - I felt no connection to the local constituency MP despite living in the same district.
What this speaks to is the fact that there are different kinds of identity that need representation in parliament. There is
â€¢ geographic identity based on where one lives;
â€¢ political identity based on the political views of the voter;
â€¢ there are interest identities in which citizen's vote according to what we see as being in our best interest (for example you might be a retiree interested in superannuation policy, or a student interested in university fees and student loans policies);
â€¢ and, finally there is a social perspective identity which is often involuntary and is linked to a person's social and position and how one sees the world (i.e. gender, ethnicity, race, or religion) (See Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference).
Having both constituency and list MPs means MMP can better provide for this wide range of identities.
And we must remember that list MPs are accountable to the public through the political parties they represent in the House.
Voters don't need to put MMP on the used car lot, but rather they can choose to send it to the workshop for modifications. If 50% or more of voters choose to keep MMP, the government has promised an independent review to address some of the concerns about our current electoral system.
And what of the charge that New Zealand's elected representatives aren't listening to voters?
MMP provides one of the best safe-guards to ensuring the elected government listens to the voices of citizens - an effective Parliament. In terms of providing for an effective Parliament, our old voting system, FPP, did deliver into parliament a Government and an Opposition. As the Royal Commission noted "The adversarial role of the Opposition as an alternative Government is an important factor in keeping a government accountable to the people and is enhanced by the 2-party characteristic of a plurality Parliament" (Royal Commission Report, 1986: p. 25-26).
However, under FPP the effectiveness of parliament was hindered due to the preponderance of executive power. What New Zealanders witnessed in the 1980s and 1990s was government's rushing through legislation to reform the New Zealand economy and society because they had a simple majority. That's one of the reasons voters sought to get rid of FPP in the first place.
And would the option being promoted by anti-MMP campaigners, Supplementary Member, be any better than FPP? SM is a 'band aid' solution for the problems generated in plurality systems like FPP. It was seen by the Royal Commission as a simple and quick fix to some of the problems of FPP but not a real alternative or way forward. It is important to remember that SM is not proportional, despite having some seats filled from Party lists. So this would mean fewer political parties in parliament to hold the Government to account. And the winner's bonus delivered by SM could mean even more dominance by the major parties.
In contrast, under MMP the existence of more than 2 parties in the House of Representatives provides a way of holding Government's to account. As the Royal Commission (1986: 59-60) noted "To some extent the scrutiny and control of the major party would be enhanced if the views of 1 or more other parties had to be taken into account in Government or in the House."
MMP is a system which ensures all parties who exceed the thresholds are able to gain their rightful place in the NZ House of Representatives. If a political party gets 10% of the votes they will get 10% of the seats in parliament. This is a huge improvement on our old system, FPP, in which we saw parties gaining control of parliament even though they did not receive a majority of votes in the election. For example, in 1972 Labour won just 48 percent of votes but got 63 percent of the seats. And in both the 1978 and 1981 elections, the Labour Party won more votes, but the National Party won more seats, so it formed the Government. Finally if we look at the results for 1990 we see that National got 69 seats for 48% of votes, Labour and got 29 seats for 35% of votes.
So MMP provides increased fairness between political parties, and in turn the voters who vote for them.
When it comes to key concerns about the accountability of New Zealand's elected representatives, MMP can deliver to the public an accountable and responsive government - and a parliament that represents a broad range of New Zealanders and their views. We have better scrutiny of legislation and government activity under MMP government because there are more parties in parliament. And we have parties gaining seats in proportion to their vote which means more voters' views are considered during the decision-making processes. So already the democratic check-list available to New Zealanders gives us a clear indication that if we value accountability and responsiveness, MMP can deliver.
This is just a taste of some of the democratic values against which we can evaluate our electoral system in the lead up to the 2011 referendum. As citizens we need to openly debate the democratic values we see as important and examine which electoral systems will best deliver these values. So let's recap: what is important over the next 18 months as New Zealand debates the pros and cons of MMP.
In 'kicking the tyres of MMP' a few crucial elements must be provided by the government to ensure a legitimate outcome. It is crucial that an independent panel provides clear public information about the different electoral system, so that citizens can evaluate the options before voting. It is also crucial that each system be evaluated on how it measures up to the democratic values desired by New Zealand voters. And it is crucial that lobbyists - including the Campaign for MMP - engage in the public debate, but their involvement must be on a level playing field. The government should make sure that glitzy advertising campaigns do not become the main means of persuasion and sources of information in the MMP referendum.
If the process is independent and centred on core debates about democracy, New Zealanders can have some confidence that we have, as voters, carried out a thorough warrant of fitness check on MMP.
Those interested in democracy and in MMP must be part of this process.